Gotham Gazette

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The Dangerous Persistence of Plastic, and What New York City Needs To Do About It

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Garbage (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)

Our trashy story begins with a wartime question: after mass-producing aluminum, steel, and plastics for the military to fight Nazis, what happens when the war is over? What if, instead of reverting to peacetime manufacturing, America could charge ahead, simultaneously creating and fulfilling a civilian “need?”

The rest is advertising history. Over the course of a few decades, but seemingly overnight, a country with a working system of reusables, and return-and-refill products, was reimagined by deceptive marketing. Single-use items were branded as convenient and inexpensive, regardless of their hefty monetary and earthly costs. The phrase “toss-away prices” was thrown around to draw consumers away from reusable items. Enter the era of disposability.

Today, we are drowning in plastics. The non-profit Beyond Plastics has estimated that in three years, there will be one pound of plastic in the ocean for every three pounds of fish. More than just an environmental eye-sore, our trash poses a threat to our well-being. Large, bulk plastics break down into tiny fragments, called microplastics, that are inhalable and ingestible.

Two articles, one from November and another published last week, provide some of the most striking evidence yet that microplastics harm human health. The first indicates that at environmentally relevant concentrations, microplastics cause cell death, an immune response, and damage cell membranes. The second reveals a link between microplastics in the gastrointestinal tract and inflammatory bowel disease.

Given this new information, now is the time for action against single-use plastics. After all, the United States made a refillable system before and can do it again. Despite the false advertising, reusable containers were not that bad, especially considering humans are eating the alternative.

So, what can individuals and localities do to reduce the reliance on plastic? Numerous pieces of legislation, including the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act (BFFPPA) nationally, and the “Skip the Stuff” movement locally are making headway. BFFPPA is a comprehensive bill that restricts the amount of plastic produced and puts the responsibility for plastic pollution on manufacturers, reemphasizing the importance of reusable and plastic-free items.

New York City recently passed and enacted a bill commonly known as “Skip the Straw,” which constrains the distribution of straws to be by request only. However, two weeks ago the City Council failed to pass a version of “Skip the Stuff” over what appeared to be a technicality. This bill aims to reduce unnecessary takeout and delivery items – plastic spoons, forks, knives – and would have been an important first step to reducing plastic pollution. These larger single-use items, which often go unused anyway, clog our kitchen drawers and often wind up in the trash, burdening our waste system. Over time, they also break down into microplastics and threaten our wellbeing, making this bill a key step safeguarding our health.

To make the issue more complicated, a major source of microscopic plastic fragments is not from larger, bulk objects covered by “Skip the Stuff” legislation. Microplastics found in the water and air are often plastic microfibers, shed from clothing during washing and normal use. The fibers, made of polyester, a petroleum-based synthetic material, enter our bodies and get stitched inside our tissues. Legislation that requires the installation of filters on washing machines is a major way to reduce this source of pollution. Another way is through informing consumers to wash their polyester items less or elect to buy clothing that is made of natural materials, such as organic cotton or cruelty-free wool.

To help consumers change their lifestyle and purchasing habits, city districts and community groups can make sure there are sustainable options available in all neighborhoods. Organizations like Project Defeat Denial, a group which aims to simplify sustainability for consumers, offers an interactive map detailing sustainable and eco-friendly businesses in New York City, and provides helpful tips to swap out single-use items for reusables. Another way to help consumers make eco-friendly decisions is through consumer-oriented education and better labeling. When combatting plastic microfiber pollution, for example, efforts can be made to more clearly highlight that spandex, elastane, and polyester fabrics are plastic, as well as the health and environmental hazards of this.

Consumer education efforts should be supplemented through the development of city-wide comprehensive plans for making sustainability more accessible. The city needs to build an infrastructure that promotes sustainable consumption. One way to do this is through a concerted effort to increase the number of businesses that sell sustainable or eco-friendly products. As a matter of equity and justice, the city needs to increase these options in all boroughs, something promoted by EcoBronx. By making sustainability equitable, it will become an everyday norm, rather than a luxury. It will also help ensure that the harms of buying unsustainable products, such as those with microplastics or those laden with chemicals like formaldehyde don’t fall disproportionately on lower-income residents.

Plastic is everywhere. There are the persuasive images we all know well that highlight a better side to advertising than the single-use campaign of the 1950s: a bird’s stomach packed with plastic, a turtle strangled by plastic packaging, impoverished nations with coastlines inundated with our country’s waste. These should elicit a response on moral grounds. But here, in New York City, we are not free from plastic either, even if it is less visible.

Microplastics are in the air we breathe; they are in the water we drink; they are in our bodies, prodding our cells — unwelcome invaders that bypass detection. Regardless of what ad men told us in the mid-20th century, there is nothing convenient about plastic.

Karl Palmquist is a Ph.D. candidate in systems biology, a National Science Foundation Graduate Fellow, co-founder of Project Defeat Denial, and a volunteer leader with the Sierra Club. The views expressed here are his own. On Twitter @karl_palmquist.

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