Plastic seems to have all the time in the world

Some crazes are good for us, like fitness and eating blueberries.

Time renders other crazes universally, unequivocally and recklessly bad — like the microbead-containing bath product craze.

Did washing our face with tiny bits of plastic exfoliate our skin? Sure. Did that grainy feeling in our toothpaste freshen our mouth? You bet. We felt cleaner, but our Great Lakes and oceans got dirtier.

This week’s action on the sale of microbead-containing products was set in motion two years ago when then-President Barack Obama signed a bill banning the manufacture of the “rinse-off cosmetic products” in July 2017 and their sale in July 2018.

We applaud the follow-through, and the other countries, like Canada and the United Kingdom, that have joined us.

Microbeads unfortunately are but a small piece of the plastic problem. They are one form of microplastics — plastic bits less than 5 millimeters — that join a raft of other plastic detritus in our Great Lakes.

Smaller pieces of plastic don’t mean smaller problems; the little flecks of broken-down bottle caps and fibers from plastic bags and clothing are so tiny that they get by most filtration systems and into the food chain.

A study released this April found microscopic plastic flbers in 81 percent of 159 samples of globally sourced tap water. Researchers also found plastic fibers in all 12 brands of Great Lakes beer sampled, and all 12 brands of commercial sea salt that were tested.

Their results indicate that the average person ingests more than 5,800 particles of synthetic debris from these three sources every year, not to mention the impact on other animals and the environment.

One of the scientists, State University of New York — Fredonia chemistry professor Sherri Mason, has worked with local groups like Inland Seas Education Association, and has found that, on average, Lake Michigan waters contain 17,000 plastic particles per square kilometer.

The problem with plastic is that some of the chemicals used in making some types of plastic, like BPA, can be toxic; once it’s made it doesn’t go away for hundreds of years; we are only making more of it, and we’re running out of places to put it.

“Every piece of plastic that’s been manufactured on this planet is still here,” Mason pointed out at a 2015 Freshwater Summit at the Grand Traverse Resort and Spa. “The question is, where?”
A 2017 study in Science Advances estimates global plastic production at 300 million metric tons in 2015 — up from 2 million in 1950. Only 9 percent of it gets recycled, and much of that the United States sends to China, which has since instituted an import ban.

So, as the world tries to wrap its collective head around the plastic problem, many people take micro-steps. They skip the straw at the restaurant, bring their own shopping bags to market, refill their water bottles and generally cut down on single-use packaging consumption.

Time can render silly the things we get used to, expect or find important. But big or small, plastic seems to have all the time in the world.

— TRAVERSE CITY RECORD-EAGLE