Plastics & Health – Are Phthalates Making Us Infertile? Plastic “Tox” Episode 1 with Dr. Shanna Swan

And that’s what we see with sperm decline. We do see a dramatic decline. Dramatic decline. Cut in half—99 million per milliliter in 1973 and down to 47 million per milliliter in 2011. That’s 39 years. It’s a decline of 52% which is faster than 1% per year, and if you thought about anything else, like breast cancer or ADHD or anything else increasing or changing at that rate people would be up in arms. But for some reason, they’re not so alarmed about this decline.

Dr. Shanna Swan

Dr. Shanna Swan (@DrShannaSwan) is an epidemiologist and ​​Professor of Environmental Medicine and Public Health at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, where she has taught since April 2011. She has spent more than 25 years researching the effects of various chemicals on the environment and human health. 

Her research into the impacts of plastics, PFAS, and other chemicals of concern on declining sperm counts and neonatal development in human populations has earned her international recognition. In 2017, she co-authored a paper sounding the alarm on sperm levels trending towards zero by 2045. In 2021, she authored the book Count Down: How Our Modern World is Threatening Sperm Counts, Altering Male and Female Reproductive Development, and Imperiling the Future of the Human Race.

For our inaugural episode of Plastic “Tox,” Dr. Swan sat down with Plastic Pollution Coalition CEO and Co-Founder Dianna Cohen to discuss the effects of phthalates on neonatal children through products their mothers used or ingested—from food packaged or heated in plastic to cosmetic products where phthalates are added to increase absorption of fragrances. As it stands, companies are allowed to include plasticizing chemicals in their products without informing consumers of their presence. There is no watchdog, outside of NGOs and activists akin to the FDA monitoring chemicals of concern.

Listen and learn more!

TRANSCRIPT

DIANNA COHEN:  
Hi, I’m Dianna Cohen, CEO and Co-Founder of Plastic Pollution Coalition. And today I’m talking with Dr. Shanna Swan, the author of Countdown. Shanna, welcome.

DR. SHANNA SWAN:  
Thank you, Dianna. I’m happy to be here to talk to you about Countdown and the problems that I talked about in Countdown and other problems. I’m a Professor of Environmental Medicine and Public Health at the Icahn School of Medicine in Mount Sinai in New York. And I’ve been studying the effect of chemicals in plastic and other endocrine disruptors for over 20 years. And I’m happy to tell you about some of my findings.

DIANNA COHEN:  
Wonderful. Well, thank you for making the time to talk with us today. So let me just go right into some questions that I have for you. I’ve read your book, Countdown, and one of the most alarming facts, was the data showing average sperm levels trending towards zero by – was it 2040 or 2045? So I was wondering, in your opinion, are the chemicals and plastic contributing to a gradual chemical castration or infertility of humans as a whole? And if you could talk about that?

DR. SHANNA SWAN:  
… Yes. 

To answer your question now, let me go into some detail. So first of all, let me say something about going to zero in 2045. You know, that’s kind of deceptive. You can draw the sperm decline line—which, by the way, is in Western countries in our published data, and probably the one you’ve seen—that line would, in theory, reach zero in 2045. 

However, it can’t ever reach zero. And that’s a mathematical conundrum if you will. It can go lower and lower. But since we’re looking at a mean of something that can’t be negative, you can’t have a negative sperm count. So the mean can’t ever be zero, because that would imply that a substantial portion of men had counts below zero, which is not possible. 

So what actually happens when things approach a lower limit biologically is that they can come closer and closer but never reach it. And that’s what we see with sperm decline. We do see a dramatic decline. Dramatic decline. Cut in half—99 million per milliliter in 1973, and down to 47 million per milliliter. In 2011, that’s 39 years. It’s a decline of 52%, which is faster than 1% per year. And if you thought about anything else, like breast cancer, or ADHD, or anything that was increasing or changing at that rate, people would be up in arms, but for some reason, they are not so alarmed about this decline. 

But I do believe and you asked about, could it be plastics? Yeah, so for me, I’m a scientist. So belief isn’t really part of my equation. I look for data. And that’s what I did when I saw this firm decline. So I started doing research around 2000, and looking at a number of chemicals in the environment that could be playing a role. But first I convinced myself that the environment was important. And I did that by looking at sperm counts in different environments where they were measured in the same way and the men were similar. And yet, we saw a huge difference. 

Here’s a number. Minnesota had twice as many moving sperm as Columbia, Missouri, which is rural, small town, Middle America, covered with pesticides. And there we showed that it was the pesticides that were significantly linked to sperm decline/sperm count, which is implicated. 

But then after that, I started thinking about something which toxicologists had talked about which was something called a phthalate syndrome. Now the phthalate syndrome, we can say what it is, but the first remarkable thing about it is that it exists at all. That there is a syndrome named after phthalates; plasticizers that make plastic soft and flexible and do other things as well, which I’m sure we’ll talk about. But the fact that there’s a syndrome, what does that mean? That means that something that’s so important that scientists have singled it out to name it as a condition, and it’s something that appears at birth in males, when the mother was exposed to phthalates. That’s why it’s called “the phthalate syndrome.”

So when I heard about this, I thought I was really alarmed. And I decided to ask, do we see that not only in the laboratory in animals? Do we see that in humans as well? And so I spent 20 years answering that question, and the answer is yes. 

So that’s why I not only believe that plastics are playing an intimate role in sperm decline and fertility decline in reproductive function decline, but I have the evidence that you can interfere with fertility and semen quality and so on, by messing with the hormones of an unborn fetus with phthalates, and now we know other chemicals as well.

DIANNA COHEN:  
And have you looked at bisphenols as well?

DR. SHANNA SWAN:  
Yes, we have. And bisphenols are also bad news for reproduction. They’re not linked directly to sperm count, however, so since that’s where I focus a lot of my work. And we don’t have them linked to specific malformations of the male genital tract, which is the other area where I focus my work, while other people have worked and shown that bisphenols are also really harmful for reproductive function.

DIANNA COHEN:   
It’s pretty interesting to watch industry’s response to the evidence and the scientific research that came out around BPA, Bisphenol A, and how easily they—it’s almost like a PR move—made the shift to saying things were BPA free, and just switch to a different bisphenol that maybe was one molecule different. But from what I understand, many of those are equally bad, if not worse, to BPA. The BPA substitutes,

DR. SHANNA SWAN: 
Right. And so what you’re describing a practice that we call “regrettable substitution,” or “Whack-a-Mole.” 

Roseanne Rodale called it “Whack-a-Mole.” 

But I call it “scamming.” You know how people are very alert to scamming these days? Scammers come in on your email and, and mess with your head and mess with maybe a lot worse than your head. And that’s just a kind of scamming. So what industry has done is, say, “okay, you don’t like BPA, we’ll take it out. And we’ll put in something that is, as you say, structurally, very similar chemically very similar, doing the same harm.” 

