We know that human male fertility is declining and there is a positive correlation with the spread of plastics. We know that cancer detection has increased steadily over the past 100 years and that once again that correlates with the spread of plastics. Correlation can, of course, be a deeply confusing way of identifying cause and effect. Better detection of cancer correlates with modern technology and so does the use of plastics. But the correlation does suggest that we might need to ask a rather important question. What impact is all the passive consumption of plastics that we experience having on our health?
I suspect the answer to that question is going to prove very difficult and complex to tease out in the face of denials from the industry but I also suspect that it isn’t zero.
We think that we know a lot more about the impact of plastics on the environment than we do about the impact on our health. After all there has been brilliant coverage on the BBC Blue Planet 2 programme of the extent of the spread across the planet of this persistent product. But even here there is an awful lot still to be learned. Some recent studies provided evidence that suggested that the vast majority of plastic pollution in the oceans came from less than ten rivers – all of them in the Third World. That suggested that wealthy nations are gradually cleaning up their acts and what we really have is a problem of poverty that will go away as more countries develop and get wise to the importance of tackling their pollution problem.
That nice illusion went out of the window last week when we found out quite how much plastic there is in some British rivers. It turns out that when scientists looked carefully at the water in river systems around Manchester they found a higher concentration of plastic particles than had been found anywhere else in the world. Every stream bed had plastic particles in it, even those well up on the moors. After a flood event they discovered the amounts dropped by 70%. That sounds good but it isn’t. It means that the particles are washed out to sea and it also means that the river and stream beds are being regularly restocked with plastic particles or else previous floods would have cleaned up the problem. UK rivers are riddled with plastic particles and are spreading them around the world.
That isn’t the end of our contribution to worldwide water pollution. We use a lot of pesticides and fertilizers in UK agriculture. We also use a lot of drugs and contraceptives that pass through our bodies and our animals and persist in the environment. The impact of neonicitinoids on bees has become notorious and is now under some small degree of control. These nerve agent insecticides penetrate every single part of the plant and when the plant dies and breaks down they persist in the soil and wash into hedgerows and streams. No one knows the impact of this on soil organisms or on river systems and no one has the faintest idea of how we could ever remove the poisons we have pumped out there. Yet many neonicitinoids remain legal.
Our rivers aren’t just carrying microplastics down to the sea. They are carrying antibiotics, neonicitinoids, phosphates that produce toxic algal blooms, and a whole host of other goodies. Our cleaning products and our medicines are spreading every bit as relentlessly as the plastic mountain – we just can’t see the evidence as easily.
At this point I need to be a touch careful. I am not arguing that we don’t need the benefits of modern science and modern technology and that we’d be better off without technological innovation. I believe the exact reverse. We owe a great deal of our long and more healthy lives to wonderful scientific work.
What I believe is that we need to be moderate and sensible about how and where we use that technology and not allow ourselves to be seduced into giving up perfectly good alternatives because the marketplace is offering us options that look attractive but aren’t. This means:
• Not feeding animals antibiotics routinely
• Drinking tap water
• Using a lot more glass and ceramics and a lot less plastic
• Using greaseproof paper, cardboard trays, small paper bags and large jute ones instead of plastic packaging
• Using washing powder not washing liquid from a plastic bottle
• Wearing many more natural fibres and cutting out ones that shed huge numbers of plastic particles
• Reducing unnecessary use of medicines and disposing of them carefully
• Growing food with a lot more crop rotation and a lot less chemicals
• Charging deposits on bottles and containers to encourage recycling
• Investing in council waste plants & rewarding public efforts to use them instead of charging & encouraging fly tipping
• Using soap instead of liquid dispensers and aerosol sprays
That is a list of a few perfectly practical measures which could be encouraged and incentivised very quickly by a genuinely green government and would begin to reduce the impact of our wasteful and thoughtless lifestyles without spoiling anyone’s enjoyment of life. We need to start right now on doing easy things like these to tackle the enormous challenge we face. We also need to start ramping up our investment in developing and bringing to the commercial market new low impact technologies and products so that we can tackle the more long term problems.
It has taken us almost a century to develop a near total dependence on plastic and the habit of over using toxic chemicals. It might take us the best part of a century to move our technology and our lifestyles away from that dependence. Why would any government be satisfied to drag its feet and pass a few minor lip service measures in the face of such an enormous and urgent challenge?