Plastics are among the most important substances used in modern human life. They are cheap, durable, lightweight and can be moulded into virtually any shape or size. But what made plastics so revolutionary is exactly what is now devastating the health of the oceans.
Plastics are made of several different compounds, almost none of which biodegrade. So when plastic enters a body of water, it will never go away. Sunlight and waves will only break plastic down into smaller and smaller pieces. These small, colourful pieces are attractive to animals who mistake it for food. To a seabird, a lighter looks like a fish, a small piece of plastic could be a fish egg, and a plastic bag could be a jellyfish -- a sea turtle's favourite snack.
These small pieces are also capable of absorbing other forms of pollution in seawater. Mercury, PCBs, DDT and oily pollutants attach to plastic, so when animals consume plastic, the pollutants attached to them enter their bodies and move up the food chain, and ultimately to humans who eat seafood.
Yes, we are eating our own trash.
The most startling example of the damage being done by our plastic addiction can be seen in the area of the Pacific Ocean infamously known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. My brother Tyler and I recently had the unique opportunity to join a sailing expedition with a team of scientists to the Pacific Garbage Patch to gather data on the abundance and distribution of plastics in the ocean and look for evidence of plastics interacting with marine wildlife.
The results of our survey were disturbing to say the least. While we expected to find plastic in higher concentrations in the middle of the gyre (the spinning ocean currents that collect floating debris into "garbage patches"), the concentrations of plastic outside the gyre were not much different than inside. It isn't just the gyres filling up with plastic, it's the entire ocean.
Even more discouraging is that, since many types of plastic sink, scientists have no idea how much is in the ocean -- they just know it is a lot. About 300 million tons of new plastic are created every year and less than 30 per cent will ever be recycled; much of the rest will either end up in landfills or flow into sewers, then rivers and lakes and out to sea.
The problem is truly global. While the North Pacific Garbage Patch has received the most attention, there are four other gyres or garbage patches spread across all oceans and each is continuing to grow in size. And new studies in bodies of water like the Great Lakes are revealing even higher concentrations of plastic in Lake Erie and Lake Ontario than are found in the centre of the most polluted gyres.
While the scientific community has been very effective at raising awareness about the problem, there is still a long way to go in solving it. There have been several ideas to build ships that could clean up the garbage patches, but after travelling there myself, I have no doubt that such a plan would be ineffective. Plastic in the ocean breaks down into such small pieces that no ship would be able to collect it all -- especially without harming an even greater amount of wildlife.
The only solution that makes any sense is to stop the flow of plastic into lakes and oceans in the first place. It is a daunting task, but the first step is to curb our addiction to single-use disposable plastic. So much of the plastic we use today is totally unnecessary and can be easily replaced by reusable items. Water bottles, coffee cups, straws, utensils... the list goes on and the solutions are simple. Biodegradable plastics that break down in seawater are already being invented, but are still several years away from becoming the norm.
If there is any good news about this problem, it is that every single person can have a positive impact by making simple changes in their daily lives. And if we don't, the plastic trash we continue to dump in the ocean will eventually end up in places you really don't want it... like your dinner plate.
Alex Mifflin and brother Tyler Mifflin host the award-winning eco-adventure series, The Water Brothers, exploring the world's most important water stories. The second season airs Tuesdays at 7:30 pm from September 10 - October 22 on TVO and at www.thewaterbrothers.ca. Learn more about plastic marine debris and its consequences in the episode, "Plastic Ocean," airing Sept. 17.
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When a regular fat like corn, soybean, or palm oil is blasted with hydrogen and turned into a solid, it becomes a trans fat. These evil anti-nutrients help packaged foods stay “fresh,” meaning that the food can sit on the supermarket shelf for years without ever getting stale or rotting. Eating junk food with trans fats raises your “bad” LDL cholesterol and triglycerides and lowers your “good” HDL. These fats also increase your risk of blood clots and heart attack. Avoid palm oil and other trans fats like the plague, and kiss fried foods goodbye too, since they’re usually fried in one of these freakish trans-fatty oils.
Ditch any food that lists shortening or partially hydrogenated oil as an ingredient, since these are also evil trans fats. In addition to clogging your arteries and causing obesity, they also increase your risk of metabolic syndrome. Choose healthier monounsaturated fats, such as olive, peanut and canola oils and foods that contain unsaturated omega-3 fatty acids instead.
When a whole grain is refined, most of its nutrients are sucked out in an effort to extend its shelf life. Both the bran and germ are removed, and therefore all the fiber, vitamins, and minerals. Because these stripped down, refined grains are devoid of fiber and other nutrients, they’re also easy to digest — TOO EASY. They send your blood sugar and insulin skyrocketing, which can lead to all sorts of problems. Replace processed grains with whole grains, like brown or wild rice, whole-wheat breads and pastas, barley, and oatmeal.
The evil king of all refined grains is high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). The amount of refined sugar we consume has declined over the past 40 years, but we’re consuming almost 20 times as much HFCS. According to researchers at Tufts University, Americans, for example, consume more calories from HFCS than any other source. It’s in practically EVERYTHING. It increases triglycerides, boosts fat-storing hormones, and drives people to overeat and gain weight. Adopt my zero-tolerance policy, and steer clear of this sweet “poison.”
Aspartame (NutraSweet, Equal), saccharin (Sweet'N Low, SugarTwin), and sucralose (Splenda) may be even harder on our metabolic systems than plain old sugar. These supposedly diet-friendly sweeteners may actually be doing more harm than good! Studies suggest that artificial sweeteners trick the brain into forgetting that sweetness means extra calories, making people more likely to keep eating sweet treats without abandon. Nip it in the bud. Scan ingredient labels and ban all artificial sweeteners from entering your mouth.
These preservatives are sometimes added to soda to prevent mold from growing, but benzene is a known carcinogen that is also linked with serious thyroid damage. Dangerous levels of benzene can build up when plastic bottles of soda are exposed to heat or when the preservatives are combined with ascorbic acid (vitamin C). Don’t risk it, people.
BHA is another potentially cancer-causing preservative, but it has been deemed safe by the FDA. Its job is to help prevent spoilage and food poisoning, but it’s a major endocrine disruptor and can seriously mess with your hormones. BHA is in HUNDREDS of foods. It’s also found in food packaging and cosmetics. BHA has many aliases. You can look them up. Or you can follow my advice and DITCH processed foods altogether.
No that’s not a typo. These two different preservatives are found in processed meats like bacon, lunch meat, and hot dogs. They’re some of the worst offenders, and they’re believed to cause colon cancer and metabolic syndrome, which can lead to diabetes. P<a href="http://www.everydayhealth.com/health-report/jillian-michaels-guide-to-a-healthier-you.aspx" target="_blank">rotect your health</a> by always choosing fresh, organic meats.
The artificial colours blue 1 and 2, green 3, red 3, and yellow 6 have been linked to thyroid, adrenal, bladder, kidney, and brain cancers. Always seek out foods with the fewest artificial chemicals, especially when shopping for your kids. Look for colour-free medications and natural food products that don’t contain artificial colours like these.
Monosodium glutamate is a processed “flavor enhancer.” While glutamates are present in some natural foods, such as meat and cheese, the ones exploited by the processed-foods industry are separated from their host proteins through hydrolysis. The jury is still out on how harmful MSG may be, but high levels of free glutamates have been shown to seriously screw with brain chemistry. Don’t fall prey to chemical flavor enhancing. Just play it safe and flavor your food naturally.