But they also did it for phthalates. And they did it for other chemicals; the flame retardants, and so on. They’ve been doing this for years. That’s common practice of the industry because there’s no law that says a chemical has to be proved safe before it’s put into the marketplace. So nothing is stopping them from substituting BPF or BPS for BPA, or DINP for DEHP, and so on and so forth. So this is how they can go about conducting business as usual with a small change which doesn’t really cost them very much. And then if you buy a BPA-free bottle, it says BPA-free, I think you’re being scammed if it contains BPF or BPS.

DIANNA COHEN:  
It’s really a form of greenwashing.

DR. SHANNA SWAN:  
It’s dishonest. And I think the public should know about it. And that’s a problem we can talk about. How do people know about these things and hear about them? And they should be outraged.

DIANNA COHEN:  
I know I feel outraged. I was just thinking as well, aside from thinking about how this whole “Whack-a-Mole” concept and shifting things quickly to “regrettable substitutes” is a form of greenwashing and marketing. I’d like to just ask you if we backed up a little bit, and we’re talking to people who are new to this issue, how you might present it in a more general way to them? Because I feel like—I like going down the rabbit hole of talking about chemicals because I think it’s interesting and I continue to learn as much as I can about them, but I feel like your average person who’s just trying to get through a day; go to work, buy food, put food on the table for their family, care for their family may not have time to go deep into understanding or really thinking about this at all, and may not have the ability to select other packaging choices, etc, that might be less reactive. So how would you approach just laying out an overview of this issue for someone who’s new and coming to it?

DR. SHANNA SWAN:  
So I would say the first thing to note is that we are very sensitive to very small perturbations of our hormones. Things that change our hormones, we’re very sensitive to and we need to do that because hormones are present at very low levels, and the body responds to them in very important ways – all the way from conception throughout life. 

So we depend on these hormonal signals to create proteins to function as organisms so anything that’s going to interfere with those can seriously affect our development and health. 

So if you think about how there are some natural chemicals like some mushrooms, soy, clover, which we’ve known for a long time are either estrogenic because in our bodies they act like estrogen, or maybe antiandrogenic. But what we didn’t know until relatively recently, was that manmade chemicals could also do these things and interfere with our body’s hormones.

DIANNA COHEN:  
Can you talk to that for a second? Just talk about how those hormones work and turn things on and off, because I’m not sure somebody coming to this would immediately understand.

DR. SHANNA SWAN:  
What hormones are—they’re produced in glands. They travel through the bloodstream, and they go to a target. They go into a receptor and when they’re read out, the response is to make a change in the body. Maybe to produce more protein or to limit some function of the body. It’s what tells us when we’re hungry, and when we’re full, and increases our menstrual flow or stops it—controls our menstruation. It controls when sperm are produced, and when eggs are produced at ovulation and so on. So every part of our bodily function is controlled by hormones. Every bodily function And there are close to 100 hormones in the body. We have no idea how many of them are impacted by environmental chemicals. I have focused on the steroid hormones, those are the sex hormones, the estrogen, testosterone, to some extent, progesterone; these are the things that affect reproduction and that’s why I studied them because I studied reproduction. 

But there are others; thyroid hormone affecting immune function and ghrelin affecting appetite, and so on and so forth. Every function in the body, right? So if you have a chemical that gets into the body which is not a hormone, but is a “hormone mimic,”—another kind of scam, right?—It comes in and says, “I’m an estrogen, I’m gonna sit in this estrogen receptor, you don’t need to make any more estrogen. We’re all happy here with estrogen so you can stop making that estrogen.” That’s going to interfere with your body’s function. And it might interfere with the way the estrogen is transported, or how it passes through tissue membranes, and so on and so forth. 

So surprisingly, there are a lot of chemicals that have this ability to trick our body into thinking it should make more or less of a particular hormone. And the phthalates, where I’ve spent a lot of my time, they have this uncanny ability to decrease testosterone production. Anti-androgens they’re called because testosterone is an androgen. So these chemicals that are anti-androgens are gonna mess you up. Grown men know how important testosterone is. Women are not so aware of it, but they’ve got it too. Testosterone is important in adults for sexual function, libido, muscle mass, and all kinds of reproductive function. But the biggest effect is in utero. Maybe we can talk about that afterwards. Does that about cover?

DIANNA COHEN:  
Yeah, that covers it. But let’s talk about how they get in.

DR. SHANNA SWAN: 
Yeah. All right. Right. So, first of all, they get in through ingestion. So what does that mean? That means eating and drinking, right? And they get in through our foods and drink. And how do they get into the foods? Well, they can get into the foods lots of ways, but one way is through the production. 

And I want to give you a really clear example. This is a small study, it was done in Eastern Europe. It was on cows that were being milked. And what they did was they compared the phthalate levels in milk from hand-milked cows—old-fashioned hand milking—to machine-milked cows. And the machine milked cows, well, you’ve seen milking machines, right? They have these tubes. Well, those tubes have, guess what? Phthalates in them. So what they did was they measured the phthalates in the milk that had come from the machine-milked cows and the hand-milked cows, and there were significantly more phthalates in the machine-milked cows. 

Now, I know you’re not surprised about that and I don’t think I wasn’t surprised. But what I was surprised by was that this was ignored. It was ignored, and no action was taken, and nobody said, “wait a minute. We have to change the tubing in these milking machines!” So that’s just one example.

Another example is the neonatal intensive care nursery. They’re—the babies are receiving their food, their nutrients, and their air basically, through tubes. And a study at Mount Sinai and other studies have shown that the amount of phthalates in the urine of the infants is proportional to the number of tubes coming into the body. 

So this was published. I think the first one was seven years ago. And now some hospitals are trying to swap out those tubes, and some are being successful. So thank goodness they’re paying attention to that because phthalates in the body of neonate, the one’s who are premature, are going to be extremely important to their development. They’re basically still in the womb, but it happens to be in a bassinet because they were born prematurely, right? 

DIANNA COHEN:  
I was gonna say I remember reading The Greening of HealthCare and looking at the work of Health Care Without Harm and Kathy Gerwig’s work with Kaiser Permanente to swap out the heavily phthalated tubing for the neonatal ward. But how does that translate into— I know, I’ve read the results of some of the research of studies done with babies exposed either in utero to these chemicals or young children exposed—but obviously, we don’t run a bunch of tests on babies and children. So so how do we know? And what is the impact that we’re seeing from the exposure to the chemicals in these plastics and plastics with newborns

DR. SHANNA SWAN:  
Yeah, well, the best way to know what child is exposed to in utero is to see what’s in the mother’s body because we can’t get the babies’ blood or urine or so. But it turns out that what’s in the mother’s body passes the placenta and goes into the fetuses’ body

And so this model, which is now carried out in studies all over the world —many, many, many studies—is to enroll pregnant women, early in pregnancy. By the way, early is important because the most damage is done for reproductive systems early in the first trimester, so you have to get women as soon as possible after they know they’re pregnant and get them to give a urine sample. And that’s the critical thing. If you have the urine, put it in the freezer, keep it stored as minus 80 so it’s safe. And then when you have the opportunity, you can take it out, thaw it, send it to a laboratory, and find out what are the levels of phthalates in there. 

