Full Frame: Plastic Pollution

Full Frame

Today, the world is producing twice as much plastic waste as it was two decades ago. Plastics take anywhere from 20 to 500 years to decompose. According to the United Nations, only about 9 percent of plastic in the world is recycled.

Tackling microplastics

Jesse Meiller is a marine ecologist and environmental toxicologist who studies microplastics, tiny bits of plastic that have been found everywhere, from the bottom of the ocean to inside human blood.

“Microplastics are made from almost everything that we use everyday that is plastic. …They’re ubiquitous because they’re being shed from so many different types of plastic,” said Meiller, a professor at Georgetown University’s Earth Commons Institute.

Meiller takes her students into the field to understand how microplastics are affecting waterways in the Washington, D.C. region, especially in the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers.

“Urban rivers tend to be the heavier load of the plastics that are eventually going to enter the oceans,” she said.

Meiller said single-use plastics are a big contributor to the plastic problem. From bags to water bottles, individuals can take action by eliminating single-use plastics in their lives.

“Our individual choices make a difference. We need to carry that forward though, and affect change at higher levels as well in order to have systemic change,” Meiller said.

Wanda- Intercepting Trash in Panama

Panama City’s garbage collection is irregular and waste often sits waiting to be picked up. And in many neighborhoods people make informal landfills or pile it up near the rivers. When the rains come, it all washes down the stream towards the coast.  

The Juan Diaz river in Panama City has long been one of the most contaminated waterways in the region. But an ambitious new project is trying to clean up the water and save Latin America from the plague of ocean plastics. 

Wanda is a private effort by an NGO called Marea Verde, meaning Green Wave. And it’s working 

Wanda intercepts trash so it doesn’t end up in the ocean, bringing attention to the amount of waste that’s being disposed of incorrectly and creating increasing environmental awareness amongst the community.  

A plastic alternative
Plastics can affect children even before birth. Chemicals used in producing plastics can disrupt how hormones work and how the brain develops. 
“It’s interesting because these are synthetic chemicals, so they’re man made. They are not naturally occurring in our body. They should not be found in our blood system, in our urine… They certainly should not be circulating in fetal circulation, in utero for a mom who’s pregnant, carrying this baby,” said Dr. Manasa Mantravadi, a pediatrician and founder of Ahimsa, which sells stainless steel dishware geared to kids.
Mantravadi’s company name comes from the Sanskrit word meaning to avoid harm. When the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a recommendation in 2018 to avoid plastic when serving food, Mantravadi turned to her cultural roots in India for an alternative.
I thought, I’m from India, and a billion people use steel at the dining table, and this is the material of choice,” she said.
Ahimsa is also working to reduce the reliance on plastic products in school cafeterias. Many still rely heavily on single-use plastics. The potential for change is huge — American public schools serve tens of millions students daily. 
It is a pilot program here in New York City to enroll 25 schools to decarbonize school cafeterias and turn them into a reusable stainless steel foodware. But pair that with custom educational curriculum to teach children about reuse and how important our food system is to our own health and to the health of our planet,” Mantravadi said.