The battle on plastic sidetracks us from unnoticeable contamination

The war on plastic could overshadow major threats to the environment. Working with experts in the environmental sciences, engineering, industry, politics, and charities, we authored an article in WIREs Water magazine highlighting concerns that relatively simple actions against plastic pollution can comfortably mask the apathy of the environment and that humans be misled by alarming headlines, emotional photos and “greenwashing”.

Plastic is an incredibly useful and versatile material that much of modern society relies on, but it has become one of the most pressing environmental problems of the day. In recent years, plastic pollution has encouraged action by individuals, organizations and governments at levels similar to some of the greatest threats to the environment such as climate change and biodiversity loss.

This concern is well founded. Plastic pollution is unsightly, can entangle wildlife, can be ingested, block the stomach and intestines, and can contain harmful chemicals. It can break down into small pieces, eventually into microplastics – pieces smaller than 5 mm – that can accumulate in the food chain. It has also been found in some of the most remote parts of the world.

While there is widespread hostility towards plastics, they are a group of materials that we cannot and should not live without. We argue that plastics themselves are not the cause of the problem and that failure to address this risk can lead to far greater environmental and social disasters.

Some dirt is less noticeable

The environmental impact of some less visible pollutants is known. Greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane contribute to global warming. Fine particles in the atmosphere are linked to respiratory diseases and are a major component of smog. And the radiation from the Chernobyl nuclear disaster continues to affect the wildlife that has taken over their exclusion zone.

Fertilizer pollution is largely invisible – but washing too much in the water can lead to excessive algae growth.
Sergey Muhlynin / Shutterstock

But society pollutes the environment in more ways than most people realize, long before plastic pollution concerns became prevalent. Agriculture leads to nutrient overenrichment and pesticide pollution. Electronics, vehicles and buildings require a multitude of toxic metals that end up in the environment and are broken down and washed where they are broken down. Medicines that are flushed into the sewer system and are not completely metabolized (consumed) by our body can also find their way into rivers and lakes.

These lesser known realities of daily consumption harm the environment and are toxic to wildlife. As chemicals instead of particles like plastic, these pollutants are also far more mobile than plastics and, in the case of toxic metals, more resistant.

Plastic pollution provides a convenient distraction from these uncomfortable truths. Starting with political legislation at the top, high-profile measures against plastic pollution were disproportionate to its environmental impact.

The ban on microspheres in cosmetics, for example, has only addressed a very small part of the problem. This does not mean that microspheres are absent in the environment or that they do not pose a risk to them. But those in positions of power – scientists, industry, media, politicians – have an obligation not to mislead their audiences by disseminating research and environmental policies that have no context.

Focus on the product – not the plastic

Plastic is just one type of anthropogenic material in the environment. Textile fibers made from plastic like polyester or nylon are a well-known form of pollution, but natural fibers like wool and cotton have recently been found to dominate environmental samples. Although these natural fibers are biodegradable, when they break down they can leach harmful chemicals such as dyes into the environment.

Glass and aluminum, sometimes touted as solutions to plastic bottle pollution, may have a larger carbon footprint than the plastics they replace. And many of these alternatives will persist in the environment as well. Someone who throws a plastic bottle into a river will not change their behavior if they have an aluminum can.

Rusty beer cans that were thrown away in a forest.

Metal stays in the environment for a long time.
Jarkko Patana / Shutterstock

The problem is the product, not the plastic. The desire for convenience, industries that rely on overconsumption and uninformed consumption, and a culture of politics for popularity rather than progress are the roots of plastic conversation. But the plastic pollution is exactly what you can see.

So what should we do?

“Plastic” and “plastic pollution” are all too often confused. Plastic pollution is a visible and easily relatable symptom of unsustainable levels of consumption, inadequate product design, poor waste management and dishonest politics.

Greenhouse gas emissions, biodiversity loss, exploitative labor practices and chemical pollution are either not as clearly visible or their effects develop over time. Once its effects are visible, it is often too late for the affected environments. Because of this, there is an urgent need to sharpen the profile of the pollution that is not visible.

Plastic pollution has mobilized unprecedented environmental action. However, to be successful, this action must focus on the real causes, such as excessive consumption of easily disposable items, rather than just the presence of plastic in the environment. It should also do a better job of tracking plastic pollution associated with other, more significant, pollutants.

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