And we’ve done that in multiple studies. And what we found was that when you do that, the higher the level of certain phthalates; and we can talk about which ones they are, by the way. I didn’t finish and I only got to the food part of the exposure and we need to come back to that. But we’ve shown that when the mother was exposed to higher levels of some phthalates that the boys showed changes in their general development, the actual size of the genitals, and in some malformations that reflect having incomplete testosterone at the right time. In other words, here they’re programmed to see testosterone in a certain period in development. We know it’s a couple of weeks long. they have to have enough testosterone. If they don’t, then their genitals will not develop normally. And not only the genitals you see when the baby’s born, but also what’s inside his body—the germ cells that will produce the sperm when he is an adult. 

So we show that when a boy is born with genitals that are not completely masculine,—I don’t want to say malformed because most of them are not clear malformations, they’re just small changes. When boys are born with the phthalate syndrome, which includes having smaller genitals, when they grow up to be young men and go to try to get a woman pregnant or give us semen samples, they will have lower sperm counts and are less likely to conceive the pregnancy. So that’s a very direct link between the mother’s phthalate exposure and sperm count and infertility. 

So there are other changes in the brain. These are not less obvious, but they’re important and we’ve studied those as well. Changes in behavior, changes in socialization, and so on. And to look at that we actually wait till the children are 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 years of age and test them using standard psychological tests. And here’s one example. At the age of four, the mother answers a question in Sweden in every clinic, “how many words does your child know or understand?” And it turns out when the mother has higher levels of phthalates, the number of words that a child knows is reduced significantly. That’s a brain change, right? And that study, the Soma study has a lot of data on changes in behavior, on function, socialization related to phthalates in utero. So the damage is done initially when the woman is pregnant and then plays out over the lifetime.

DIANNA COHEN:  
I know that I’ve seen it written that exposure to the chemicals in plastic has been linked to lower IQ.

DR. SHANNA SWAN:  
Yes. That’s correct. That’s the same study, by the way—the same Swedish study.

DIANNA COHEN:  
Okay, great. Thanks. I’m sorry if I am simplifying it a little bit. If I do it incorrectly, please correct me as the scientist. We’re always trying to help translate it so that people can grasp it and understand it better. 

You weren’t finished telling me about the food exposure.

DR. SHANNA SWAN:  
Right. Okay. So we talked about chemical phthalates that are introduced during the processing of foods. And by the way, that doesn’t have to be milk. It could be spaghetti sauce. And then there’s storage of food. So it could be when a chemical is stored in plastic, the phthalates leave the plastic and enter the food. And this is accelerated, of course when the food’s warm. But it happens.

DIANNA COHEN:  
Wait, say that one more time. Because you said when a chemical is stored in phthalates.

DR. SHANNA SWAN:  
Plastic with phthalates, then the phthalates leave the plastic and enter the food. Okay, just like it did for the milk, or for the NICU baby. So it can be processing or storage. And the worst example, I think, is probably putting your food in a plastic container and putting that in the microwave. Because then you’re just—direct contact, it’s heat. It’s all the bad things together and the food picks up the phthalates.

DIANNA COHEN:  
Yeah, it’s something that I have come to understand. And in the years we’ve been doing this work—so Plastic Pollution Coalition is 12 years old now—but I think about, five years in, after some conversations with different scientific advisors, I began to think about the plastic Tupperware containers; particularly when you put spaghetti or anything that’s got a tomato or acid sauce in it and how that stains the plastic. And what does that mean? And so I began to realize—I feel like I’m your average person like trying to figure it out—but I started thinking, well, if the plastic is turning reddish from the tomato sauce, then does that mean that the plastic is exchanging molecules with the spaghetti and the tomato sauce? And I deduced that yes, it must be. 

And so then it got me thinking about what kind of chemicals might be coming out of the plastic container and going into the foods that I was then reheating, or heating, or cooking and eating, etc. 

DR. SHANNA SWAN:  
Did you stop?

DIANNA COHEN: 
Oh, yeah, of course. Yeah, I’m a big, big fan of glass. Glass and ceramics. Yeah so, I try every day. Every day is a special challenge and an opportunity to figure out how to buy food or grow food and get it from the open farmer’s markets, transport it home, chop it up, prepare it, serve it, and store it with or freeze it with no plastic, which I work pretty hard to do. 

And some of my keys to that are when you want to freeze something in glass, not to fill it up all the way and do not put the lid down tight, and let it freeze for a couple days first, and then put the top down. So I have learned that the hard way.

DR. SHANNA SWAN:  
So I’d like to just add something about your farmers market trip, which I applaud. Okay, so first of all, you’re not eating processed food, right? And you’re going to buy organic, I think, in your farmers market, if you can. 

DIANNA COHEN:  
I do. 

DR. SHANNA SWAN:  
And so I want to just add that phthalates not only make plastic soft and flexible, they also increase absorption. And for that reason, they’re added to pesticides. Phthalates were one of the inert ingredients in pesticides. They’re no longer on the list, and I questioned why they were taken off, but I know they have this property. They help the pesticides get absorbed into the plant roots and stem and leaves. 

And that also increases the absorption of other things. For example, the hand cream that we put on, and phthalates are put in there to make that absorb better. So whenever you think absorption think phthalates. And then they also are put into retain scent and color. So that’s your lipsticks and nail polish and also smell. Anything with fragrance will have phthalates because they retain smell.

DIANNA COHEN:  
Would that be like perfumes and shampoos and conditioners and things like that in plastic?

DR. SHANNA SWAN:  
And also fragrance in wall plugins and things of that nature.

DIANNA COHEN:  
But so you’re saying, with beauty products for example, that they’re added into the actual product. That we’re not just being dosed by the container that they’re in?

DR. SHANNA SWAN:  
Absolutely. Absolutely. Yes, absolutely. 

When we asked our women in our study, to tell us what they used on their bodies and in their homes, and then we said, “is it fragrance-free?” And those who reported products that were not fragrance-free had higher levels of several phthalates. Significantly higher levels. 

DIANNA COHEN:  
Then we almost need like a training course for everyone how to read those lists on the back of products.

DR. SHANNA SWAN:  
They don’t have to be included. Honestly.

DIANNA COHEN:  
Okay.

DR. SHANNA SWAN:  
And by the way, this is not our job. You know if you think about drugs, and the FDA does a pretty good job at keeping drugs pretty safe for us. There’s three levels of testing, right, and we all know that through the COVID scenario now. And they have to work. They have to be efficacious. This came after years of terrible drugs that were doing terrible harm, which we don’t have to get into. But eventually, the FDA got pretty good. And we’re pretty safe. And so we need the same kind of protection for the products in our daily lives. There is no protection from the chemicals in products in our daily lives.

DIANNA COHEN:  
And how could we affect change with that? Would that be like—we’ve all been talking about TSCA in the United States, the Toxic Substances Act, but I mean, how and where do we approach this, because it feels important to me?

