Have you noticed anything different about the last couple of rainstorms? My housemate and I noticed after the rain that some of the succulents we keep on our patio were covered with little pockmarks the size of tiny beads — like our paddle plants and golden spoons.
We wondered what could be causing it. Then we noticed that when we walked on the patio after the rain dried up, it crunched. On closer examination, we could see that minuscule pieces of plastic had come down with the rain. Mother Nature was weeping plastic tears!
Our Mother — the cradle of all our civilizations, the provider of our sustenance, our artistic inspiration, and the source of everything we require to live — is suffering.
Is this plastic rain her “Me, too” moment? Her payback for decades of our plastic abuse? We’re already feeling the consequences of raising her temperature: disappearing islands, ferocious wildfires, Arctic weather in Texas, flooding, tornados and hurricanes on steroids.
We’ve seen pictures of dead birds with guts full of plastic pellets, sea turtles strangled by plastic rings, and islands of plastic detritus the size of small states floating in the ocean, but we have collectively shut our eyes and keep on buying plastic. What will it take to move us to action?
To be fair, many groups have long urged action to address this crisis, but so far most governmental bodies have been missing in action. Chemical company contributions to politicians are powerful incentives for inaction, and now the petroleum industry is pivoting to plastic production to make up for tanking revenues from its core business!
Less fossil fuel production is great for Mother Nature, but more plastic? Not so much.
Research shows that microplastic pollution is everywhere — from Arctic snow, mountain soils and rivers to the deepest oceans.
A 2019 study of the pollution in four cities found that London had the highest levels yet recorded — 20 times higher than in Dongguan, China, seven times higher than in Paris, and nearly three times higher than Hamburg, Germany.
Most microplastics were fibers made of acrylic, probably from clothing. Just 8% were particles, mostly polystyrene and polyethylene, both common in food packaging. Most cities are likely to have similarly high levels of airborne microplastics, and I’ve now personally seen the evidence in Santa Clarita!
Furthermore, they’ve been found in tap water supplies around the world.
Orb Media, with researchers from the State University of New York and the University of Minnesota, analyzed 159 drinking water samples across five continents over a 10-month period in 2017 and found microplastics in 83% of the samples.
Another study, published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology in June 2019, estimates that the average person eats at least 50,000 particles of microplastic a year and breathes in a similar quantity.
All right, we can drink them and inhale them, but how do they get in our food?
New research in 2020 indicates that more microplastics are accumulating on land — especially agricultural areas — than in the oceans.
They find their way into agricultural soils through processed sewage sludge widely used for fertilizer, plastic mulches, and intentionally created products like plastic-encapsulated slow-release fertilizers and plastic coatings to protect seeds from microorganisms.
It had been believed that plastic particles are too large to pass through intact plant tissue, but another 2020 study has found that plants do take up the microplastics, and the particles tend to accumulate over time.
Therefore, perennial crops like apples are more contaminated than annual crops like lettuce. The logical conclusion is that if microplastics are in our vegetables, they’re also in everything that eats vegetables.
That means they would also show up in our meat and dairy.
Although little research has been done on the health effects of ingesting or inhaling microplastics, we do know from animal studies that they can pass through cell walls, accumulate in organs, and impact the immune system. We also know they can attract and bind to compounds known to harm human health, such as cadmium, lead, PCBs and pesticides — beyond the toxic compounds used to make them.
This can’t be good.
There’s no way these microplastics can be cleaned out of our air, water, and soil; we have to stop them at the source — and that would be us. Recycling would help, but since China stopped taking our plastic waste, less than 10% now gets recycled. The rest becomes plastic pollution.
How can you help personally?
Stop buying plastic if there’s another option. Use glass, metal, wood, cloth, or bamboo items that are recyclable, reusable, or able to decompose (plastic doesn’t).
Check your cosmetics to make sure they don’t contain plastic microbeads, and if they do, change brands. Support organizations that are working to ban single-use plastic and find new ways to recycle other plastics — The Plastic Free Foundation, Plastic Pollution Coalition, etc.
And, to be safe, think twice about singing in the rain….
Cher Gilmore lives in Newhall and is a member of the Santa Clarita chapter of Citizens’ Climate Lobby.