Last week on Sea Change Radio, we learned that the plastics industry plans to triple production in the next 40 years, reaching 3 trillion pounds of plastic a year by 2060. This week, we have the second half of our discussion with Wired writer and author, Matt Simon, who talks about how microplastic waste has crept into every nook and cranny on the planet. In this episode, we discuss how microplastics are contributing to air pollution (both indoors and out), examine some innovative ways to reduce plastic waste, and discuss the overlap between plastic waste and climate change.
Narrator | 00:02 – This is Sea Change Radio covering the shift to sustainability. I’m Alex Wise.
Matt Simon (MS) | 00:16 – We need to get rid of all the unnecessary plastic as quickly as possible because the, the trend here is not looking good.
Narrator | 00:26 – Last week on Sea Change Radio, we learned that the plastics industry plans to triple production in the next 40 years, reaching 3 trillion pounds of plastic a year by 2060. This week we have the second half of our discussion with Wired writer and author Matt Simon, who talks about how microplastic waste has crept into every nook and cranny on the planet. In this episode, we discuss how microplastics are contributing to air pollution, both indoors and out, examine some innovative ways to reduce plastic waste and discuss the overlap between plastic waste and climate change.
Alex Wise (AW) | 01:13 – I am joined now on Sea Change Radio by Matt Simon. He’s a senior staff writer at Wired Magazine, and his most recent book is A Poison Like No Other. Matt, welcome to Sea Change Radio.
Matt Simon (MS) | 01:27 – And thank you for having me.
Alex Wise (AW) | 01:29 – So Matt, I saw a documentary on makeup on Netflix. One of the episodes was about talc and how talc gets into our cosmetic industry in a, in a very pernicious way. And one of the ways that the talc industry and the cosmetics industry checked this off as being safe was that they just changed the measurements. They, they just use different microscopes and saying, yeah, it’s not being detected by our microscopes, but they weren’t using the best microscopes for this. So they, they kind of moved the goalposts in order to clear it for the public. It was devastating effects that it’s had for many, many people. When you’re talking about this plastics recycling and the effluence and trying to detect it, it, it made me think of that. It’s just that they’re not measuring it correctly and they need to get better microscopes or whatever, better filtration systems. Why don’t, why don’t you expand if you can.
MS | 02:22 – Sure. Yeah. There’s, there’s an interesting parallel here there, ’cause microplastics are involved in, in cosmetics as well. So about a decade ago in the United States, banned microbeads, right? That’s this big famous environmental progress.
AW | 02:34 – They looked really cool in shampoo for a few years, right? Yeah.
MS | 02:37 – Yeah. So cosmetics and plastics industry had this truly insane idea, which is to, and like face washes and things to, uh, create this sort of abrasive effect with little bits of plastic. Um, instead of, you know, perfectly natural machine, you can do this with like, uh, stone fruit pits, right?
AW | 02:55 – Oh yeah. I’ve seen like apricot scrub.
MS | 02:57 – Yeah. Yeah. They said, no, too expensive to do that. We will just put little tiny pieces of plastic, uh, these microbeads. So when that ban went into effect about a decade ago in the United States, that was only for wash off products, those face washes, um, that, that were using those sorts of scrubbing plastics that did not include cosmetics. So cosmetics to this day are chockfull of microplastics. So they are often used not for abrasive effects, but actually make makeup go on smoother. They act almost like a little tiny ball bearings. So when you wash off your makeup, that is washing into ecosystems, which is not even to talk about the other countries around the world that haven’t yet banned microbeads in general, overall, even for those wash off products. And this, this brings us to, you know, you’re talking about TAL care. None of these plastics were ever tested for human health, right? So we started exponential production on the material in 1940s. Nobody ever thought, well, you know, if synthetic rubber car tire particles flying off of your car, another massive source of those microplastics into the environment, I don’t think tire companies ever really thought of people walking down the street inhaling little bits of car tire. This material, these microplastics and nanoplastics have, uh, I’m not exaggerating when I say that. It is in every single corner of the environment. The stuff is fully atmospheric. Um, it is blowing all over the world. It is falling on remote rainforest. It is in every corner of the ocean, the deepest ocean to the most shallow. It is absolutely everywhere, which means that there’s no reason to believe that it is not in every organism. So none of these plastics companies ever went and tested every single organism on the earth for whether those plastics are going to poison them. We have early indications that microplastics are already killing organisms and destabilizing ecosystems. You might have heard of in Washington state. They’ve been having these, uh, mass die off of salmon for decades. And these groups of researchers at the University of Washington did some really interesting detective work and, and went and found that the chemical responsible for those mass die offs is six PPD. And that’s in car tire particles. When it rains, all the car tire particles that were gathered up on the roads flush into these rivers, poison these fish, um, and lead to these mass die offs. That is one fish among many, many organisms on the planet that is being killed off by microplastics.
AW | 05:29 – And that’s just one study that’s kind of study connecting the dots, right?