DR. SHANNA SWAN:  
It’s extremely important. And I think I see three steps: public awareness, which does not exist, and maybe this podcast will help; public awareness, working with manufacturers to recognize the need to change these products, right? Because we don’t have safe alternatives at this point. So even if people demanded a safe alternative right now it doesn’t exist for most chemicals. Not all, but most of our products. And finally, we need legislation with teeth that regulates at human-relevant scenarios. And that sounds like that’s kind of jargony. But what that means is, when products are tested in the laboratory for regulation, they have to be tested at the levels, the doses, and the mixtures that we’re exposed to. Right? We can go into that if you want. But I have to finish and say, beyond the ingestion, and we talked about the dermal absorption, I just want to say we also get these things through inhalation. So we get them through our dust, we get them through our hairspray, for example, as a great source of phthalates through inhalation. And they are off-gassing all the time into our environment. 

So you can—Carl Gustaf who did that study that you liked about the IQ; he also did a study where he put pizza boxes on the top of fridges and he collected the dust. And then he measured the phthalates in the dust and found high levels of phthalates in the dust just sitting on top of the fridge. Right? So we’re surrounded by them all the time. And HEPA, HEPA filters will help leaving your shoes at the door will help. But basically, those are band-aids for the problem that’s much, much bigger. 

DIANNA COHEN:  
Yeah, it’s been interesting just to see the studies that have come out this year about microfibers and microplastics in human placenta, both on the mother’s side and the baby’s side and in lung tissue. 

Let me ask you a question about that. It feels like this issue, and the research you’ve been doing, and your new book Count Down, and the focus around the impact of these chemicals in plastic on human fertility, but also animal fertility—It feels like it’s largely a bipartisan issue. And I was wondering if you could tell us about your #CountMeIn campaign and what sort of response you’ve received from the public.

DR. SHANNA SWAN:  
I think what we’re seeing from public responses is that people are extremely interested and concerned. I want to recommend to you a YouTube video. I don’t know if you’ve seen it. It’s made by a very talented young man. It’s called After Skool. And After Skool tells the story that I’m talking about today. And it has been viewed, last I looked, by over a million viewers. I don’t know the coverage of the Joe Rogan show, but it was huge. And the comments were amazing. And what you hear over and over again is, “why don’t we know this?” “Why haven’t I heard this?” So, look, you’ve been working for 10 years, I’ve been working for 20 years. There’s a whole army of people dedicated—honest, hardworking, committed people working on this for a long time. But the message is not getting across. Would you agree? 

DIANNA COHEN:  
Well, I mean, I would agree on that I find whenever we present things, or just in my personal experience speaking, people always ask, “What should I do?” “What am I supposed to do?” 

So I think that the public, you know, human beings are hungry for knowledge, but they also want to have something made as easy as possible for them. And I mean, that’s really the main thing that I find. You know, I think we all work hard to communicate to the best of our ability as we learn along the way. The different parts of this issue, looking at the impact of plastic—the impact of plastic pollution—how plastic pollutes us and all living things on the planet, from extraction through manufacturing production, use, if it’s single-use very short, and then is instantly a waste management issue, often times incinerated. In fact, in the new legislation that was just signed, unfortunately, it includes incineration, or “waste-to-energy,” which is very unfortunate, because that is going to poison a lot of people. And so it’s always a question of understanding the interconnection of all of these things that I know. And talking with Dr. Pete Myers, that oftentimes, what I’ve come to understand about phthalates and bisphenols, and these chemicals is that they don’t, we don’t have to be exposed to them at a high level for them to change our bodies and impact us. But I actually want to ask you questions rather than me trying to process. I’m curious if you could talk about how you might suggest we improve regulatory measures to ensure that low doses, high doses of endocrine-disrupting chemicals aren’t being overlooked or missed altogether.

DR. SHANNA SWAN:  
So, you brought up a very important point. That’s the low dose, low exposure scenario, which is not tested. So we’re using a testing paradigm, which is extremely old, and which assumes that if you have something bad, more of it is worse. And I like to tell this example about exercise. So exercise. There’s one extreme, which is you over-exercise. And women who over-exercise don’t menstruate. So it clearly affects reproductive function. On the other extreme, if you don’t exercise at all, if you’re a couch potato, you’re sitting around, you’re gaining weight, and so on, that will also decrease your reproductive success. And in the middle is the sweet spot, which is a moderate amount of exercise. 

And you see that also with alcohol and with lots of behaviors that there is a nonlinear, which is a technical term. Not a straight line. It’s not like more exercise is better—”up, up, up, up, no matter how high you go.” And it’s not true on the other side, “less and less and less is better,” right? It’s a curve. And you see that, right? And so that’s the way hormones react and that’s the way we should be regulating these chemicals. We have to find the harms at high doses, and then maybe there’s—apparently safe level—but maybe below that, it gets risky again, just like over-exercising will get risky as you go along that curve.

DIANNA COHEN:  
Is it like a bell curve?

DR. SHANNA SWAN:  
Not a bell curve, no. A U-shaped curve. But it’s not a line. It’s not like one uni-directional, which is very, very old, simplistic way of thinking. 

Okay, so that’s one thing, the dose-response. The other thing is, which is really difficult, is this mixture question. So if you had your chemical levels measured right now, you would have probably close to 100 chemicals measurable in your body by the CDC or standard panels. And we know that exposure to multiple, say drugs—if you go to your doctor she wants to give you a medication, and she says, “what else are you taking?” And that’s because she knows that this new medication she’s going to give you can interact with the other medications you’re taking and may be harmful as a result. So that’s an interaction. And so regulatory agencies do not study the interaction of these chemicals in our body. So we study them one at a time. 

There’s a famous example of seven phthalates actually that at low doses—so you take low doses that don’t do any harm to rats, right? Male rats exposed, no harm. Then you put them all together in a mixture and you give that to the mother and the baby rats develop a general malformation called hypospadias. So that’s seven phthalates together, doing harm when none individually. So if you tested them individually, you would think it’s safe. That’s not how we’re exposed. So that’s another thing that we have to do with our regulatory system; we also have to test at ways we’re exposed, not just ingestion, which is the only way that’s tested. Animals are exposed orally. Animals are never tested through dermal exposure or inhalation exposure. So we don’t know what those routes do because that’s not tested. So all I’m saying is that the scenario that’s tested in the laboratory has to reflect our exposure otherwise we’re not testing what’s safe for humans.

DIANNA COHEN:  
Right. So, Shanna, I was thinking, maybe some final thoughts and we can wrap. I mean, I could talk about this—I would love to talk about this for hours with you. And I’m sure we’ll get to have more conversations, which I look forward to. But could we kind of end on what would you suggest people do to avoid phthalates? Or phthalates exposure?

DR. SHANNA SWAN:  
Well, I think you’ve talked about a lot of it. I think maybe the first thing to do is to go through your house with a big bag. Plastic bag, probably. And dump in it as many of the plastic containers, spatulas, jars, that you can. Go to your fridge, go to your cupboard, and try to get rid of plastics from your kitchen. Try to replace them. Try to get rid of nonstick pans. By the way, we didn’t talk about that but that’s another class of things.The barriers, the PFAS chemicals, the barriers in your flame retardants and your waterproof. Try to pay attention to the material of which your product is made. Right? So what is it made of? Ask yourself that question and insofar as possible, like you said, select glass, ceramic, or metal and you’ll be much better off.

