Plastic is one of the most versatile and ubiquitous materials that humans use. Some of the most common uses of plastic include containing food and beverages, shopping bags and constructing objects such as furniture, pipes, or storage containers. But everyday uses of plastic go well beyond these familiar functions. Traces of plastic are found in our clothing, our home insulation, and even our computers.
The lure of plastic is that it is inexpensive and relatively simple to manufacture. As a result, we often view plastic a disposable commodity, made to serve a quick and convenient purpose, and then be thrown away without any significant loss of value to the individual using it. Sadly, our general perception that plastic is easily dispensable has compelling ramifications.
It is no secret that tons and tons of human waste end up in water sources across the planet – and plastic waste is certainly no exception. Unfortunately, because we often use plastic products a few times and then throw them away, it makes up an incredible percentage of waste that is found in our water systems. In fact, Science Magazine reported that in 2010, between 4.8 to 12.7 million metric tons of plastic found their way into the earth’s oceans alone. Once in the water, ocean currents carry the debris around the world, and as a result, plastic waste is now being found on the shore of some of the more remote regions of the world, including Antarctica.
How Does Plastic End Up in Water?
Plastic finds its way into water sources in less conventional ways as well. When we wash synthetic clothing, plastic microfibers are washed
away along with dirt and debris. Cosmetic products that include microbeads also contribute to the problem when they are washed down the drain. Plastic cotton swabs, Q-tips or face wipes might also end up in water supplies if they’re flushed down toilets or put under a running faucet.
To make matters worse, plastic takes years to decompose naturally. While plastic bags take between 10-20 years to properly break down, plastic bottles can take up to 450 years to decompose. This means that each year, more and more plastic continues to accumulate and pollute water sources, as the rate of production far outpaces the rate of decomposition.
Effects of Plastic in Water
Such a high density of plastic waste in water sources has horrible consequences. A quick search online will quickly uncover hundreds of stories describing the tragic deaths of marine animals who swallowed pounds of plastic waste or who suffocated after being caught in plastic debris. And there is no sign of these anecdotes subsiding in the near future. Just last month, National Geographic published an article detailing the appalling story of a pine whale that starved to death after swallowing 80 plastic bags and other debris, which clogged his entire digestive system, making it impossible for him to eat.
The frightening reality is that the harm caused by plastic in global water systems is not limited to sea creature and other wildlife. As we’ve already mentioned, plastic is not biodegradable, meaning that any plastic consumed while drinking water will remain in your system until it is passed. Truthfully, it is quite unlikely that a human would consume enough plastic to clog its digestive system, and therefore it’s unlikely that a person would suffer the same fate as the various animals who have reportedly swallowed copious volumes of plastic. However, there are other factors that pose threats to human health that are caused by plastic.
The most alarming hazard towards humans caused by the presence of plastic in water supplies originates from the chemicals that plastics are manufactured with. Chemicals, such as phthalates (which are used to soften plastic and make it flexible), are not necessarily chemically bound to the plastic itself. This means that they can be easily transferred from the plastic source to your body during the time the consumed plastic remains in your system.
These chemicals can pose serious risks to human health if they are able to accumulate in an individual’s system. They can disrupt hormone production, agitate fetal development in expecting mothers, and alter behavior patterns in toddlers. There are also been studies finding trends between phthalate exposure and asthma.
How to Reduce Plastic in Water
If these health risks are startling to you, there are things you can do to reduce your chance of exposure to plastic consumption. The biggest impact you can have as an individual is to be conscious of your own plastic purchases and uses. Avoid products that come in plastic containers or packaging and avoid using plastic products that are used once and then disposed of. Objects such as plastic utensils, straws, shopping bags and water bottles can easily be replaced with reusable and sustainable alternatives. Where it is impossible to avoid purchasing or using plastic goods, be sure to recycle those products once finished with them.
Unfortunately, even if you successfully reduce the number of ways you use plastic, there is still tons of plastic waste still floating in global water supplies. Therefore, another useful tool to help remove harmful contaminants in your home water supply is the installation of a home water softening system. A water softening system will help filter out the harsh chemicals introduced into your water supply from plastics and limit your exposure to those harmful pollutants. In this way, you will be able to protect yourself from the chemical contamination caused by plastic waste introduced into the water system outside of your household.
Plastic in our water supply is a serious and colossal problem that sadly will not be resolved in the immediate future. While awareness of the issue continues to grow, there is much work to do before much of the damaged already caused is undone. In the meantime, there are small, yet impactful things you can do to reduce your footprint and protect your health. Over time, these small steps will add up and make the difference in the world.