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New Zealand's longest-running online daily news and commentary publication, now in its 24th year. The opinion pieces presented here are not purported to be fact but reasonable effort is made to ensure accuracy.

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Plastic, a bigger threat than climate change?

9 February 2018

A regular reader sent me an email the other day containing a link to a worrying report that everyone should read.

It seems that plastics are lining up to pose a huge threat to mankind as there's concern that the planet's "ecosystems may be in serious jeopardy".

Before I go into details about the report and its implications, I'll cast my mind back to the early years of my childhood in the 1950s...

Way back then, plastic was nowhere near as common as it is these days. Very little of our food came wrapped in plastic; things like bread were either sold unwrapped or, in the case of sliced bread, waxed paper was used as a packaging material.

Drinks came in glass bottles, not PET ones and you bought your groceries home from the local shop (this is pre-supermarket) in a stiff brown paper bag or two.

Even when stuff was enclosed in what appeared to be clear plastic you'd probably find that it was actually cellophane, a form of plant cellulose.

Other things we are used to seeing made from plastic were usually made of some form of metal or wood.

For instance, I warmly recall the sweet smell of the felt-tipped marker pens our teacher would use. Their solvent based inks were clearly visible through the glass body of those pens -- no plastic there.

Nobody had ever heard of plastic knives, forks or spoons -- our ice-cream sundaes came with a little flat wooden spoon.

Recreational boats were made of wood, not glass-reinforced plastic (fibreglass) and footwear was exclusively leather or canvas... no cheap plastic sneakers from The Warehouse or "Crocs" way back then.

Like soft-drinks, milk came in clear, re-usable bottles but with a foil cap. There were no wine casks and toothpaste came in a soft metal tube.

Wow... it really was possible to enjoy life without plastic!

Jump forward 60 odd years however, to today, and plastic is everywhere (and beyond -- now that we've sent a Tesla into space).

The problem is, according to this report, that most plastics don't break down like other materials -- they simply break up.

Although a large chunk of plastic may appear to "disappear" over time, it's actually still there, just in very, very tiny pieces. Sadly, those pieces become even more toxic than the larger pieces, due to the insidious nature of the nano-particles they become. Also, because of the very small size of these plastic particles, they weave their way into our food chain and have been detected in everything from beer to salt and sugar.

Forget about the risks that come from drinking a sugar-laden fizzy beverage such as Coca Cola, it's the bottle that might eventually kill you!

The reader who sent a link to this piece also made the sage observation that perhaps we'd be better off buying that expensive pink Himalayan rock-salt than the cheap white stuff in (plastic) bags at the supermarket. After all, that rock-salt was laid down long before mankind was spewing out his 400 million tonnes of plastic every year.

Unfortunately however, I don't think that symbolic gesture will have any effect -- given the inordinate amounts of cheap (plasticy) salt that is to be found in almost every item of processed food we consume.

One can't help but wonder just how much plastic each and every one of us unknowingly consumes on an annual basis, given that we're at the top of the food chain. Even more importantly, What is this doing to our bodies?

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