I would stress that you smell everything you use. Your cleaning products, your laundry products, your sunscreens, your cosmetics, and to the extent possible, try to get them odor-free. And don’t plug anything in the wall. And don’t hang that little pine cone in your car. And then, if you can afford it, you can try to seek out the chemicals, the products, the cosmetics, the cleaning products, the laundry products that are recommended on several of the sites. One of them is Environmental Working Group

DIANNA COHEN:  
MADE-SAFE, certainly.

DR. SHANNA SWAN:  
MADE-SAFE, right. And go to MADE-SAFE and so on. 

So you can Google safe chemicals and see a bunch of alternatives. But by and large, these will be more expensive. So there is an environmental justice issue here that not everyone could afford to do this. So yeah, I just pay attention. I think that’s the main thing. Pay attention. Assume that everything you put in your body, in your mouth, breathe in, put on your skin can contain these chemicals.

DIANNA COHEN:  
I think you’ve just set a new bar for me. A new challenge. I need to go reconsider some things that I am currently using. So I really appreciate your time today, Shanna. We appreciate you and thank you for the work that you’re doing. It’s so important. It’s so vital and I also really appreciate your ability to incorporate comedy into all of this. Because, you know, some of it is pretty dire. It’s really we’re talking about an existential threat to life. And I feel like if we can at least laugh about it a little bit. It’s going to carry us through as we try to rise to the challenge and solve the problem.

DR. SHANNA SWAN:  
Great. Well, thank you so much for your work and Plastic Pollution Coalition’s work on helping to solve this problem together. We’re all working on it together.

Juneteenth is a celebration of Black resilience and an urgent call to action to address long-standing discrimination, including the environmental injustices Black people in America continue to face.

This Sunday, June 19, we observe Juneteenth, a day marking the end of chattel slavery in the United States. The first people to celebrate Juneteenth were enslaved Blacks in Galveston, Texas, who claimed their stolen freedom at the end of the Civil War. 

At its core, Juneteenth is about Black resilience despite widespread systemic exploitation and abuse. At the same time, it is a stark reminder that the movement for Black freedom and equality in the United States is still underway today.

While many Black communities across the country have celebrated Juneteenth for more than 150 years, the date was only recognized by the U.S. government as a Federal holiday in 2021. Such delayed “official” designation is symbolic of the larger scale delay in establishing true freedom and equality for all, repairing relations and making reparations, and eliminating the racism and discrimination that runs through American society and culture. 

Awareness of the need to urgently address the myriad forms of racial discrimination against Black people—including violent policing, housing discrimination, voter suppression, and an unjust criminal justice system—appears to be spreading. But there is much more work to be done to establish racial equity in the U.S. 

One of the most pervasive and harmful forms of bigotry Black communities face today is environmental injustice. In the U.S., substantial environmental injustices—against Black communities, and other underserved groups of people—are perpetuated by the plastics and petrochemical industries and aided by government subsidies, activities, processes, legislation, and political support.

Environmental Injustice is Racism

Racialized communities, especially Black communities, have long been disproportionately burdened with environmental pollution and industrial hazards. This burden is intentional, and both the industries creating pollution and the governments facilitating the unjust placement of polluting infrastructure, activities, and waste perpetuate this environmental injustice. 

Racist zoning laws and governance, housing and voter discrimination, industry lobbying and bribery, and other insidious forms of racism have historically ensured the majority of Black people live and work in the most polluted places in the United States.  

As a result of environmental injustice, Black people are three times more likely to die from exposure to air pollutants than White people and are forced to shoulder a wide range of physical and emotional costs linked to living in proximity to dangerous pollution and industrial activities. Environmental injustice remains one of the biggest threats to Black lives today.

The Links Between Plastics and Environmental Injustice

In the U.S., Black people are more likely than other racial groups to live near hazardous waste sites and other polluting infrastructure. All parts of the plastics and petrochemical pipelines pose significant risks to human health and disproportionately harm vulnerable communities. Such discrimination has been deemed criminal by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and identified as an urgent human rights issue by the United Nations—and yet, it is extremely widespread. 

The entire plastics pipeline destructively impacts the natural environment, clearing and polluting lands that should be protected. It also exposes people to myriad kinds of serious pollution, including significant releases of climate-warming greenhouse gases and high levels of particulate air pollution known to diminish heart and respiratory health.

Near fossil fuel extraction sites (such as oil and gas wells), along fuel pipeline routes, and at refineries, people are exposed to air, water, and soil pollution, and face high risk of spills, fires, explosions, and other potentially lethal accidents.

Around plastics manufacturing facilities and transportation routes, people face similar risks to those living on the fencelines of refineries, plus microplastic pollution in the form of plastic pellets (also called “nurdles”). Plastic pellets, like all plastics, contain toxic chemicals and are known to accumulate in our bodies and the environment. 

Plastic pollutes throughout its existence, harming people who live near landfills, incinerators, waste rail or truck transportation routes and hubs, sorting facilities, recycling plants (where little plastic is truly recycled), and illegal dumps. Waste-related infrastructure and activities pollute air, water, and soils with hazardous chemicals and noise, and diminish quality of life. 

Logistics centers—warehouses designed to hold products often made of plastic and shipped to order—pollute surrounding communities with plastics and chemicals. They also require constant truck traffic, creating environmental and noise pollution.  

The corporations involved engage in a variety of tactics designed to deflect and distract from and diminish the true harm they are causing. Their tactics typically include providing members of harmed communities with “freebies” such as stuffed “back-to-school packs” or building playgrounds (often in proximity to dangerous industrial infrastructure) for children—who are highly vulnerable to the effects of pollution. Polluters also maliciously attempt to ease the minds of people living in the communities they harm directly by holding information fairs or distributing “informational” materials full of misinformation crafted to minimize pollution concerns. 

What’s more, both the industries causing pollution and representatives and governments tasked with regulating them choose to communicate in English at the exclusion of other languages. The omission, and by consequence dismissal and disrespect, of non-dominant languages is language injustice. It too plays a role in ensuring the silence of communities harmed by industrial development, pollution, and lack of governmental protection. 

Support Environmental Justice in Black Communities

Every person deserves to live in a healthy environment without having to carry a disproportionate pollution burden. As underserved communities have long been expressing, they deserve clean water to drink and clean air to breathe. They deserve much better.

You can support environmental justice for all, even if you do not live in a community directly harmed by industrial development and pollution. This Juneteenth (and every day), we urge you to help:

1. Learn the facts

Take the crucial first step to acting as an environmental justice advocate and ally! Educate yourself about the links between systemic racism, the plastics and petrochemical industries, and the disproportionate health risks Black and underserved communities face. (This blog is a great start.)

