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Karen Telleen-Lawton: Plastics

In the late 1800s, a New York City billiards company sought an alternative to ivory tusks for billiard balls. Amateur inventor John Wesley Hyatt won the $10,000 contest prize.

Hyatt used the plant polymer cellulose to make celluloid, and an amazing new product was born. Plastics began with a conservation ethos.

Plastics’ ubiquitous presence came much later: manufacturing didn’t really take off until the 1950s.

Now, the sky — or really the ocean — is the limit. Half the plastic ever made has been produced in the past 15 years, according to National Geographic. Forty percent of plastics made now are designed to be disposable.

It’s difficult to fathom the effect of today’s sea of plastics. It jelled for me on a trip to Easter Island in 2015. Ecuador’s far-flung territory is more than 1,000 miles from the nearest inhabited island and more than 2,000 miles from South America.

Walking along a remote beach on this remote island, my husband and I noticed the tide’s edge sparkled with an unnatural brightness.

We first attributed it to the sun’s angle, but when we knelt down we found it to be millions upon millions of tiny pieces of brightly colored plastic. Plastic from around the world.

So here we are now, 150 years after plastic’s invention. Eyes glaze over with too many facts and figures, so I’ll list just a few and ask you to decide which one you find to be the most appalling.

» A single treatment plant discharges 3.73 billion microfibers, estimated at 179 pounds, per day (UCSB local study).

» One quarter of fish and one third of shellfish contains plastic debris (UC Davis study of Half Moon Bay).

» A survey comparing 150 tap-water samples from five continents found synthetic microfibers in almost every sample — 94 percent in the United States.

» On some beaches on Big Island of Hawaii, as much as 15 percent of sand is actually grains of microplastic.

» By 2050, there may be more plastic by weight than fish in the world’s oceans (World Economic Forum).

» When experts are asked how long it will take plastic to biodegrade, the estimates range between 450 years and never.

The one that really gets to me is the Hawaiian sand. I’m not sure why that seems more egregious than the centuries or millenia to which we conscript our descendants into dealing with our throw-away culture.

I think it’s because on Easter Island we could see the problem: it begged a solution, even if the bits were too small for easy pick-up. When the problem “disappears” into microscopic pieces, it’s easier to ignore until the damage is irreversible.

It also seems like we lose track of what is real. Fish that have ingested a lot of plastic feel full, so they don’t continue feeding and eventually starve.

So far it appears microplastics remain in fish guts, not the edible muscle tissue. But as microplastics further degrade, they can penetrate cells and move indetectibly into tissue. Some of the component chemicals are known to be endocrine disrupters.

Richard Thompson, the academician who coined the term “microplastics,” says: “I don’t think we should be waiting for a key finding of whether or not fish are hazardous to eat. We have enough evidence to act.”

Surely, solving the plastics problem is not as difficult as putting humans in space or dealing with climate change. As Ted Siegler, Vermont resource economist, said: “We know how to pick up garbage ... we know how to dispose of it. We know how to recycle.”

We need to work at an institutional level to put together a winning formula of carrots and sticks commensurate with the task.

We’ll look at some potential solutions in my next column.

— Karen Telleen-Lawton serves seniors and pre-seniors as the principal of Decisive Path Fee-Only Financial Advisory in Santa Barbara. You can reach her with your financial planning questions at [email protected]. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.

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