By Linda Thompson Gonzalez
If you think the plastic litter on our beaches is “only” killing marine life, think again. The growing scourge of single-use plastics is a grave threat to human health.
Single-use plastics threaten our maritime and tourism industries because they litter our beaches and water, clog our water systems and kill our marine and wildlife.
Beyond the toll for our environment, consider the impact on human health. Carcinogenic micro plastics are now in the water we drink, the air we breathe, and the food we eat. An estimated 8 million tons of plastic is dumped into our oceans every year, and it’s winding up everywhere: from the stomachs of marine animals to the sea salt on our dining table.
As plastics degrade, they don’t “disappear” in the ocean and landfills; they release toxins that are literally now in our bodies. A recent study published in Environmental Science and Technology (reported in The Guardian), estimated that Americans are ingesting from 39,000 to 52,000 particles of plastic per year in our food and water.
Micro plastics have now been found in human placentas. The micro plastics discovered were mostly 10 microns in size, meaning they are small enough to be carried in the bloodstream. All the particles analyzed were plastics that had been dyed blue, red, orange or pink and may have originally come from packaging, paints or cosmetics and personal care products.
Scientists are also concerned that babies fed formula milk in plastic bottles may be swallowing millions of particles a day. In 2018, the American Academy of Pediatrics warned about the harmful chemicals in plastic that leach into food and recommended using glass or stainless-steel bottles and cups instead.
With micro plastics in our soil, water, air, and now our food chain, they present a grave threat to human health. Single-use plastics have a design flaw in that they are used for moments, but last for centuries polluting our environment.
With some 17.6 billion pounds of plastic leaking into the marine environment every year — roughly equivalent to a garbage truck full of plastic into the oceans every minute — we cannot recycle our way out of this problem. Plastic production, fed by the fossil fuel industry, is on track to at least double in the next 20 years.
Every stage in the life cycle of plastic — from the time of oil extraction, to plastic production, to disposal in landfills and water pollution — exposes humans to toxic risk as well as further contributing greenhouse gases. The production of plastic produces twice the amount of greenhouse gas emissions as the aviation industry.
We can all take steps to reduce single-use plastics every day by using refillable water bottles and reusable bags for shopping. Further, we can say no to single-use plastic products, especially single-use water bottles and utensils.
The tsunami of industrial plastic production underway, however, makes the problem too great to solve with individual consumer action alone.
The most cost-effective way to protect our health and environment is to reduce the use of single-use plastics. Some 29 cities throughout Florida, including Ft. Lauderdale, Hollywood, Dania Beach, Orlando, Tampa, and St. Petersburg, have enacted ordinances to ban polystyrene products to the extent they can under current law.
The bans affect Styrofoam and other single-use plastic products on government property and vendor contracts. The Florida Legislature has increasingly taken away local governments’ power, and the current statewide plastics preemption limits what local communities can do.
Overturning this preemption should be a priority for everyone concerned with public health. We need to build support for a reversal of the preemption among our representatives in Tallahassee and a “Break Free from Plastics Pollution Act” in the U.S. Congress.
Nonetheless, local governments can take important steps now to reduce single-use plastics with a ban on these products on government property and in vendor contracts.
Linda Thompson Gonzalez is a resident of Lauderdale-By-The-Sea. She is a retired U.S. Foreign Service Officer and former Assistant Inspector General of the U.S. Department of State.
“The Invading Sea” is the opinion arm of the Florida Climate Reporting Network, a collaborative of news organizations across the state focusing on the threats posed by the warming climate.