Meet my grand-nephew, Tristan. He’s been visiting from Nova Scotia with his parents. He’s 7 months old and, this past week, is starting to crawl and had his first haircut. He’s also the inspiration for this week’s blog. But more about him later…

We’ve grown accustomed to reading reports of grave environmental threats. For most of us, there is as yet little direct impact and we’re able to regard these concerns in the abstract. With time and repetition, we develop something akin to resigned indifference, participating in recycling efforts with reluctant acquiesce. 

I’ve recently come across some information that should cause us all to pause, consider what’s happening to our environment and our own, personal culpability.

In a 2017 article appearing in Science Advances (Geyer, Jambeck, Law, Sci. Adv. 2017; 3: e1700782), researchers from three American universities and institutions with expertise in environmental issues reported on the “Production, use and fate of all plastics ever made.” Their conclusions are, to say the least, rather sobering. To summarize:

  • 8.3 billion metric tons of plastics have been manufactured to date
  • Of that, 6.3 billion metric tons remain as plastic waste accumulated in landfills.
  • Only 9% has been recycled, 12% incinerated
  • If current trends continue, it’s projected that 12 billion metric tons of plastic waste will find its way either into landfills or the natural environment by 2050.

The projections they have developed are rather frightening as portrayed in this graph from their paper:

Plastic products are, of course, designed to be durable. Basically, they don’t go away, and this article makes it clear that our current recycling efforts aren’t nearly adequate.

To put this into more comprehensible terms, researchers at the Rochester Institute of Technology have recently estimated that 22 million pounds of plastic debris enter the Great Lakes every year. Our own Lake Ontario, which we Kingstonians walk or drive by every day, receives the equivalent of 28 Olympic size swimming pools of plastic bottles each year, and they don’t go away.

(https://phys.org/news/2016-12-metric-tons-plasticgreat-lakes.html)

If that’s not enough to get our attention, consider work recently published by Dr. Melanie Bergmann and her colleagues at the Alfred Wegener Institute in Germany, also in Science Advances (Bergmann et al, Sci. Adv. 2019; 5: eaax1157).  

They point out that plastics don’t dissolve harmlessly into the environment, but under a number of physical stresses (mechanical abrasion provided by waves, for example, or temperature fluctuations) they can be broken into much smaller particles, termed microplastic, measuring less than 5mm. It’s already been well established that these can be found not only near large urban centres, but also in northerly ocean seabeds and coastal sediment. What hasn’t been clear is how they get there. It’s been postulated that microplastics have the capacity to be carried into the atmosphere and find their way to points very remote from their original dumping grounds. The capacity to become airborne not only explains this wide distribution, but potentially threatens human and animal exposure through inhalation.

To test this possibility, they set out to look for microplastics associated with snow because, in the words of the authors “snow is a scavenger for diverse impurities, and acts as a filter on the ground by dry deposition”.  Using techniques far beyond my understanding, they measured levels of various microplastics in snow samples gathered from ice floes and islands in the Arctic, and compared with samples from urban centres in northern Europe and from the Alps.

They found plastic microparticles in snow gathered from all sites. Although there was much more from the cities, there were detectable levels in the snow scooped up from ice floes drifting in the Fram Strait and on Svalbard Island in the far north, far from any population centre, in quantities they described as “substantial for a secluded location”.

They conclude that snow has the ability to bind these airborne particles and carry them back to earth, a process they term “scavenging”. They conjecture that this process can allow for microparticles to find their way into water supplies and food chains. They even recommend that large northern cities give thought to where they deposit collected snow in the winter, to avoid contamination of water sources.

If we needed any further convincing about the need to curb use of plastics, I think it’s now available. Particles from the bottles or straws that we use to conveniently transport beverages to quench our thirst are finding their ways to the most remote, unpopulated regions of our planet, previously considered pristine. The ice and snow, always symbols of purity, are now tainted. Children who will soon be running outdoors to frolic in the first winter snowfall may be putting themselves at risk.

Getting back to young Tristan, what sort of world are we shaping for he and his peers? What can we do, given the virtually ubiquitous presence of plastics in our society? Personal action, to be sure. We should make all efforts to minimize our own usage and maximize recycling efforts. But also political awareness, particularly in this election year. No political leader or party that fails to understand the true impact of environmental contamination is worthy of our support. We should expect well-articulated platforms that address both local and international approaches. We have a responsibility to be vigilant, not only for ourselves, but also for those not yet able to speak for themselves but have so much at stake.