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Daily News Blog

03
Aug

Reflections: “I’m a Barbie girl, in the Barbie world. Life in plastic is [NOT] fantastic”

Barbie sitting down on a field of pink

It’s hard to escape the impacts of the Barbie movie’s estimated $150 million marketing campaign. You may have noticed advertisements with Burger King’s pink burgers to Airbnb’s Barbie Dreamhouse. Perhaps you have seen viral memes or news stories about the movie’s takedown of the patriarchy or critiques that the movie is overly woke. The pink symbol of Barbie is often followed by a second symbol — plastic. The total mass of plastics on Earth now doubles the total mass of all living mammals, so would Barbie say life is fantastic? Or, might she urge the National Organic Standards Board to ban plastic mulch, an issue on the agenda at the Board’s upcoming October meeting?

Plastic products, including those used in chemical-intensive and organic agriculture, and pesticides, play a seemingly necessary role in modern life, encompassing many items beyond straws and grocery bags. However, the convenience of plastic comes at a considerable cost to the planet and human health. The majority of plastics are manufactured using oil and gas, exacerbating climate change. Scientists are becoming increasingly alarmed by the repercussions of microplastics, which are plastic particles smaller than 5 mm in size.

In 2022, Philip Landrigan, M.D., et al., announced the Minderoo-Monaco Commission on Plastics and Human Health to “inform the work of international leaders as they strive to fulfill the urgent call of the United National Environment Assembly to end plastic pollution and its unsustainable environmental, social, economic, and health-related impacts by negotiating a legally binding Global Plastics Treaty,” Led by heads of state, ministers of the environment from United Nations member states, 175 nations signed an agreement to develop a treaty by 2024 to end plastic pollution. The UN Environment Program has written: “A shift to a circular economy can reduce the volume of plastics entering oceans by over 80 per cent by 2040; reduce virgin plastic production by 55 per cent; save governments US$70 billion by 2040; reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 25 per cent; and create 700,000 additional jobs – mainly in the global south.”

In oceans, microplastics may impact phytoplankton populations, which account for 50% of Earth’s oxygen levels. Beyond Pesticides reported on the Global Oceanic Environmental Survey Foundation’s two-year water sampling of the Atlantic Ocean near the United Kingdom, which found plankton populations may have plummeted by 90% since baseline 1940 levels. Just as insects are crucial as the basis of terrestrial ecosystems, plankton organisms are the base of aquatic and marine food chains.

Microplastics can cause harmful effects on humans and other organisms through physical entanglement and physical impacts of ingestion. They also act as carriers of toxic chemicals that are adsorbed to their surface. Some studies on fish have shown that microplastics and their associated toxic chemicals bioaccumulate, resulting in intestinal damage and changes in metabolism. Soil organisms and edible plants have been shown to ingest microplastic particles. Earthworms can move microplastics through the soil, and microplastics can move through the food chain to human food. Microplastics can have a wide range of negative impacts on the soil, which are only beginning to be studied, but include a reduction in the growth and reproduction of soil microfauna. When looking at the impact of microplastics, it is important to include the impact of associated substances. As noted above, they can carry toxic chemicals. A review by Zhu et al. cites several studies showing, “[M]icroplastics can serve as hotspots of gene exchange between phylogenetically different microorganisms by introducing additional surface, thus having a potential to increase the spread of ARGs [antibiotic resistance genes] and antibiotic-resistant pathogens in water and sediments.” Read more about the impacts of microplastics and pesticides on ocean ecosystems here.

There is growing evidence of microplastic’s effects on terrestrial organisms. A report in 2021 by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations found “the land we use to grow our food is contaminated with even larger quantities of plastic pollutants” than the well-publicized amount of plastics in our oceans. The plastic coating of some synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, as investigated by a 2022 report from the Center for International Environmental Law, found that plastic-coated agrochemicals are adding microplastics to soil and crops directly. According to the report, the addition of plastics into the food supply compounds the health and environmental hazards of toxic pesticides and other agrochemicals.

Beyond Pesticides has written about the “contributions” of plastics to the climate crisis, as well as issues related to the use of plastics in organic agriculture and the scourge of chemical-intensive farming. An enormous amount of plastic in thousands of forms is produced globally each year. Toxic plastic pollution is now found, as The Guardian puts it, “from the summit of Mount Everest to the deepest oceans.” 

Beyond Pesticides has long fought for a precautionary approach to the regulation of toxic pesticides and microplastics. In order to safeguard human and ecosystem health now and for future generations, it is critical to pass laws that consider the full life cycle of material and forgo production if hazards are too high.

In 2023, the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) is reviewing the allowance of plastic mulch in certified organic agriculture. This is part of the larger issue relating to the use of plastic in organic production and handling. Because of growing awareness about the impacts of plastic—and the microplastic particles resulting from its use—on human health and the environment, this issue is on the agenda of the NOSB meeting, scheduled for October 24, -26 in Providence, RI. Public comments can be delivered to the NOSB by virtual meetings on October 17 and 19. (Details on how to make written and/or oral comments will be announced when the meeting announcement is published in the Federal Register.) Plastics manufacturing requires the transportation of hazardous chemicals, such as those involved in the February 2023 derailment in East Palestine, Ohio. Beyond Pesticides has urged that plastic mulch not be relisted as allowable in organic production. See Beyond Pesticides’ comments on plastic mulch on the organization’s Keeping Organic Strong webpage. Moreover, Beyond Pesticides urges that the NOSB should initiate action to eliminate all uses of plastic in organic processing and packaging. The Crops Subcommittee last month voted 4 (yes)-2 (no) (1 absent) to remove plastic mulch and covers from the National List. The notes from the subcommittee: “Commenters and the NOSB acknowledged the need for these materials, while also finding the issue of plastic problematic. The Board is interested in determining how much plastic is actually used in organic production and is unsure how to find that data. Members discussed alternatives and solutions, and feel that biodegradable biobased plastic mulch, which is on the National List although no products exist currently, may not be the solution.”

We must ask ourselves if we want to live in a Barbie world — a world where our clothes, food, parks, and playfields are filled with plastic. Learn more about how easy it is to create non-plastic and non-chemical natural turfgrass. Prevent plastics from entering your local community with toxic and unsafe astroturf and artificial grass. Sign up to be a Parks Advocate today to encourage your community to transition to organic land management and prevent a plastic Barbie world.

All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.

Source: Microplastics can alter phytoplankton community composition, Sowing a Plastic Planet: How Microplastics in Agrochemicals Are Affecting Our Soils, Our Food, and Our Future, Health impacts of artificial turf: Toxicity studies, challenges, and future directions

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