Plastic inside newborns – the fruit of our monstrous mistakes?
In 2020, researchers led by Antonio Ragusa of San Giovanni Calibita Fatebenefratelli hospital in Rome found plastic particles in the placenta of four women who had given birth normally.
The particles were colored red, pink, blue, and orange, showing they had originated from packaging.
It was called the first case of Plasticenta or plastic in the womb.
There is no word in the dictionary strong enough to express the concern that we must feel.
What led to the popularity of plastics?
Our love affair with plastics is quite recent and dates back just seven decades,
WWII was one of the most seminal moments in modern history. It not only shaped global politics for the next few decades, but provided a great impetus for scientific advancement.
Nuclear power, jet aircraft, computers, and plastics were all born from the same historical event.
Plastics of some type (there are hundreds of categories) have been around since the turn of the 20th century. But plexiglass and nylon, two synthetic products made from polymers, gained prominence during the war for their utility and affordability.
After the war, the surge in plastic use continued. The enormous popularity of Tupperware was the first indicator that the Plastic Era had finally arrived.
Polymers are large molecules (made of 10,000 to 100,000 atoms) that are naturally found in wool and shellac. Artificial polymers are the base of plastics. These are derived from hydrocarbons as a byproduct of oil refining.
Plastic was cheap, and it could be molded into any shape. Moreover, it was waterproof and could be dyed easily—an ideal industrial material if there ever was one.
Concerns about plastic usage emerge
The honeymoon did not last long.
DuPont did its best through the innovative “Better Things for Better Living… through Chemistry,” slogan.
But all the marketing in the world could not shift gaze from one obvious fact—plastic did not disappear when thrown away.
The durability of plastics also proved to be its bane. The effects of plastic pollution were noticeable soon enough.
By the late 70s, the landfills were overflowing with discarded plastic trash. What was once made of metal—garbage cans to steering wheels—were increasingly made from synthetic polymers.
Effects of plastic on our lives and the planet
#1. Plastic stays forever
8.3 billion metric tons have been manufactured since 1950. Not a gram of it has disappeared. Wherever it was made, the macromolecules are still around.
Bacteria cannot digest the strong bonds in hydrocarbons. Hence, it does not biodegrade.
The only way plastic breaks down is under prolonged exposure to UV light.
The sun is a weak source of UV light (the atmosphere blocks much of it). That is why a plastic bottle can take between 500-1000 years to decompose. No one knows for sure since it has been around for less than a century, a small fraction of the time required.
#2. Plastic pollution of oceans
It is estimated that 86 million tons of plastic trash are present in seas and oceans.
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is 1.6 million sq km in area. That is far bigger than South Africa! A little larger and it would be the size of Mexico.
There are two ways in which plastics make their way to the sea. The first is by flowing down rivers and the second during transport to less developed countries for disposal.
Predictions indicate that by 2050 there could be more plastic than fish in the sea.
#3. Curse of microplastics
The term was coined in 2004 by Professor Richard Thompson, a marine biologist. It refers to pieces of plastic particles less than 5 mm in diameter.
It is estimated that between 15 and 50 trillion pieces of microplastic are present in our environment. Microplastics pollution is scary since it ends up in our tissues and cells.
How are microplastics formed? Where do they come from?
The primary source is beads found in various types of cosmetic gels and creams.
The secondary source is weathering of larger plastic pieces. While plastic does not degrade easily, the combined effect of the sun, wind, and temperature cause it to fracture.
After several decades, the size is no larger than a pellet.
The danger arises when microplastics enter the food chain. Microplastics have been found lodged in the digestive tract of 114 species of aquatic animals.
Without any doubt, those on a diet of seafood have a small percent of microplastics in their body.
Apart from fish, it has been found in tap water, a grim scenario indeed.
What are the long-term side effects? No one knows for sure except that stories such as Plasticenta would become common over time.
