My plastic narrative

As an ecologist, the horridness of single use plastic has long lay at the back of my subconscious. I always tried my best to avoid commonly condemned items, such as shopping bags, straws, water bottles and coffee cups. I always felt a little guilty buying snack food copiously wrapped in plastic. Yet, I have never been emotionally driven to understand the full repercussions of single use plastic and consciously eliminate it from my daily life.

This sentiment (or lack there of) rapidly changed about five months ago while on holiday in Sodwana Bay, South Africa. As my love of wildlife initially motivated me to become an ecologist, I jumped at the opportunity to witness endangered leatherback turtle hatchlings make their grand journey from shell to sea.

Before setting out across the empty, starlit beach my guide, from Ufudu Turtle Tours, elucidated the incredible biology of leatherback turtles, highlighting their ability to dive to unimaginable depths and circumnavigate the globe Finding Nemo style. Upon reaching reproductive age, females return to their natal beaches to lay about 7-11 clutches of 65-115 eggs every three to four years. These nests are commonly destroyed by human activity, such as poaching and beach development. Additionally, only about 1 out of 1000 hatchlings is estimated to reach adulthood. After overcoming these incredible odds, adult turtles continue to face serious anthropogenic threats: they are often struck by boats, drowned by fishing line, and die from ingesting plastic-bags tumble-weeding through ocean currents as jellyfish imposters.

My small tour group came across five new hatchlings, flailing through the sand, slowly pulling themselves towards the full moon and Indian Ocean that lay beneath it. My psyche was torn in half. One side was elated by the sweetness of these vulnerable newborns; the remainder was overwhelmed with the notion that human indifference may drive the extinction of this species, one thought to have existed 200 times longer than Homo sapiens.

Upon leaving Sodwana Bay, every time I saw plastic, whether it be a utensil or packaging of a (already plastic) toy for my five-year-old cousin, my imagination quickly spiraled to the image of those teeny, squeeshy babies astonishingly reaching adulthood only to succumb to human garbage. Unable to free the image of choking wildlife from my mind, I decided to partake in the Changing Tides Foundation Plastic Swear Jar Challenge for one month: Every time I used single-use plastic, I put a dollar in my plastic swear jar.

My experience with the challenge taught me far more than I initially suspected.

First, as participation in the challenge intended, I fully grasped the ubiquity of plastic. I became acutely aware that plastic is used for the most asinine reasons: Why are there plastic seals over bottles already sealed via a screw top? Why do snack items need to be individually wrapped when they are being sold in multiple (bags in bags in bags!) Why? Why? Why?!

After a few anxiety producing shopping trips I made a few minor lifestyle changes that significantly reduced my single use plastic consumption. I started to avoid sugary drinks and exclusively purchase fresh produce and dry goods from the economical bulk food section (taking care to reuse bags). I switched to using body wash and shampoo (Dr. Bronner’s!) that are inexpensive, wrapped in post-consumer recycled paper and made of natural fair trade ingredients – not only did I stop coating myself in overpriced synthetics in a feeble attempt to get clean but I also stopped sending self-care bottles to a 1000-year imprisonment in a landfill. Similarly, I replaced my household cleaning supplies with all-natural, refillable, sustainably packaged products (Dr. Meyer’s!). I found all products with ease, using a quick Google search and meander through my local health food store.

With a little bit of awareness and selective purchasing I found avoiding single use plastic to be simple. Importantly, I learned that avoiding single use plastic can help to empower nutritious eating and an overall wholesome lifestyle.

I first entered my field because of my love of wildlife but have remained in it due to my fascination with the connectedness of Earth. Humans inaccurately consider the environment as a separate entity from our own existence.  Yet, we live in the environment. We are all part of one large ecosystem thus the abuse we inflict on nature also harms our species. Ecologists and medical professionals term this concept One Health: The heath of humans is connected to the health of non-human animals and the environment. My epiphany that avoiding single use plastic has immediate benefits for my wellbeing provoked an investigation into plastic pollution as a broader One Health issues. My discoveries were worrisome but unsurprising.