Check out additional resources on the connections between the plastics and petrochemical industries and environmental injustice in this excellent blog from Plastic Pollution Coalition member Surfrider Foundation.

We also suggest you take a few Toxic Tours with our partners at Break Free From Plastic. Toxic Tours are community-led storytelling and mapping experiences that reveal the impacts of plastic production on frontline communities from across Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America, and the United States. Plastic Pollution Coalition is hosting a webinar about Toxic Tours on June 24 where you can learn more about this important project from frontline representatives, Break Free From Plastic, and collaborators. Learn more and sign up.

2. Amplify frontline voices
A core part of the change necessary to counter continued environmental injustice is to make others aware of systemic racism and how it drives environmental injustice. After learning more about environmental justice, support frontline communities by amplifying and uplifting their voices and stories. Share media featuring Black community leaders, such as Sharon Lavigne in St. James Parish, Louisiana, with your friends, co-workers, neighbors, and on social media.

3. Hold systems accountable

Frontline communities are working hard to change the broken systems that drive environmental injustice. If feasible for you, make a financial donation or volunteer with groups serving frontline communities. 

Get involved in local issues where you live—even if you’re not living in or near a frontline community:

  • Learn more about the ways your municipality governance and activities run by attending and participating in local meetings.
  • Vote in your elections after researching each candidate and their stance on environmental justice issues.
  • Pay special attention to what is communicated and done with issues related to environment, zoning, industry, land use, and policy enforcement. 
  • Practice language justice by advocating for all members of your community to have equal opportunity to participate in local processes through access to verbal, written, physical, and other interpretive services readily available and accessible in their language.

In these ways, you can advocate for transparency and prioritization of equity, safety, and health for all people, starting where you live. Use your new knowledge about environmental justice to shape your own values and priorities. Also keep your eyes on the need for wider opportunities for systems change, such as federal legislation to hold polluters and governments accountable.

Join Plastic Pollution Coalition and allies in asking President Biden and Administration officials to stop approvals for new and expanded petrochemical and plastic facilities.

4. Speak with your wallet

As mentioned, plastics and petrochemical corporations intentionally spread misinformation in order to continue selling their lethal products. You can show allyship and support for frontline communities by doing your research on corporations’ environmental justice track records before you shop. 

It’s almost always better to shop local and avoid buying from big corporations—which typically cause outsized harm to the environment. They also tend to have poor (and often appalling) social justice track records. Large corporations’ “profit-over-people” focus drives environmental injustice. Avoid funding corporations by causing harm by purchasing directly from small businesses, particularly those that are owned and operated by BIPOC (Black Indigenous People of Color) individuals.

5. Join Juneteenth environmental justice events

Check with your local organizations, NAACP chapters, faith groups, and other community groups to join events bringing attention to environmental justice on and around this Juneteenth. 

We’ve compiled a small selection of such events held on and around this Juneteenth 2022, below, to help get you started:

Virtual and in-person at the University of Michigan

In-person in Pennsylvania

Support Black communities harmed by environmental injustice—not just on Juneteenth but every day!

Halloween can be a plastic nightmare, but the good news is you can still plan a fun celebration without polluting the planet with spooky, scary plastic. Plastic Pollution Coalition Youth Ambassador Eva Geierstanger and Co-Founder and CEO Dianna Cohen have lots of tips and treats for a fun, more sustainable Halloween—including plastic-free trick-or-treating, costumes, decorations, and Halloween recipes! Find out more in their conversation below. 

Eva: I want to be able to enjoy Halloween, one of my favorite holidays, without the added fear that my celebration is causing horrifying harm to the environment and our own health. After all, plastic pollution impacts human health along with that of wildlife. It’s so important that we look beyond these wicked and wasteful traditions to make Halloween both fun and sustainable! 


TRICK-OR-TREATING

Eva: With Halloween right around the corner, I’ve been eyeing the candy aisle at my local grocery store. I mean, who doesn’t love candy, especially FREE candy from trick-or-treating and Halloween parties? But as I look around at the bags of assorted chocolates, gummies, and lollipops, all that I can think of is the scary amount of plastic single-use packaging being used. 

Dianna: Halloween is a fun holiday for children and adults alike, but the single-use plastic left behind from parties and Trick-or-Treating can be downright scary.

According to the cleanup and brand audit report from Break Free From Plastic, food wrappers, made by companies such as Nestlé and Mars Inc., are among the top items found on beaches and in communities across the world. Plastic food wrappers are not recycled, and the ones that end up in our landfills will stay there forever, like ghosts of Halloween past. 

When it comes to treats, consider alternatives to plastic-wrapped candy. There are lots of candies still made and wrapped in wax paper and cardboard boxes, many of which come in mini sizes or may be purchased in bulk including: salt-water taffy, Dots, Nerds, Good and Plenty, Runts, Pixie Stix, Banana Splits, BB Bats, Wax Candy, Milk Duds, and Junior Mints and even mini chocolate bars wrapped in foil and paper! I found a bunch of these at Old Time Candy

Other Treat ideas include non-food items like pencils, word search or crossword puzzle books, seed packets, and bracelets – these are small gifts with purpose!

Eva: And how about ditching your plastic treat buckets for a cloth bag or tote? You could even customize it to match with your costume!


COSTUMES

Eva: Speaking of costumes, there are so many ways to reduce your Halloween waste this year by making them yourself (DIY)! 

Dianna: YES, Are you a fan of well-made and stylish vintage fashion? Well I am and I often start out by going through my closet at home to see what might make a solid costume. If that fails, I head to a nearby thrift store. I have frequented thrift stores since I was a teenager, always looking for treasures. A second-hand store is a great place to find elements for a Halloween costume.

Eva: For sure! Also, if you’re looking for something fancy this Halloween, consider renting a costume. Or, get crafty! Make your own costume out of cardboard, paper, or even felt! Make your costume extra fun, by wearing eco-friendly and non-toxic face paint, or make your own.

Dianna: That’s great, it’s important we surround ourselves with items that are good for us and good for the planet so that we don’t become the next climate horror story. 


DECORATIONS

Dianna: What about all those flimsy plastic decorations? The only thing scary about those is how harmful they are to our earth.

Eva: Exactly! That’s why this year I’m excited to use real stuff like pumpkins and festive leaf cut-outs to create a spooky, yet eco-friendly, atmosphere. One thing that my family does every year is carve pumpkins into Jack-o’-lanterns for decorations and we roast and eat the seeds afterward. Once the Halloween season comes to an end, the best thing to do is to compost your pumpkin.


HALLOWEEN RECIPES

Dianna: When it comes to fall foods, don’t you love to make real stuff?  Find a pumpkin and make tasty pumpkin soup! Have you seen the recipes for little mummies (pigs in a blanket), and the Cauliflower brain with red pepper hummus dip recipe from Kathryn Kellogg? Or how about these creepy witch finger cookies?

Eva: Little mummies are a must. I am definitely planning to make my own treats, including a spooky vegetable platter. Making plastic-free and healthy Halloween snacks is a great way to keep your Halloween possé fueled for Trick-or-Treating or that horror movie binge. 