BioPlastics—the material of the future
Cyborg Babies, the term used by Dr. Antonio Ragusa in his report to describe the newborns with plastic fragments in their bodies, is spine chilling.
Yet hope floats.
If you read the above carefully, you would remember that polymers can be natural as well as artificial.
The trouble is not with polymers, but artificial polymers. Wool is a polymer and so is silk.
Bioplastics are made from cellulose, a polysaccharide (a type of carbohydrate that can’t be digested by humans).
Do you know the most abundant source of cellulose? The stalk of the hemp plant.
Hemp has long been known as a wonder crop. It was used to make ropes and textiles till it was phased out in the late 19th century.
In the past decade, hemp has made a huge comeback. Every year new uses of hemp are being pursued—from hemp fashion to hemp plastic.
If bioplastics are the way out of this mess we’re in, hemp would be a major contributor.
Hemp is hardy and can be grown on almost any soil with little investment. It needs half the water and very little pesticides when compared to cotton.
Advantages of hemp bioplastics
In my eyes, at least, that is the biggest plus.
I do not want to drown in a sea of plastic. It is not an exaggeration. With the amount of packing material that we throw away every year, you could wrap the earth several times.
A square meter of plastic is used to wrap every cell phone.
Hemp plastic degrades quite fast. Lab tests have shown that it disappears in less than a year.
That is really positive news. Imagine throwing away your plastic waste into a landfill and finding nothing left after a couple of summers.
#2. BPA free
BPA or bisphenol A is a toxin. It was first discovered in the 1890s, but no usage was found till plastics came along.
A small quantity of BPA, a colorless, odorless substance, can make plastics more resilient. This made them ideal for food packaging and containers.
Now you can find it in computer printers and contact lenses.
BPA messes with the endocrine system. It can alter the way hormones are produced. Since hormones are the chemical messengers of our body and control everything from hunger to blood pressure and sugar, it is not to be taken lightly.
Hemp plastics are completely free of toxins like BPA.
Hemp is a plant that can be grown nearly anywhere, even in an arid climate.
The crop requires very little care and resources. It is easy to harvest and process. The conversion of hemp cellulose to bioplastic has a minimal carbon footprint.
Thrice as much hemp can be grown than cotton.
It is because hemp is so eco-friendly that big fashion houses have shown their interest in using it as fabric.
Renewables are the way forward from energy to packaging. We cannot draw on the use of fossil fuels and their byproducts anymore. It is a little over a century back that cars ushered in the era of gasoline and oil mining. Time to put an end to it and move on to better technologies that do not harm the environment further.
Types of Hemp Plastic
#1. Hemp Cellulose
Cellulose is an important component of cell walls. It is a polysaccharide. Cellulose is used for making paper and cellophane. The latter can be a perfect replacement for plastic used for wrapping. Hemp bioplastic packaging would remove millions of tons of litter from the planet.
#2. Hemp Composite Plastics
A new material might not be only hemp. The easier approach is to combine hemp and synthetic plastic together. Such an approach will take less time and research to fructify.
We cannot replace all plastic with hemp in the short run. Not enough is cultivated. During the decade it takes to transform agrarian practices, composite plastics with 20-40% hemp input would be a perfect replacement.
Road to a sustainable future
What stands in the way?
The high cost is a deterrent.
Synthetic plastic pellets are priced at $1 per pound. Hemp costs $2.35.
That is 2.35X price and businesses are unwilling to make the change right now.
The high cost is going to come down as research unearths more affordable ways to produce bioplastic from hemp.
You have to remember that serious research in this area is no more than a decade old. Hemp bioplastic manufacturers are busy looking for the silver bullet.
The example of Tesla is worth remembering. One man and his visionary zeal look ready to upset the 120-year-old internal combustion engine.
It is time the same happened with hemp plastics. I am quite certain that given the enormity of the problem, human ingenuity would come up with a brilliant solution sooner, rather than later.