Defunct Models of Pollution: Starring Oceanic Plastics and Body Burdens

This entry is based on the premise that 20th century models of pollution can no longer describe or solve the problems of 21st century plastic pollution. What follows is meant to be an accessible introduction to this problem.

Two scenarios first caught my attention and lead me to study plastic pollution. The first is that In the Pacific Ocean, plastic outweighs plankton six to one. The second is that some Natives in Greenland have so many industrial chemicals in their bodies that they can be classified as toxic waste when they die. Neither of these are isolated incidents; they are expressions of the global yet novel phenomenon of twenty-first century plastic pollution. In one form or another, and in high quantities, plastics are in every body of water and in every human body.

Typical proposed solutions to ocean plastics involve beach clean ups and different ways of “cleaning” plastic from the ocean. Concerns over body burdens tend to focus on whether or not it is safe to eat fish or drink from certain kinds of water bottles. In developed countries, except for the United States, many of the industrial chemicals found to accumulate in humans and impair health have been regulated or banned.

Yet even if every beach in the world were cleaned, all plastics recycled, and all demonstrably harmful chemicals banned, oceanic and bodily plastic pollution would not be solved. That’s because these questions and efforts are based on pollution models of the twentieth century – a model based on identifiable pollutants that come from ascribable sources and can be collected, discontinued or contained.  My academic work is based on the idea that ocean plastics and “body burdens,” exceed these 20th c models of pollution and therefore cannot be solved by solutions based on these older models.

Before I get into models of pollution, I will give you a quick overview of what ocean plastics and body burdens are:

Plastics in the ocean.

Ocean plastics are simply plastics in the ocean. There is a popular misconception of a “plastic island,” but there is no island. It’s a plastic soup. Gyres or places where global currents meet and spin around, tend to have higher concentrations of plastics—the middle of the Pacific gyre is often called the “garbage patch.”  Plastics in the ocean range in size from enormous conglomerate ghost-fishing nets that snag and entangle marine animals to micro plastics that plankton mistake for food. The best conservative estimate we have is that there are 315 billion pounds of plastic in the ocean. For comparison, The Gulf Spill spewed roughly 2.5 million pounds of oil per day at its peak.  That makes it would take 345 years of oil leaking to reach the same amount of plastic that is already in the ocean.

Now, what are the problems with plastics in the ocean?  First and most famously, they entangle wildlife. Secondly, they are ingested by wildlife, which can lead to disability and death because it fills up gastrointestinal systems and animals starve to death. Plastic has been found in the stomachs of ½ the world’s seabirds, marine mammals, all sea turtle species, even in the blood of mussels.

A second part of this ingestion problem is that when you ingest plastic, it leaches chemicals. In the water, plastic attracts other chemicals, so a piece of plastic floating in the water can have up to 1,000,000 times more toxins on it than the surrounding water. These plasticizers and toxins harm the animals that eat them on a chemical level and those chemicals move up the food chain. This is called bioaccumulation. These chemicals become a body burden, a phenomenon I’ll explain in a moment.

Nurdles, some small enough to be classified as microplastics, washed up on a beach.

Now where do these plastics come from? Around 80% come from land sources —all steams, air currents, storm water, and shipping routes lead to the sea. There is a mix of post-consumer waste such as water bottles, tampon applicators and toothbrushes, but also nurdles, the raw pellets used in plastic manufacturing. While only ten percent of municipal solid waste is plastic, fifty to eighty percent of wastes on beaches and in the oceans are plastics.

Body burdens refer to the industrial chemicals that accumulate in an animal’s tissues. Some chemicals are water soluble, like Bisphenol A (BPA), and they live in the body for around 6 hours. Other chemicals are not water soluble and accumulate in fatty tissue, like fire retardants, which are often found in household foams and other plastics. They stay with you for most of your life.

Plastics are rarely, if ever, just made of plastic—they have chemicals called plasticizers in them– chemicals that are added to plastic to make it flexible or fire resistant or orange. These chemicals unbind from their host fairly easily. To give you an idea of the scale of this offgassing—in scientific laboratories, they have to come up with ways to determine the difference between the chemicals in their samples and the “background pollution” in the air of their labs and from their equipment. In fact, many plasticizers that have adverse effects on health were discovered because lab animals were drinking from plastic water bottles.

Diagram outlining how an endocrine disruptor works.

The second thing to know about body burdens is that they don’t work like carcinogens or poisons, both of which are the foundations for toxicology. Instead, many plasticizers are endocrine disruptors, meaning that they mimic hormones. This means that unlike a poison that stops things from working properly, they actually make things work that might not otherwise be working. Like estrogen in developing male fetuses. Or they might influence fat cells in someone who is already well fed. Or brain development in a child.  So body burdens tend to affect women and children most, as they have more complex endocrine systems and are developing. Secondly, these plastic-borne endocrine disruptors do not happen in isolation. Like taking multiple drugs– meaning that we have what is called a “cocktail effect” in our bodies—there are many chemicals, working all together and influencing one another.

So now that you are sufficiently terrified, here are the characteristics of current discourses and practices of pollution control:

1.     They are based on the idea of discernable sources (the discrete location where the pollution originates) and sinks (places were wastes are ultimately deposited).

2.     Pollutants themselves are discrete effluents that occur through a specific process, such as burning coal or leaking oil.

3.     Pollutants affect human or ecological health in a traceable, scientifically proven way, which provides proof for the most dangerous chemicals to be regulated or banned. Generally, the more pollutant there is, the worse the health effect.

4.     Pollution can be dealt with by changing the polluting process or by dispersing, diluting, or nullifying the effluent after it has been discovered.

Now, here are a few characteristics shared by ocean plastics and body burdens that challenge these twentieth century models of pollution:

1. They are ubiquitous—plastics are everywhere– the chemicals in body burdens come from everyday objects such as mattresses, lipstick, food packaging, clothing, computers, furniture, fish, and water bottles. Ocean plastics, originally thought to be from beach-goers and marine sources, are now known to come mainly from land sources (around 80%) – the same sources as body burdens. This ubiquity makes the idea of a point source nearly obsolete, especially considering the next point:

2. Plastics and plasticizers have extraordinary longevity. Plastics are estimated to last hundreds of years. Longer if they are not in the light. The chemical molecules in body burdens have even longer life cycle estimates and some are even thought to be permanent. So for example DDT, banned in 1975 in Sweden, was still found in breast milk in 1992.  Those molecules stick around in the environment and circulate. DDT is not a plasticizer, but it does have a similar longevity to chemicals plasticizers. This means that even if you “capture” plastic pollutants, any storage you put them in is going to be temporary. So the idea of a containment “sink” is no longer as useful as it was.

3. Both body burdens and ocean plastics are folded into complex living systems rather than operating as discrete poisons or foreign trespassers. Plastics are mistaken as food; they move up the food chain. Endocrine disruptors act like hormones—bodies don’t reject them, they use them. Both become part of a living system. So the idea of a discrete, traceable effluent scientists can clearly correlate with one health effect is no longer valid.

To conclude: 20th century theories about how pollution works are being challenged by the characteristics of plastic pollution. This reveals that new questions have to be asked about how 21st century pollution works, and new models need to be constructed if we are to fully understand the problem and work towards an effective and comprehensive solution.  In short, we need to stop solving 21st c pollution with 20th century models.

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