Dianna: Now that we have all these treats and tips to remove plastic from our candy, costumes, decorations and snacks, I think we’re set for a spooktacular Halloween!

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The following is a Q&A with author Erica Cirino following the release of her new book, Thicker Than Water: The Quest For Solutions To The Plastics Crisis.

Erica Cirino is a science writer and artist exploring the intersection of the human and nonhuman worlds. Her widely published photojournalistic works depict the numerous ways people connect to nature—wild creatures in particular—and shape planet Earth. In her recent book, Thicker Than Water: The Quest for Solutions to the Plastic Crisis (published by Island Press, October 2021), Erica documents plastic across ecosystems and elements; shares stories from the primarily Black, Brown, Indigenous and rural communities that are disproportionately harmed by industrial pollution; and uncovers strategies to prevent plastic from causing further devastation to the planet and its inhabitants. She lives with her rescued street dog, Sabi, on and between two shores, Long Island and Connecticut.

1. How did you first become aware of the plastic pollution global crisis?

When I was 15, I got a job as an assistant at a wildlife rehabilitation clinic on Long Island, New York. The job involved rescuing and providing medical and rehabilitative care to sick, injured, and orphaned wildlife brought to us by the public. I observed that virtually all of the animals—hawks, owls, opossums, turtles, squirrels, and others—who turned up in our hands had been harmed by human actions, systems, and infrastructure—window collisions, pesticide poisoning, car strikes, cat and dog attacks, den or nest destruction. Our widespread use of plastic is a huge hazard for wildlife, and a common reason for animals to come into rehabilitative care. I’ve helped untangle countless creatures from plastic fishing line, from soccer nets; pulled balloon strings off talons; removed rubber fishing lures from throats. Being familiar with wildlife and being a person who has spent a lot of time outdoors, I was probably 16 or so when I connected the growing amount of plastic around me and the growing number of plastic injuries and fatalities I observed in my rehabilitation work to symptoms of a larger problem—the plastic crisis, and humanity’s unrestrained and unquestioning use of this single material. Around that time I also began to notice the connection between the rise in plastic and an uptick in human consumption of all kinds, and how that benefitted some but overwhelmingly harmed people and the planet. My perception of the world’s increasing lack of balance and equality and its cause—humanity—has deeply worried me from an early age.

2. “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” is a mantra that has existed in the American Zeitgeist for over four decades. Often, when the plastics crisis is mentioned, two things seem to happen in quick succession: 1) People acknowledge the crisis and share their concerns about it. 2) People then mention how they take great care to recycle all the plastic they purchase.
Given how deeply the perception of recycling as a solution has become embedded in our culture, how can we rewrite the narrative to focus on the root causes of plastic pollution?

As you suggest, most people generally want to “do the right thing” when it comes to coping with plastic waste—i.e. preventing the plastic they use from turning up as litter. However, when we consider recycling, it’s important to look at a few key facts: 

First, look at the serious failure of recycling to date: Just a tiny fraction—about 9 percent—of the more than 8.3 billion metric tons of petrochemical-based plastic humans have created since the mid-1900s has actually been recycled. Regional recycling rates around the world presently span from nonexistent to poor, with some countries claiming their exported garbage will be recycled only to end up exchanged as part of the global waste trade—and ultimately, dumped or burned elsewhere, harming human and ecological health. Why? It’s not very easy to recycle plastic, a term that encompasses a great many different types of petrochemical-based polymers that vary in appearance and chemical composition. A Styrofoam cup is made of a different type of plastic than a plastic bag, for example. So these common plastic items need to be recycled separately—except not every municipality has the technology or staff to sort and recycle every type of plastic. And lots of plastic stuff gets contaminated with use, particularly packaging. Items made of multiple types of plastic become even harder to recycle. Many plastics weaken as they are heated and recycled, so it’s common to add chemical additives and even fresh plastic to batches of what little gets recycled. 

For decades, trade associations linked to the various parts of the plastic supply chain—petrochemical companies, manufacturers, transporters, waste managers, and others—have cemented a recycling ethic into the consciousness of people living first in America and in Europe, and now virtually all around the world. The groups hired PR teams to handle their pro-recycling messaging, a brilliant marketing scheme when you think about it, because it allowed corporations to continue making more and more plastic while making it seem plastic had a place when it met the end of its life. Members of the trade groups, which include major consumer brands, formed seemingly pro-environmental nonprofit organizations with names like Keep America Beautiful and The Alliance to End Plastic Waste, which reinforced the trade groups’ pro-recycling messaging. The industry-backed, highly visible, pro-recycling advertising campaigns placed responsibility for coping with plastic waste, and preventing pollution, squarely on the shoulders of the public.

This, despite the simple fact that when it comes to plastic waste, there’s no such place as away. Plastic, unlike many other materials humans consume, does not benignly biodegrade, to our knowledge today. In fact, its presence throughout air, water, soil, space; in plants; and inside the bodies of animals, including humans, demonstrates its endurance. Instead of breaking down, it breaks up into smaller and smaller pieces that are capable of being ingested, absorbed, or inhaled by living beings; and are packed with chemicals, many of which are known to harm human health.

I know the answer to this question is getting a bit long, but it needs thorough explanation. We need thorough explanation. How else do we recover from being brainwashed, except by learning the truth? What’s needed right now is accountability from companies dealing in fossil fuels, petrochemicals, and plastic, and those businesses that support the plastic and plastic waste pipelines. The trade groups continue to push the recycling narrative (pushing for “advanced” or chemical recycling, which to date has been largely ineffective) despite the truth being out there, their history brought to light by grassroots groups, communities, and individuals all over the world. The truth is that today, recycling is far from enough to solve the problem. 

3. Thicker Than Water explores how communities of color worldwide bear the brunt of the harmful effects of plastic—both during production and after disposal. How can activists bring attention about this issue to those who have the voting power to effect meaningful change, but for whom plastic doesn’t perceivably present immediate harm?

It’s essential that all people understand that plastic and other industries both profit off and reinforce systemic racism—and we must decide we will no longer tolerate this mistreatment and blatant inequality in our society. People who do not live in communities disproportionately harmed can best help by educating themselves and acting as allies. Recent pushes for racial equality in the US and abroad, such as the Black Lives Matter movement, reiterate that it is long past time for justice of all kinds to be served to Black, Latinx, and Indigenous communities. Such communities disproportionately bear the brunt of pollution at all points of the plastic pipeline, and are quite literally fighting for their lives. These are everyday people, busy with families and jobs, and on top of that, they must stay vigilant, pressing to hold the stakeholders involved in the plastic crisis accountable: corporations, municipalities, contractors, businesses, government officials. These communities must be prioritized and involved in efforts to address the plastic crisis, such as a transition to zero-waste communities and legal protection against environmental injustice, such as new regulations on industrial zoning and emissions that keep additional health risks out of communities of color. 

