Youth Blog Series: Plastics

Be the Change’s Youth Blog Series highlights blogs written by university student interns at Be the Change Earth Alliance. In the blogs, the interns reflect on their experience completing “Action Packs,” which are learning resources that guide students in research, critical thinking and tangible action related to a global sustainability topic.

Summary of Action Pack

The action pack teaches students about human dependence on plastic use and the harmful effects plastics have on the environment. It teaches students about the damages plastic causes to the world. The majority of the products we consume are made of or partially made of plastics. Plastics are so widely used because it is light, easily shaped, strong which allows them to be able to withstand rigors of shipping, inexpensive, have the ability to be protected against contamination which is ideal in medical sterile environments, and plastic kitchenware are perfect alternatives to glass and ceramic kitchenware, as it preserves flavor and freshness, and they are also leak-proof and child-resistant. Three commonly used plastics include phthalates, polyvinylchloride, and polyester. Phthalates are often seen in softening vinyl products, including vinyl clothing, emulsion paint, footwear, etc. Polyvinylchloride is often seen in food packaging, plastic wrap, containers for toiletries, cosmetics, crib bumpers, floor tiles. As for polyester, it is commonly seen in bedding, clothing, disposable diapers, food packaging, tampons, upholstery. 

Some Phthalates can disrupt endocrine production, which is linked to asthma, developmental and reproductive defects. Medical waste with PVC and phthalates are regularly incinerated causing public health effects from the release of dioxins and mercury, such as cancer, birth defects, hormonal changes, declining sperm counts, infertility, endometriosis, etc. As for polyvinylchloride, it can potentially lead to cancer, birth defects, genetic changes, chronic bronchitis, ulcers, skin diseases, deafness, vision failure, indigestion, and liver dysfunction. Polyester could also trigger eye and respiratory-tract irritation and acute skin rashes. Most of the disposed plastics ended up in oceans, which causes the death of thousands of animals. Plastics are made up of polymers, large molecules are unable to be broken down and are not biodegradable, as the organisms which break down plants and animals cannot break down plastics. Plastics can be broken down by sunlight, through the process of photodegradation. Exposure to sunlight over a period of time  turns plastic into smaller and smaller pieces, and these tiny particles of plastics are almost impossible to clean up. These tiny pieces of plastics eventually ended up in ocean gyres, which are large systems of ocean currents. All of these gyres make up 40% of the ocean on Earth, and all contain plastic debris. The North Pacific gyre is the largest and is home to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. 270 species of animals have been affected by the plastic debris in the ocean, causing the deaths of over 1 million birds, 100,000 marine animals, and countless fish. 

Plastics are detrimental to the life and health of marine life organisms for three main reasons. The first reason is ingestion, when an organism swallows’ plastics, the accumulation of plastics inside the animals' bodies, which can cause dehydration, malnutrition or death. For instance, the fish in the North Pacific gyre ingest 12,000 to 24,000 tons of plastics per year. Second, plastic pollution can cause suffocation. When an organism ingests plastics, it sometimes blocks their airway passages and inhibits normal growth patterns. Thirdly, in the case of lost nets and fishing wires, plastics can cause entanglement, meaning animals can get trapped in the plastics. 

Plastic consumption is not only detrimental to the external environment, it is also creating lasting and negative social impacts on people. For instance, there is an area along the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New 

Orleans, called the Cancer Alley, which contains numerous polluting industrial plants. The petrochemical industries take oil and turn into plastics. The close proximity of the petrochemical plants to residential areas has shortened the lives of residents.there. 

Oftentimes, the disposal of plastics ends up in taking place in developing nations. Hence the problems which arise from the disposal process have been shifted onto the least privileged part of society. The disposal of plastics in developing nations allows rich nations to shift the cost to poorer nations, which is an unseen form of injustice in the world. 

Fortunately, there are a few ways where you could reduce your plastic consumption. First, carry reusable shopping bags, bring your own containers and utensils for take-out food and leftovers, carry stainless steel travel mug or water bottle for coffee and other drinks when going out, and overall, be mindful of the use of plastics when purchasing goods. 

My Reflection

Through my studies with the Action Pack, I learned that many of the products I use daily are packaged with plastics. I decided to reduce consumption in plastics by reducing the usage of my daily skin care  products. There are many resources online which teaches  you how to make DIY skin products. I learned to make a toner from the roses which grow in my garden. I also decided to switch to zero packaging and will be going plastic free for my future purchases when buying daily essential products. There are stores which sell shampoo, conditioner, face washer, and body soap all in bar form, this reduces the use of plastics in packaging. These products are usually more costly, but to me, it is worth it to know that the products I am using do not contribute to the global plastic problem. I believe the use of plastics are not soon going to end, but perhaps the plastics of the future will be less harmful to the planet.

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