From shifting baselines to plastic shorelines

Filipino volunteers pick rubbish during the 29th International Coastal Cleanup at the shore of the ‘Long island’ in Paranaque city, south of Manila. Photograph: RITCHIE B. TONGO/EPA
Filipino volunteers pick rubbish during the 29th International Coastal Cleanup at the shore of the ‘Long island’ in Paranaque city, south of Manila. Photograph: RITCHIE B. TONGO/EPA

“Shifting baseline means failure to notice change”

From generation to generation, perhaps even more frequently, our perception of the norm changes. Social norms, quality norms, scientific norms; everything. While the Shifting Baselines Ocean Media Project focused mainly on the changing sea level, its overall aim was to provoke thought about changing baselines in our life: “Examining how and where have we lowered our standards to the point that we accept things that once would have been unacceptable.” Sometimes the baseline may change for the best. For instance, advances in medicine have made smallpox a thing of the past. The new baseline for incurable diseases is higher than ever before. On the other hand, we take certain damaging things for granted such as the widespread use of plastics.

Plastics are cheap, malleable, quick to make, easy to use material. We see them everywhere. However, the use of plastic was not common before the mid-1900’s. Companies like DuPont and Dow Chemical expanded on the use of polystyrene, which was previously mostly used for insulation and other large solid objects. Below, I will explore a few ways plastics affect the food chain, the environment, and our health despite the widespread acceptance of plastic into nearly every facet our lives.

 Plastic in the food we eat

Plastic is not biodegradable. This makes managing plastic waste especially difficult given the long lifecycle of plastics, which ranges from several decades to millions of years (Sustainable Communication). A lot of plastic ends up in rivers, lakes, seas, and oceans, where they enter the food chain when they are consumed by fish.

Plastic injected by a fish
Plastic ingested by a fish

A study by the University of California Davis, scientists found that 55% of Indonesian fish and 67% of US fish contain plastic debris. The sample ranged over many species of fish such as herring, mackerel, short-fin scad, salmon, and even oysters. The plastic in fish is not necessarily visible. It is dissolved in the fish’s gut (New Scientist). This cause the chemical to enter the fishes body and, subsequently, the body of the final consumer. I hope to illustrate the amount of unnatural substance ingest by animals, such as fish, in my midterm and final project.

Plastic in the environment

While the plastic ingested by fish creates health problems, the amount of plastic debris building up all around the world, particularly in oceans and delicate ecosystems, is a large problem. A research by the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Science magazine estimated that “between 5 to 12m tonnes of plastics enter our ocean every year… on top of the 100 to 150m tonnes likely already in the ocean.” There are literally moving islands of plastic in the ocean (The Guardian). Unlike a banana peel, these plastics will remain in the currents until someone cleans it up because (as mentioned before) plastics take many decades (at a minimum) to decompose. It is easy to see how the plastic floating in the ocean can cause countless animals such as birds, fish, and turtles to suffocate to death or get hurt.

Drinking from plastic bottles

I added this section for those who are curious. My family often tells me to not drinks out of plastic bottles claiming the reusing bottles or leaving bottles in the sunlight (or other warm conditions) can cause carcinogenic chemicals from being released into the water, thereby causing diseases like cancer. I’ve never looked into whether this is true or not.

Firstly, I can see why some people would believe that claim since in my research I did see a lot of (unreliable) sources claiming plastic bottles are known to cause cancer. A quick research showed that this is in fact untrue. The BBC claims that large amounts of BPA can be harmful, but we simply are not exposed to high levels of BPA and that our bodies metabolize the chemicals in their small everyday quantities. And fun fact, even if products have minimal levels of BPA (under a certain amount), they can be labeled as BPA free. Another chemical in plastic bottles, DEHA, is often thought to be a carcinogen despite the fact that the EPA denies this (Cancer.org). It is interesting to note that the International Agency for Research on Cancer has not definitely ruled on DEHA’s carcinogenicity (Cancer Research UK). In conclusion, there is no evidence that drinking from water bottles, even cheap Nestlé bottles, and refilling it multiple times has an effect on our health.

Other health effects

While I found no evidence that plastic bottles are harmful to our health, I want to emphasize that the overall effect of plastics (given its widespread use) on the human health is unclear. Even today there are many debates on whether we should ban plastics. To conclude on an uncertain note with a quote by Anila Jacob, MD from the Environmental Working Group: “There is very little published research on the potential adverse health effects of chemicals that leach from plastic food containers, so it’s difficult to say they’re safe with any degree of certainty, especially with long-term use” (WebMD).