I am very fortunate to have the opportunity to speak with different groups of people about environmental topics I have studied and researched. Since I have been involved professionally and personally in investigations of plastic pollution, many recent presentations have focused on the massive plastic waste problem on both the global and local levels. In my most recent opportunity, I talked with a large group of high school students prior to their field trip to the Lake Michigan shoreline where they worked together to clean up the garbage.
After describing the magnitude of the plastic pollution problem (for example, about 8 million pieces of plastic enter the oceans each day), I told the students that I am sorry for the state of the environment they have been handed by the older generations, including mine. I told them that I was fortunate to grow up during a time when plastic bottles, bags, and other one-use plastic items were not part of everyday life. My generation was able to observe nature as much less polluted and abused. This younger generation has only experienced earth littered by plastic waste (not to mention the critical problem of climate change). They will continue to witness wildlife and ecosystems dying or forever altered, as a consequence of this pollution and other pollutants.
I explained to the students the enormous rise in the production of plastic, where about 2 million metric tons of plastic were manufactured by 1950, compared to over 8 billion tons manufactured by 2017. If the world realizes the projected increase in the manufacture of plastic materials to 34 billion tons in 2050, the plastic pollution problem will be significantly worse, which is difficult to imagine. These man-made materials do not naturally breakdown in the environment; the plastic litter accumulates or fragments into smaller pieces. Much originates or becomes too small to view. The human health consequences of these micro and nano-size pollutants are simply unknown.
The good news is that many individuals, communities, and nations are making the commitment to address this problem and other environmental crises. On the other hand, Indiana and Wisconsin are states where leaders instituted laws that benefit the plastics industry instead of the greater good. In 2016, the governors of these states enacted laws that prohibit municipalities from taxing or restricting plastic bags. Citizens must stand against these types of decisions that ignore the greater good, show no care for the earth and one another. We can all take the journey to reduce our purchase and use of plastic items, and clean up plastic litter. These are simple ways to show care for the earth, for one another, especially our youth – who have never experienced a plastic waste-free earth.
Julie Peller Ph.D. is an environmental chemist (Professor of Chemistry at Valparaiso University ) and she leads the Environmental Ministry at Nativity of Our Savior in Portage IN. Julie has been writing a weekly column for church bulletins for the past ~5 years called the Green Junction and is helping to move the call of Laudato Si to action forward. Her Research Interests are in Advanced oxidation for aqueous solutions, water quality analyses, emerging contaminants, air quality analyses, Lake Michigan shoreline challenges (Cladophora, water, and sediment contaminants), student and citizen participation in environmental work.