Plastic & One Health

As of 2015, 6300 million tons of plastic waste had been generated [1].  On a global scale, 9% of that plastic waste was recycled, 12% was incinerated and 79% ended up in landfills or the natural environment [1]. Alarmingly, 40% of plastic produced is estimated to be single-use [2].

The most desirable method for disposing of plastics is recycling, yet global recycling efforts have been hindered by improper sorting and disposing of recycling, lack of appropriate recycling facilities and use of non-recyclable plastics [1].

Incinerated plastic processed via backyard burning or unregulated incineration plants releases dioxins, a group of persistent organic pollutants with high toxic potential. The World Health Organization reports that uncontrolled burning is the primary producer of dioxins in the environment. Dioxins are most commonly found in dairy, meat, shellfish and fish through the process of bioaccumulation and bio-magnification [3].

Quick ecology lesson: Bioaccumulation refers to the process in which substances accumulate faster in an organism than they are broken down and bio-magnification refers to the process in which toxins are concentrated within an organism due to eating multiple plants or animals in which the toxins are more widely disbursed.

A handful of developed countries utilize waste-to-energy plants to incinerate plastics, using recovered energy for commodities such as electricity and heat. Repurposing waste for energy is an admirable goal but waste-to-energy plants are imperfect. Waste-to-energy plants are astronomically expensive to build and are suspected to release the same noxious chemicals as uncontrolled burning [4].

Disposing of plastic in landfills has countless flaws. Land-fill bound plastics can seep the chemical additives they are manufactured with into surrounding ecosystems [5]. Furthermore, plastic photo-degrades meaning it is broken up (never fully breaking down) into tiny pieces termed microplastics (a least one dimension is less than 5mm) upon light exposure. However, as plastics in landfills hardly see the light of day they can take up to 1000 years to fragment [6]. Our intact shopping bags could be sharing colossal, overflowing landfills with our great-great-great-great-great-great grandchildren’s straws.

The best publicized and arguably most depressing fate of plastic is the ocean. Once in the ocean, plastic amasses on the ocean floor, joins huge (I’m talking bigger-than-Texas huge) plastic islands, is ingested by or ensnares a multitude of sea creatures [7]. Charismatic seabirds, whales and my forever-loved turtles die from consuming bottles caps, fishing line and countless other waste items; the animals either choke or starve because indigestible plastic has packed their gastrointestinal tract [8]. Species loss, an increasing occurrence, can contribute to ecological instability, resulting in negative, unpredictable consequences radiating throughout our ecosystems.

Additionally, plastic may be stored within marine animal tissue via bio-accumulation. Particular properties of plastic enable them to thirstily absorb organic pollutants and inorganic compounds from ambient water. Unfortunately, the bio-accumulation of plastic may also lead to bioaccumulation of chemical additives [9] and these newly acquired hitchhikers [10]. As plastic in the ocean is exposed to light, plastic photodegrades more rapidly than plastic in landfills. 50% of plastic debris picked up from the environment is microplastic [11]. As microplastics are so tiny, bioaccumulation of plastic, and its containments, may even occur in zooplankton, a bottommost prey in marine food web, and be biomagnified throughout our food web.

While researchers are still actively investigating the pervasiveness of plastics and their effect on human health, the initial prognosis is bleak. Scientists have found microplastics in all aquatic environments sampled [10] and increasingly more terrestrial environments [1]. A recent study found that 9-28% of fish and 33% of shellfish being sold for human consumption in Half Moon Bay, California, USA and Makassar, Sulawesi, Indonesia contained plastic [2]. Ominously for our own health, blue mussels experimentally exposed to microplastics were found to have pathological levels of inflammation [12].

I would be remiss not to point out that I have the financial stability to choose where I buy my food and household products. Unfortunately, many people do not share the same amenities. Reducing single-use plastic on a global scale entails ensuring that everyone has access to education, nutritious food, proper waste management systems, clean drinking water etc.

