Mopping up with the plastic-soup tap left open….

Recycling. A word that makes me happy. Like the swoosh-swoosh-swoosh of the skipping rope as pretty young girls in their light summer frocks jump up and down on a glorious sunny day. The effortless movement that seems able to go on for ever, Leonardo da Vinci’s perpetual motion machine. Recycling sounds like healthy, economical and sensible. Something which everybody would support and to which nobody could object.

If I think of recycling, I think of pumpkin peel, broccoli stumps and all the other vegetable scraps that are left over in my kitchen: I drop it in the recycling bin and later on I buy it back as compost to pamper my garden. I think of my cupboards, too small to offer sanctuary to everything which I wanted to save. It’s all languishing in the second-hand shop now, waiting to start a new life in a new collection tomorrow. Nothing but praise for recycling.

Initially, recycling plastic also sounded like music to my ears. It sounded to me like a happy solution for the devilish problem of the plastic that has been taking a continually stronger grasp on our world: the plastic bottles, bags, chairs – what isn’t made of plastic these days? – that ends up as litter on our streets and in our rivers, flowing to the sea where it – disintegrating to ever-smaller pieces – chokes the stomachs of unfortunate birds and fish. Or the plastic microfibers that float through the air and threaten our health. Recycling seemed a decisive step in the battle against that kind of misery.

Until I started looking at the figures.

The amount of newly-produced, un-recycled plastic in the world is growing at a tremendous rate. An additional 380 billion tons in 2018, within 10 years that means 530 billion tons of plastic per year. Exactly how much ends up as litter – in the fields, in the water or in the air – is not known, at least 16 billion kilos per year, maybe a lot more. Large multinational companies argue that all their plastic packaging will use recycled raw materials by 2025. That sounds impossible to achieve, but apart from that: it’s still plastic packaging. And a percentage of that will still end up in the ocean, the “lungs” of the word. Or in our own lungs.

Now, if I think of plastic recycling, I no longer think of girls having fun with their skipping rope, but of poor wretches mopping up the mess while the plastic soup continues to gush from the open tap. A PET bottle made of recycled plastic may use less petroleum to produce than a bottle made of new plastic – and that’s good – but we will not solve The Big Plastic Problem by migrating to recycled plastic.

The only real solution has the simplicity of a light summer frock: bring less plastic products to market. As a start: no more single-use plastics, like PET bottles and plastic bags. And the plastic that does still reach the shelves: collect it efficiently, for example with a deposit scheme.

Surrounded as we are by so many clever people in this world, surely we can start this movement without too much trouble?


We eat, drink, and breathe plastic

NRC Handelsblad, one of the leading Dutch newspapers, published an opinion article on Saturday June 23rd 2018, written by Maria Westerbos (Director, Plastic Soup Foundation). Below you can read the translation of the original article.

Visible and invisible plastic particles penetrate our food chains. We’ve been believing in the fairy tale of recycling for too long, says Maria Westerbos.

The increase of plastic pollution is a threat to ecosystems both in water and on land. Everyone’s surely aware of this by now. But to what extent is plastic soup harmful to human beings as well? A question that’s not asked often enough. We know plastic litter fragments, and never decomposes. The concentration of microplastics in the environment and in the air is increasing exponentially. We breathe plastic, we eat plastic, we drink plastic, and we touch plastic all day long.

The Plastic Soup Foundation started a campaign earlier this month, on World Oceans Day, to inform everyone about the direct relationship between plastic and our health. Significantly less plastic truly is the only solution. Governments, corporations, and consumers; the entire world needs to produce less plastic, needs to go on a plastic diet.

Late 2016, the Health Council of the Netherlands published a so-called letter advice about the health risks of micro- and nanoplastics. The council had observed that we inhale small particles of plastic through the air, and consume them through seafood. Additionally, nanoplastics can pass through the intestine and placenta. Although the consequences are still unknown, it can’t be ruled out that this has a toxic effect on the immune system. The Health Council also expressed its worry about the hormone-disrupting effect of chemicals that are added to plastic, such as plasticizers and flame retardants. Furthermore, microplastics can spread pathogenic bacteria.

Health risks for humans can’t be ruled out, but the Health Council considered the uncertainties were as yet too large to be able to formulate specific recommendations to the Dutch government. The Council came no further than a weak call for more research. Unfortunately. Thankfully, the state secretary of infrastructure and water management Van Veldhoven did take that call to heart: before the year is over, a research tender will follow for short-term research on the health effects.

The reports consistently lack an analysis of the speed at which the concentration of micro- and nanoplastics increases in air, sea, and earth. It’s exponential. Do the math: we use more and more plastic per person, and for more and more purposes, from packaging and clothing to car tires.

Plastic litter fragments into parts that, in turn, collapse into even smaller parts. One plastic bag left behind in the environment means a few million additional microplastics later on. The visible and invisible parts penetrate food chains and are now found everywhere on earth. We produce, for example, millions of microfibers each time we do a simple load of laundry of five kilos of synthetic clothes. Through friction, those fibers are released inside the washing machine, and they’re flushed out with the dirty water. Water treatment facilities can’t stop those minuscule fibers.

While official organizations mostly call the health risks ‘uncertain’, leading to a lack of real measures being taken, the question of the ill effects of the increased concentration of plastic parts is rarely asked, let alone answered. Where will we be in a year, or in five or ten years?

It’s for good reason that an increasing number of scientists and doctors are raising the alarm. They point out that chemicals in plastic could lead to cancer, heart failure, Alzheimer’s, dementia, Parkinson’s, arthritis, infertility, and even damage in unborn babies. The peer-reviewed articles are plentiful, such as an article published in Nature last year, in which Swedish scientists prove that nanoplastics enter the brains of fish through the food chain, and lead to abnormal behavior in them.

There’s actually quite a lot known already.

The Plastic Soup Foundation thinks we shouldn’t wait any longer to act, based on the precautionary principle. What we know is downright alarming. The ball’s in the court of the government: national, European, and global. Politics must acknowledge that plastic in the environment is an unwanted emission, that we need norms for plastic pollution, and that the use of plastic needs to be drastically reduced.

We’ve been believing in the fairy tale of plastic recycling for too long: that we can endlessly make new plastic products from old ones, as long as we collect them and recycle.

Prime minister Narendra Modi of India has already understood that we all need to go on a ‘plastic diet’. In his country, with 1.3 billion inhabitants, plastic pollution has become unmanageable. The air is also extremely polluted, as millions of Indians burn their plastic to simply get rid of their trash, not caring about the toxic dioxins that are released during the process.

On World Environment Day, Modi announced his country will ban all single-use plastic in 2022, because: “Plastic is harmful to the environment, animals, and the health of the people.” Erik Solheim, head of the United Nations Environment Programme, welcomed the step as an inspiration for the rest of the world.

The Plastic Soup Foundation is now calling the Dutch government to take proactive measures. The Netherlands needs to dare to take the lead in the battle against the plastic tsunami threatening our planet. We’re burdening future generations with a gigantic problem, that goes hand in hand with a high price for our health, as long as we keep trivializing, hesitating, and only taking action in dribs and drabs.

The plastic industry and the packaging industry barely even made a single move by themselves. The aim of their business models, of course, is to keep producing unlimited amounts of plastic at low costs. That’s why the government needs to prescribe the plastic diet; to kick our plastic addiction, but especially for self-preservation.