SIDNEY — Plastics have revolutionized product manufacturing — from cars to clothing fibers — so that just about everything you use has some kind of plastic in it. As we wash our clothes and dispose of plastic items, these plastics gradually break down and a substantial amount ends up in our waterways and even in our water supply.
The U.S. produces the most plastic waste in the world on a per capita basis. On Nov. 15, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced what it called a “bold national strategy to transform recycling in America,” with a goal of recycling half of all U.S. waste by 2030. In another major milestone, on Nov. 18, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken pledged U.S. support to combat ocean plastic pollution at the next U.N. Environmental Assembly in February 2022.
“By launching these negotiations at the UN Environmental Assembly in February 2022, our goal is to create a tool that we can use to protect our oceans and all of the life that they sustain from growing global harms of plastic pollution,” said Blinken.
The national efforts to decrease plastic waste could also have a great impact on improving water quality in Ohio.
Currently there are no guidelines in the state of Ohio to regulate the amount of plastic in our drinking water, said Seth Epley, the City of Sidney’s assistant water treatment plant superintendent.
It is unsurprising, then, that The City of Sidney, Ohio 2020 Drinking Water Consumer Confidence Report does not contain information discussing the amount and regulation of tiny plastic fragments in the city’s water supply.
According to an investigation by Orb Media, however, within the last four years, plastic fibers have been found in 94 percent of tap water samples in the United States.
“It’s going to be one of the next things on the EPA’s radar. It’s a newer thing being investigated, and the federal EPA and Ohio EPA have started doing some studies on it,” Epley said.
Until the EPA creates standards, Epley contends, there is no way to know how many micro- or nano- plastics there are, and no actions are being taken now to eliminate them from the city’s drinking water — though one potential source of microplastics entering our waterways is local wastewater.
However, according to attorney John Rumpler, Clean Water Program director for Environment Ohio and its sister organizations throughout the U.S., the City of Sidney can petition the EPA to amend its NPDES wastewater permit under the Clean Water Act to allow it to install additional equipment to filter out microplastics.
Today, micro- and nano-plastics are considered “emerging contaminants,” writes Phillip M. Potter in his 2021 U.S. EPA report, “Microplastics: Emerging Trends and Research Gaps.”
Right now, the EPA lacks a standard way to describe tiny plastics quantitatively and qualitatively in either the environment or in living organisms — yet the need to do so is “critical” to assess their potential damage to human health and the environment, emphasizes Potter, who is based at the U.S. EPA’s Cincinnati office.
According to Potter’s report, nanoplastics (which are even smaller than microplastics) pose an even greater risk to humans “due to their increased surface area, environmental transport, and biological uptake.”
Another source for seafood microplastic contamination is ocean dumping, where degrading plastic eventually lands on beaches or small fragments are carried in the air and deposited on land, and from there are eventually washed into local freshwater waterways like lakes and streams.
However, if you think buying Atlantic or Pacific wild fish eliminates the potential of plastic in your fish, think again. They have the same problem — and the problem has only intensified during COVID-19.
A new research study revealed hospitals in Asia have been the source of the most pandemic-related plastic waste entering Earth’s oceans, and their scientific model suggests they will soon begin accumulating on beaches and coastal areas.
The study was conducted in association with the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego and Nanjing University in China and published this month in the “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences” (PNAS).
Specifically, it found, of the pandemic-generated plastic waste in the world’s oceans, 73 percent was found to be from hospitals and 72 percent of this hospital waste originated in Asia. The researchers specifically blame the “record-breaking confirmed cases in India” of COVID-19.
Disposable, single-use plastics, like those used for personal protective equipment (PPE), such as face masks, gloves, and face shields, are indispensable to protecting healthcare workers and others from infection from the SARS-CoV-2 virus. But this protection comes with a cost. Approximately 25.9 thousand tons of new, single-use plastic waste generated due to the pandemic have added to what researchers are calling an “out-of-control global plastic waste program.”
Due to the seriousness of COVID-19, which has now surpassed the number of U.S. deaths from the world’s most recent global pandemic, the Spanish Flu, U.S. states, as well as global governments have generally suspended their existing and proposed legislation affecting the disposal of single-use plastics. While the initial shock of the pandemic and strict regulations for isolation have passed, the pandemic persists; and, the researchers argue, it will likely remain uncontrolled for “a couple of years.” Therefore, given the study’s findings and the continuation of the pandemic as new variants emerge, the researchers suggest that developing nations, especially, need to immediately implement improved management strategies for their plastic medical waste.
Another recent report estimated that 1.56 million face masks entered the oceans in 2020. A few of their suggested solutions included increasing fines for littering, creating designated safe disposal spots, and changes to international agreements for improved cleanup management when plastic waste crosses national boundaries.
In addition to hospital waste, waste from the public’s use of plastic gloves is also wreaking havoc on marine ecosystems and the seafood industry.
Indeed, roughly four pairs of gloves for every man, woman, and child are discarded globally each month as we fight COVID-19. Like most plastics, disposable gloves degrade into tiny fragments. Under typical conditions, plastics can take centuries to degrade in landfills, but when gloves are improperly dumped at beaches and harbors, rain and wind push them into rivers where currents ferry them into oceans adding to the millions of tons of plastic waste comprising the Great Pacific and Great Atlantic Garbage Patches.
The impacts upon marine wildlife include both injury and death. When microplastics are deluged upon marine ecosystems sharing our planet, they will be eaten by freshwater and ocean-dwelling species and — ultimately — they can find their way onto our dinner tables as farm-raised or ocean-sourced seafood.
“The negative effects of plastic pollution on sea life and on human beings are serious,” said Blinken. “Much of the plastic at sea is broken down into tiny pieces that sea animals eat. These microplastics can tear apart animals’ organs, clog their intestines, and give them the illusion they’re full, causing them to starve to death. And because plastics absorb toxins, when we eat seafood, we’re not only consuming microplastics, but toxins as well. In addition, plastic pollution can hurt small-scale fishing and discourage tourism to coastal areas. As we know, our health, our survival is bound up in the health of our oceans. We have to do more to protect them. Supporting the development of this new agreement is just one way that we’re working to do that,” said Blinken.
The long-term environmental impacts and human health risks imposed by pandemic plastics that have made their way into the ocean are just starting to be assessed. What seems clear, however, is that the plastic problem is inescapable. Affected human consumables include not only plastic-contaminated seafood, like shellfish, but also tap water.
In studies like “Plastic and Human Health,” and “Microplastics in Seafood and the Implications for Human Health,” researchers reported that the negative health effects associated with the consumption of micro- and nano-plastics include immunocompromisation, endocrine disruption, and tissue damage.
Rumpler believes that the EPA’s plan to simply round up existing plastic and other waste does not go far enough.
“Ultimately, we need to solve the root of the problem — stop producing the flow of unnecessary plastics pumping through our economy,” Rumpler said.
We should be following “the precautionary principle,” that is, proving something is safe before introducing it into the economy, Rumpler argued. Just as the pharmaceutical industry must first put its products through rigorous safety and efficacy testing before making a medication widely available to the public, the chemical components used in manufacture should be similarly evaluated.
To do this will take a new, mindful philosophy of manufacture.
“If we want to have a livable planet and an environment where pollution is not threatening our health as toxic materials that wind up coming to haunt us in our drinking water and in our bodies, we are going to have to systematically re-think how we produce things in our economy,” said Rumpler.