Plastics: The Bane of Our Natural Existence

healthy turtle
plastic water bottle

We eat, drink and inhale microplastics on a daily basis. 

I’m having trouble getting past the opening sentence because I did not see this one coming.  Did you?

Count the number of plastic items in and around your home and then multiply that number by 7,577,130,400 people on earth as per US Census Bureau’s estimate in June 2019.  If you said you found a conservative number of 50 items in your home that would = 378,856,520,000 pieces of plastic.  It’s unfathomable, isn’t it?  What would happen if 10% of the population decided to discard majority of the plastic items in their homes?  Where and how would waste management dispose of it?

Plastic products are everywhere.  How ironic that plastic packaging is used to preserve the freshness and quality of fruits and vegetables, baked goods, meat and processed foods – and now, as we ingest and inhale microplastics on a daily basis, we are becoming waste receptacles with, as of yet, unknown medical implications. 

Revolutionary Discovery

ivory balls on a billiards table

Science History Institute states that the first synthetic polymer was invented in 1869 by John Wesley Hyatt

Billiards, a very popular game back then, placed an unexpected burden on the supply of natural ivory obtained from elephants, so Michael Phelan, who owned and operated several large billiard halls in San Francisco and New York, offered $10,000.00 to anyone who could provide a substitute for ivory.

Hyatt discovered the process for making celluloid; the first plastic that could be shaped and manipulated to imitate a natural substance.  The invention was revolutionary. 

But Hyatt did not win Michael Phelan’s prize because celluloid turned out to be useful for many things but not billiard balls. This failure inspired the invention of petroleum-based plastics in 1907 by Leo Hendrik Baekeland , who named it Bakelite - which was perfect for billiard balls.

Manufacturing industries were no longer constrained by nature’s law of limitations and concurrently, protected our environment from human consumption and waste.  This rather inexpensive and diverse celluloid enfranchised people from economic restrictions – and voila, the plastic industry was born.

After WWII, innovative plastic applications challenged the integrity of the wood, steel, paper and glass industries and engulfed the consumer market with cost efficient, plastic products. 

Fast forward 150 years and we now have a critical situation on our hands.

polluted beach - 2

Microplastics have been polluting the air, soil and oceans for decades resulting in an incontrovertible impact on global biodiversity.  Who would have thought that one day we would be ingesting microplastics and polluting our own bodies?  Now that we have ambushed ourselves into a plastic, vacuum-formed corner of celluloid crap, how do we get out of it?

Microplastics are created when the product breaks down after time with sunlight and wave action.  The particles are so small they cannot be picked up by water filtration systems and then they flow into our rivers, lakes and eventually oceans.  Marine life, including crustaceans, plankton and worms ingest the microplastics and become very ill. 

plastic debris near shore waters

Microplastics are not biodegradable, do not dissolve and will remain in our oceans forever.

In 2018, Philipp Schwabl, physician, scientist and gastroenterologist from the Medical University of Vienna, together with researchers and the Environment Agency Austria tested eight volunteers from Finland, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Poland, Russia, the UK and Austria for plastic pollution in the human body.  The results showed that every single stool sample tested positive for microplastic particles between 50 and 500 micrometres in size and up to 9 different plastic types were identified including polystyrene, polypropylene (a component found in food wrappers and synthetic clothing) and PET from disposable water bottles.  On average, the researchers found 20 microplastic particles per 10g of stool.

“…we have evidence for microplastics inside humans; we need further research to understand what this means for human health," said Dr. Philipp Schwabi, lead researcher.

In 1990, Stanford University researchers announced that tiny amounts of Bisphenol A (BPA) leaches out of plastic products and into our endocrine and thyroid systems but with inconclusive results, even though tests have found BPA in over 90% of all Americans.  Today researchers say that the smallest microplastics, less than 5 micrometres, can enter our bloodstream, liver, lymphatic system and gastrointestinal tract where they could potentially release toxic substances and trigger an immune reaction.

Using Environmental Science and Technology’s dietary guidelines to calculate how many microparticles of plastic people are ingesting, Kieran D. Cox, Lead researcher and marine biology PhD candidate at the University of Victoria, British Columbia, found that adults eat about 50,000 microplastic particles per year and children about 40,000 per year.  We also inhale 50,000 microplastic particles per year.  Plastic particles have been found in tap water, bread, processed food products, meat, dairy, salt, sugar, vegetables and beer.

plastic compressed for recycling

“Human reliance on plastic packaging and food processing methods for major food groups such as meats, fruits and veggies is a growing problem.  Our research suggests microplastics will continue to be found in the majority—if not all—of items intended for human consumption,” said Cox in “Humans Unknowingly Consume a lot of Plastics’ published at UVic News.

Global Statistics

We produce 335 million metric tonnes of plastic every year – half of which is intended for single use.

More than 8 million metric tonnes of plastic is dumped into our oceans every year.  If we continue at this pace, plastics will outweigh the amount of fish in the oceans by 2050.