Considering the monumental overlap single-use plastic pollution has with multiple human right and public health concerns sent me down a deep, dark rabbit hole contemplating the intricacies of our world’s social and political turmoil. Upon awaking, I realized that the overlap between single-use plastic pollution and public health highlights how encompassing plastic pollution is as a One Health issue: Reducing your own plastic consumption, and enabling others to do the same, can facilitate immediately improved health for yourself and other people. The reduction in plastic use that is immediately beneficial to you, and whomever you may have helped, also limits the amount of plastic that ends up in our ecosystem. Limiting the amount of plastic that ends up in our ecosystem benefits a multitude of species that support ecosystem stability as well as inhibits the amount of plastic that ends up in human food webs. Inhibiting the amount of plastic, and toxins that cling to it, that end up in human food webs is beneficial for your health. The cycle is unceasing.
Your plastic narrative

So what can you do to reduce plastic pollution? Start by engaging in the Plastic Swear Jar Challenge and identifying when you use single use plastic the most. Make smalls changes to eliminate single use plastic from your daily life. If you use plastic, properly recycle. Support businesses that manufacture or use environmentally sustainable products. Contribute to organizations that are working to overcome One Health issues that directly or indirectly decrease plastic pollution via time or money. Excitingly, some of these organizations offer opportunities to pair worldwide travel with simple ways to reduce single plastic use in underprivileged communities (examples here!).

Unless we want to swim in oceans with more plastic than fish or ingest our own trash on a regular basis, it is important that we all take collective action to significantly reduce our plastic footprint. Through mindful daily choices and purposeful adventure, we can take better care of this planet – it is our only home.

Changing Tides Foundation

Waves for Water

Give – Bottle Project

References cited:
1.      Geyer, Jambeck and Law. 2017. Production, use and fate of all plastics ever made. Science Advances 3:e1700782.

2.      Rothman, et al. 2015. Anthropogenic debris in seafood: Plastic debris and fibers from textiles in fish and bivalves sold for human consumption. Scientific Reports 5: 14340.

3.      World Health Organization. 2016. Dioxins and their effects on human health.

4.      Gradus et al 2017. A cost-effectiveness analysis for incineration or recycling of Dutch household waste. Ecological Economics 135: 22-28.

5.       Teuten et al. 2009. Transport of chemicals from plastics to the environment and wildlife. Philosophical Transactions: Biological Sciences 364: 2027-2045.

6.        Ritch, Brennan and MacLeod. 2009. Plastic bag politics: modifying consumer behavior for sustainable development. International Journal of Consumer Studies 33: 168-174.

7.       Sigler, M. 2014. The effects of plastic pollution on aquatic wildlife: current situations and future solutions. Water, Air, Soil and Pollution 225: 2184.

8.       Gregory, M. 2009. Environmental implications of plastic in marine settings – entanglement, ingestion, smothering, hangers-on, hitch-hiking and alien invasions. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B 364: 2012-2025.

9.       Lohmann, R. 2017. Microplastics are not important for the cycling and bioaccumulation of organic pollutant in the oceans – but should they be considered POPs themselves? Integrated Environmental Assessment and Management 13: 460-465.

10.    Au, S., et al 2017. Trophic transfers of microplastics in aquatic ecosystems: identifying critical research needs.  Integrated Environmental Assessment and Management 13: 460-465.

11.    Barnes, K., et al. 2009. Accumulation and fragmentation of plastic debris in global environments. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B 364: 1985-1998.

12.    Von Moos, N., P. Burkhardt-Holm, A. Kohler. 2012. Uptake and effects of microplastics on cells and tissue of the Blue mussel Mytilus edulis after an experimental exposure. Environmental Science and Technology 46: 11327-11335.

Caroline Glidden


Caroline is an American Ph.D. student, specializing in disease ecology. She has a B.A., with honors, in ecology and evolution, and has worked on research projects in South Africa, China, Japan and the United States.