As you might imagine, it is so much work. To become an ally, ask communities how you can help. Listen to their needs. Educate yourself on what environmental racism and systemic racism are, and why justice must be served immediately. Spread the word. Be involved in your own community. Talk to your neighbors. Showing up to hearings, contacting your representatives, and voting for individuals who represent the best interests of people and the planet are some useful ways to make your voice heard.

4. Let’s assume for a moment that all plastic production ends tomorrow. We would still have a massive ecological disaster on our hands with the amount of plastic left in landfills, the oceans, and waterways; heading for incinerators; as well as the microplastics already in the air and water. What, in your opinion, can be done with this plastic pollution without further contributing to the problem?

As Kristian Syberg, a Danish microplastic expert, told me in the Garbage Patch as we looked out on waves full of plastic, the microplastic and nanoplastic problem will undoubtedly grow as all the plastic that’s been made breaks apart. I imagine efforts to remove plastic from the natural environment will become more widespread; though at this point most experts emphasize we must first focus on “turning off the tap”—or stop new plastic production—rather than launch a large-scale cleanup. It’s very hard to collect micro- and nanoplastic particles from the elements all around us, so the sooner we stop making more plastic the better.

Right now there’s a free and hugely available material resource all around us: plastic. But plastic in nature commonly becomes weathered and contaminated with chemicals, viruses, or bacteria. Algae may grow on it. Can plastic in nature be collected, sufficiently cleaned, and actually fully recycled at some point in the near future? Should we even be using plastic, even if it’s fully recycled, if it inherently breaks up into impossibly small, impossibly hard-to-collect particles all around us, and may contain hazardous chemicals? I myself do not have the answers as to what could be done with the plastic all around us. If we are to reuse it, which is probably the smartest thing we could do, it must be reused in ways that do not further endanger human or ecological health. At the same time, research must be done to understand the long-term effects that the widespread distribution of increasingly tiny plastic particles have on human and ecological health, with special attention on communities facing environmental injustice. 

5. Throughout your journey writing Thicker Than Water, what inspired you about how communities around the world have come together to address the plastic pollution issue in their own backyards?

From organizing beach cleanups, to carrying out waste audits, to testifying at town hearings, and so much more, I have seen that community actions to address the plastic crisis can take many shapes. And this is, to me, the most inspiring thing about it. There are no barriers to being a part of the solution; people are finding so many ways to participate and implement positive change. We can make the biggest impacts by coming together. While each community’s focus and motivation might be slightly different, all of these actions do together address the plastic crisis, and they all are needed. What else is needed, however, are major systemic shifts that can support these local solutions, and the ultimate solution: stopping petrochemical corporations’ continued production of new plastic stuff and transitioning away from fossil fuel–based lifestyles. 

6. Lastly, what gives you hope for the future, and what can people do now—either by supporting certain legislation or adopting meaningful changes in their own lives—to really make a difference towards affecting meaningful change domestically and worldwide?

What I’ve come to understand about solutions during five years is summed up in one moment I experienced at sea: When I sailed the Atlantic with eXXpedition, an amazing organization founded by skipper and ocean advocate Emily Penn, somewhere between the Azores and Antigua, the crew came together in the saloon to consider solutions to the plastic crisis. We wrote our ideas on little slips of paper, and assembled them across the big table. Cleanups, industrial regulations, transitioning off fossil fuels, biodegradable materials, zero-waste solutions, the circular economy, education, taxes, bans, lawsuits, environmental justice…we came up with dozens of ways we’d seen individuals, businesses, communities and government officials take aim at the plastic crisis. 

What’s lacking, generally, is a global and collective synthesis of these efforts—but that is not out of reach. That the plastic tide already seems to be turning, with so much action now underway and more communities than ever searching for solutions, I feel hopeful big, necessary change could come. It must come, for so many reasons. There is much to accomplish, but also so much we can do if we work together. 

Thicker Than Water: The Quest for Solutions to the Plastic Crisisis available from Island Press. Visit www.islandpress.org and use code PPC25 for 25% off all books.

You can also sign up for the October 20 webinar featuring Erica Cirino, along with Dr. Kerim Odekon, Microplastics Researcher & Environmental Justice Advocate, Stony Brook University, New York, USA; and Dr. Sedat Gündoğdu, Associate Professor, Microplastic Research Group, Faculty of Fisheries, University of Cukurova, Turkey.

July 28, 2021 , 12:00 pm 1:00 pm

The topic of menstruation is still considered taboo to discuss in many cultures, despite the fact that half of the people on our planet menstruate every 28 days. Join us for our July webinar, Plastic Free Periods: Protecting Our Bodies & Preventing Plastic Pollution, where we will discuss the connections between plastic pollution, menstruation, and social change.

This webinar is sponsored by Plastic Pollution Coalition member Natracare and in partnership with Coalition member Menstrual Cup Coalition. Together, we will learn from activists and leaders about period justice and how to protect your body from toxic chemicals in products, while exploring the movements happening now around menstrual practices toward a more just, equitable world.

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July 28, 2021
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“We need to take all heavy industry, all polluting industry, and move it into space. And keep Earth as this beautiful gem of a planet that it is.” These were the words of former Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, shortly after his Blue Origin flight into space. But industry has already polluted everything from the deep ocean to outer space with plastic and other space junk. A better idea would be for billionaires like Jeff Bezos and corporations like Amazon to stop polluting in the first place.

As Dr. Kathryn Sullivan, the first American woman to walk in space and dive to full ocean depth, said during our webinar Deep Ocean to Outer Space: Plastic Pollution Solutions, “There is no astronaut in the world that would not take extremely good care of the life support system on their spaceship. Master it completely, know everything about it, and never take the least bit of it for granted. We’re failing on all three of those accounts when it comes to the natural systems that are the life support system that we depend on.”

Bezos seems to think it’s okay to go on creating pollution, as long it is sent somewhere else. This “not in my backyard” mentality is at the heart of the plastic pollution crisis. Amazon produces more than 465 million pounds of plastic each year. And 91% of that is likely to end up polluting nature, in landfills, or incinerated, with much of it having been sent “away” from North America and Europe to countries in the Global South. 

A December 2020 report by Oceana found that Amazon was responsible for adding more than 22 million pounds of plastic pollution to the world’s oceans and waterways in 2019 alone—the equivalent of a delivery van’s worth of plastic entering the oceans every 70 minutes. And with Amazon’s net sales increasing by 38% in 2020 as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the situation today is undoubtedly worse.

Bezos says the spaceflight reinforced his commitment to solving climate change. But, as 122 organizations emphasized to Bezos and incoming Amazon CEO Andy Jassy in a letter sent on April 21, 2021, plastic is a key contributor to and driver of our climate crisis.

Jeff bezos wants pollutes space

“Plastic releases greenhouse gases at every stage of its life cycle,” says Dianna Cohen, CEO and Co-Founder of Plastic Pollution Coalition. In fact, if plastic were a country, it would be the world’s fifth largest greenhouse gas emitter.”

“You have to start, and big things start with small steps,” Bezos said after his spaceflight. If Bezos is serious about tackling climate change, he and new CEO Andy Jassy can start by shifting Amazon to plastic-free, reusable packaging.

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