2% to 5% of all plastics end up in the oceans and ingested by fish – especially tuna, lobster and shrimp. 

healthy turtle

Microplastics were discovered in more than 114 aquatic species.  Research studies have disclosed the potential damage to their reproductive systems and livers.

Microplastics have been found in terrestrial birds, which primarily stay on the ground.

Microplastics were found in Farmlands near Shanghai, China, the Galapagos Islands, and in rivers in the Czech Republic.

A new research study completed by Nature Communications discovered a steady rainfall of microplastic particles in Paris, France and Dongguan, China.  An average of 365 plastic particles, fibres and films are being deposited per square metre every day.  

Bottled water contains 22 times more microplastic particles than tap water.

Canadian Statistics

plastic pieces caught on driftwood at a beach in Latvia

Less than 10% of plastics are recycled in Canada.

Canadians throw away over 3 million metric tonnes of plastic waste every year. This represents up to $8 billion per year in lost value and as well, squanders valuable resources and energy. 

About one-third of the plastics used in Canada are for single-use or short-lived products and packaging. In fact, up to 15 billion plastic bags are used every year and an estimated 57 million straws are used daily in Canada.

Every year, 640,000 metric tonnes of abandoned, lost or discarded fishing gear enters our oceans, which can remain in the environment for up to 600 years.

Every year, one million birds and over 100,000 sea mammals worldwide are injured or die when they mistake plastic for food or become entangled in netting.

Globally, one garbage truckload of plastic waste enters the ocean every minute, and that amount is increasing steadily.

Positive Measures

Over the last 25 years, nearly 800,000 volunteers have removed over 1.3 million kilograms of trash from across Canada’s shorelines through Ocean Wise and World Wildlife Fund’s Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup program, supported by the Government of Canada. The most commonly littered items on our shorelines are single-use or short-lived products.

The European Parliament voted to ban single use plastics (bags, cutlery, straws, plates and stir sticks) from the European Union market by 2021.  Canada, Kenya, Vanuatu, Taiwan, Zimbabwe, Australia, New Zealand, France, Hamburg, Morocco, New Delhi - and California, Hawaii and New York have also jumped on board.  Thirty-two countries have banned at least some single-use plastics.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will introduce measures and standards of management and responsibility for companies that manufacture or sell plastic products.

“By improving how we manage plastic waste and investing in innovative solutions, we can reduce 1.8 million metric tonnes of carbon pollution, generate billions of dollars in revenue, and create approximately 42,000 jobs,” says Justin Trudeau.

plastic straws
plastic cutlery

“With the longest coastline in the world and one-quarter of the world’s freshwater, Canada has a unique responsibility – and opportunity – to lead in reducing plastic pollution. From launching the Ocean Plastics Charter at the 2018 G7 Summit to investing in new Canadian technologies that turn plastic waste into valuable resources, we are doing just that. Together, we can make our economy stronger and take an important step toward protecting wildlife and the places Canadians love.”

“Growing scientific evidence on the hazards of uncontrolled microplastic pollution, combined with its long-term persistence and irreversibility, suggests that reasonable and proportional measures should be taken to prevent the release of microplastics,” states the group of scientific advisors for the European Commission.

On May 10th, 2019, 180 governments involving 1400 representatives, took part in rather intense meetings at the United Nations and collectively agreed on the new framework and amendment of the Basel Convention of 1989 to control and regulate plastic waste, save marine animals and create cleaner oceans.  The Basel Convention handles the regulations of hazardous waste globally.  

Developing countries such as Monrovia, Liberia and Aceh, Indonesia have been struggling with the removal of waste.  US and Canada have been exporting plastic waste for recycling to developing Asian countries but much of the contaminated, mixed waste cannot be recycled and is then burned or dumped into water, which eventually finds its way to the ocean, killing marine life and polluting the water.

Animal and Plant Species Threatened with Extinction

“One million animal and plant species are threatened with extinction,” says Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES)

Compiled by 145 expert authors from 50 countries for the past three years, the IPBES Report assessed changes that have taken place over the past 50 years.

“The health of ecosystems on which all species depend is deteriorating more rapidly than ever.  We are eroding the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide,” says Sir Robert Watson, Chair for IPBES.

Plastic pollution has increased tenfold since 1980, with 300 to 400 million metric tonnes of heavy metals, solvents, toxic sludge and other waste from industrial facilities that are dumped into the world’s waters annually.  Fertilizers infiltrating coastal ecosystems have created more than 400 ocean ‘dead zones’, totalling more than 245,000 square kilometres – a combined area greater than the United Kingdom.

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch

bird sitting on netting

After a three-year study, Scientific Reports affirms that ‘The Great Pacific Garbage Patch’ is about 1.6 million square kilometres in size – a little bit larger than the size of Mongolia.

Fishing nets make up almost half the 80,000 metric tonnes of garbage floating in the Pacific Ocean and an estimated 640,000 tons of fishing gear is lost to the marine environment each year. 

Researchers confirm that about 20% of the total volume of trash in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is from the 2011 Japanese tsunami.


Additional Resources

Diligencia Investigative Reporting recommends the following videos:


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