As a new parent, news headlines have taken on a deeper meaning. When I see things about the increasing rate of climate breakdown or a nationalist wave of right wing parties gaining popularity around the globe, it no longer makes me worry in general, it makes me worry very specifically for my son.
So when a study out of Trinity College Dublin this week reported that babies ingest millions of bits of microplastics, I didn’t just shake my head and move on. I pictured my little baby son drinking out of his milk bottle – his plastic milk bottle.
The study found that the process of sterilising plastic bottles – which the World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends takes place at 70°C and which takes place at my house at over 100°C because we have a steam steriliser – actually breaks the material down, leading to shedding of microplastics. Then the act of shaking the bottle loosens these microplastics and, guess what, baby is having a microplastic cocktail.
But this has been going on for years, right? Nothing bad has happened. Not yet.
We don’t fully understand what microplastics do to humans. A summary on plastic pollutants by the WHO stated that microplastics don’t currently appear to be a threat to human health. Which is good because microplastics, the study found, are everywhere. From drinking water to food, there is literally plastic all around us. And in us. In October 2019, a study found microplastics in test subjects’ faeces.
But most microplastics come from containers – as the study on baby bottles discovered – they’re not in our actual food. People who consume mostly bottled water have a higher amount of microplastics inside them. However, the WHO is also quick to point out that while they haven’t found any immediate health risks from microplastics, their findings are very new and that more in-depth research is necessary. We are living in an increasingly plastic and not fantastic world so what the long term effects are, nobody can say yet.
Getting back to the study on baby bottles: The average person is said to consume between 30,000 and 50,000 bits of microplastic every year. In baby bottles, the high sterilisation temperatures and the shaking to mix the formula or milk can cause the bottle to shed, on average, four million microplastic bits per litre! Four million tiny bits of plastic in 1 litre of milk my baby drinks? Sorry, but the WHO’s very preliminary finding that microplastics don’t harm us suddenly brings me zero solace.
Plastic goods are very useful. If we look at the baby bottle example, it’s obvious why plastic is better than glass – glass breaks and babies aren’t exactly gentle with things. And so since the 1950s, plastic has become more and more common as a durable material that doesn’t degrade because nothing in nature can consume it. Which, of course, is also why it’s a problem.
Nothing in nature can consume it. Since the 1950s, it’s estimated 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic have been created, and not just for the things we need to reuse like baby bottles. We’ve created an entire disposable culture of plastic packaging and utensils and cheap plastic products that we buy for an instant fix and throw out when they break. And now that plastic is everywhere.
Our main defence again plastic is recycling but the National Geographic Society noted that only about 9% of plastic has been recycled. That’s 9% of 8.3 billion tonnes. That is not a great statistic.
Indeed, recycling is an expensive process and until making new plastic is more expensive than recycling used plastic, the majority of plastics will end up floating around in our oceans and creeping into our bodies until we’ve lived like this for long enough that we find out exactly what all this plastic inside is doing to us.
But what can we do? We need to consume less plastic because telling yourself you’re recycling clearly isn’t good enough. We have to stop buying cheaply-made plastic goods, stop using plastic utensils, and to make real change, we need to get governments to start regulating the manufacture of plastics.
Plastics are very useful. But maybe having disposable plastic everything just because we can isn’t the way to go.
While I hope we find out that the tens of thousands of microplastic bits we consume every year, or the millions of bits our babies consume on a weekly basis, won’t hurt us, please excuse me while I go out and buy a whole bunch of glass baby bottles for my little boy.
Big Smile, No Teeth columnist Jason Godfrey – who once was told to give the camera a ‘big smile, no teeth’ – has worked internationally for two decades in fashion and continues to work in dramas, documentaries, and lifestyle programming. Write to him at email@example.com and check out his stuff at jasongodfrey.co. The views expressed here are entirely the writer's own.
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