Earth Matters: Plastic in newborns reminds us of crisis we face

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Earth Matters: Plastic in newborns reminds us of crisis we face

By Doug Wood

It's spring, and I know it because the din of the incredibly noisy leaf blowers around the neighborhood sometimes makes it hard to think. Leaves and other winter detritus are being liberated from their winter hideaways and gathered into piles – and this is where the trouble starts – stuffed into thick black plastic bags and put out on the curb awaiting the next visit of a garbage truck.

Leaves are one of nature's miracles. They are harbingers of spring, provide shade in the summer, put on a spectacular fall show, and protect the roots of our shrubs and flower beds all winter.  The following spring they're ready for their final duty - providing us with rich compost. All we have to do is gather them together and let them slowly decay. Nature will provide the microbiology and do all the work; we just have to stand back and admire.

But, alas, that is not the fate of tons of leaves being collected during spring cleanups. Instead, as if thumbing our noses at Mother Nature, we will pack those leaves into  plastic bags and send them off to the local landfill or incinerator. There they will either be burned, releasing toxic fumes into the air, or lie dormant for years until the elements finally succeed in breaking the plastic down into tiny bits.

Unless you've been living under a rock, you should know that scientists have now found tiny pieces of plastic pretty much everywhere on Earth, from the deep Mariana Trench in the Pacific Ocean to the top of Mount Everest. And now the list of places we're finding plastic includes you. Your blood, your lungs, your brain…nano plastic finds a home actually anywhere in your body. In fact, they're even finding bits of plastic in human placentas, so babies are now being born with pieces of old plastic bags inside.

Not all of that plastic may be coming from black plastic bags holding leaves, but at least some of it is. A lot more of it is coming from plastic bottles. This morning I watched as my neighbor unloaded several giant cases of plastic water bottles from her SUV, all wrapped in more layers of plastic wrap. And I wondered, will tiny pieces of those plastic bottles eventually end up in some newborn baby halfway around the world? Sorry, kid, we just couldn't stop buying our water in plastic bottles!

The happy ads for the plastic industry feature a trio of ethnically diverse young people, all smiling broadly as they claim, with a straight face, that their plastic bottles are made to be remade. I'm sorry, but that's a lie! There is no technical, economically feasible way of making a used plastic bottle into another plastic bottle. Suffice it to say that once plastic has been manufactured using a recipe of fossil fuels and toxic chemicals, there is no way to un-make the plastic and tease out its individual components. The chemicals are baked-in and will stay with the plastic forever.

The kicker, of course, is that the giant petrochemical companies are expanding, not reducing their output of plastic, as the worldwide demand for fossil fuel-based energy ebbs. Plastic is the growth industry for Exxon/Mobil, Royal Dutch Shell, Chevron, BP, and all the other petrochemical companies that are driving the stock market to new heights.

New giant petrochemical plants are being constructed, mostly in Texas and Louisiana – places where the local black and brown communities have resigned themselves to much higher cancer rates and much shorter life spans than the rest of us. The new plants will get giant tax breaks from state governments, because apparently it's a good use of taxpayer dollars to support industries that are harming the people in fence line communities.

Black plastic bags and cases of plastic water bottles are symbols of our inability to fix an obvious problem.  They're both completely unnecessary and obviously causing havoc with our environment and now our own health. Lots of towns mandate the use of paper bags for leaves and grass clippings, so that the entire bag can be composted. Why don't we do that here?

And lots of people filter their own water at home and take their reusable containers with them when they go out instead of buying (and throwing away) more plastic water bottles. Sports teams would be much better off giving kids paper cups of water from a big cooler rather than helping them contribute to the plastic crisis.

And a true crisis it is. Like the frog sitting in the slowly boiling water who doesn't realize he's being cooked, we're sentencing ourselves and all future generations to a lifetime of health problems, just because we weren't really thinking about it when we put our leaves in that plastic bag or hauled a case of plastic water bottles home from a big box store.

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