MS | 05:32 – Right. And so a couple of other follow-up studies found a couple of other species of fish that are also very sensitive to the six PPD one chemical for one species. And when we are talking about plastics as this cohesive material, it has in fact been made of at least 13,000 different chemicals, since, you know, plastics production really started taking off. Any one of those could have a negative effect on an organism, be that a salmon in a river, or us as humans, we are inhaling a lot of these microplastics, especially indoor air. So none of this was tested on us. Um, so they’re really running this mass experiment on us as people, uh, as to how bad the effect of microplastics and nanoplastics are going to be. That’s where actually the, the research is shifting. Now. We, we know we have a good idea of how much of it is in the indoor air in our homes, where it is in the environment. Now focus is shifting on what are going to be the consequences. They’re not going to be good consequences. It’s going to be a matter of how bad. So that’s what we’re up against, is that more organisms are suffering than we know right now. There’s a study that came out a couple weeks ago that found that, uh, microfibers are tangling up ants on land. They’re getting trapped in these fibers. More of these studies will come out to find out the consequences of microplastic pollution, but we just let these companies do whatever the hell they wanted, and now we’re going to pay the consequences while they try to increase production threefold by 2060.
AW | 07:03 – So we’ve unleashed this beast upon the planet that has never been seen before, and we can’t even quantify how detrimental it will be to life on earth. With that said, there are a lot of people doing really important work to try to solve this problem in any way they can or to at least mitigate the damage. I didn’t know that microplastics are so omnipresent in the air. Why don’t you tell us some of the innovations that are emerging to try to try to reduce the microplastics in the air? There was one that you write about in your book about tries to pick up. You, you had mentioned the tire detritus tries to pick up microplastics from, I don’t want do it injustice, so I want to explain what this car innovation is. Yeah, it’s a cool idea.
MS | 07:53 It is cool. Yeah. It’s, it’s more static. So static, yes. So, um, yeah, as you’re, you’re rolling down the road. Uh, I didn’t think about this until I was really writing the book. I should have thought of it earlier, but I never really wondered what happened to the tire when you have to go get it replaced. Like why is it, why is it balding? It must have come up somewhere, right? Well, it turns out that it has broken into microplastics, um, tires being made out of synthetic rubber. They’re technically a plastic. These little bits of them are technically microplastics that are flushing into these oceans and are flushing into these rivers and killing salmon. Uh, so this, this company’s called the Tire Collective, TYRE because they’re in the UK. It’s this really enthusiastic group of, of young people who have invented this device that actually attaches to the, the back of the tire and collects the particles as they’re flying off the tire. They envision this as there could be a day when this is built in cars and you go to the mechanic to get your oil changed or whatever. They switch out your air filter in addition to switching out your car tire particle collector. They, they emptied that out. So this gets at something that’s really important to consider when we’re talking about solutions to the microplastic crisis, which is that researchers an environmentalist want us to go as far upstream as possible. So if you can collect those tire particles before they even hit the road, beautiful. That’s like, that you’re collecting essentially at, at the source, it’s much harder to collect them once they have hit the environment. The farthest upstream we could possibly go is of course, you know, creating tires that somehow don’t break apart. But in general, with plastics just producing less of them the farthest downstream you can go. And this is where scientists in environments tell us not to go, which is something like the ocean cleanup, which is this big device that’s capturing plastic out in the open ocean once it’s out there. I don’t wanna sound negative or nihilistic or fatalistic, but it’s, it’s probably out there for good. It’s very difficult to pull this stuff out of the environment once it’s there.
AW | 09:59 – I mean, it’s getting found in Antarctica, you write, right?
MS | 10:01 – Right. Yeah. So it’s, it’s because it’s atmospheric and because it’s swirling down in the water column into the deepest devotions, you can skim the surface for microplastics and it’s a tiny drop in the bucket. Um, so another one, kind of similar to the car tire thing is, uh, mentioned clothing. You can get aftermarket filters for your washing machine that capture the microfibers before they flush out into the sewer system. Uh, I have one at home. Seems to work pretty well. It’s a bit of a pain, if I’m being honest, that we as consumers have to think of this ourselves. Why aren’t all washer machines coming with built-in microfiber filters? Well, it turns out they could have been all along, but the industry never did it.
AW | 10:46 – Where would the onus lie on the plastics industry? Maybe in some ways they should be providing these things to washing company, washing machine companies,
MS | 10:53 – Right? Who’s gonna pick up the tab on that one? So I, I would argue that these washing machine companies need to, like, they, I don’t think they ever intended to flood the environment with tiny pieces of plastic because again, this is a, a relatively newly studied phenomenon. Um, but France is now mandating that by 2025, all washing machines coming off a line have to have these built-in filters. Great. Should have been doing that all along. The onus should be on the industry to fix this. It costs a little bit of money to buy these filters and, uh, take care of this yourself. Um, when it should be on the industry, I would argue, uh, and I have argued, I put out an op-ed when the book came out that, um, the governments around the world should send microfiber filters for washing machines to all of their citizens. So we, and during Covid, we sent all kinds of people in the United States free covid tests. The government is fully capable of, of mass mailing something, uh, physical through the mail. So, um, I’m arguing that it, before we can get these sort of mandates in the United States where all of our washing machines need to have these filters, we need to send them to our citizens to attach to their machines because this is already in an emergency. Um, we need to, and again, it’s a huge source of microfibers into the environment. Um, but again, I don’t, along with cosmetics, as I had mentioned, I don’t want individual people to feel bad about this. ’cause this is not your fault. This is that you’re wearing yoga pants. Don’t stop wearing yoga pants. I I can also just encourage people not to buy fast fashion, just because a bunch of studies have shown that, you know, the better quality clothing you have, the less it sheds microfibers in the wash.
(Music Break) | 12:46
AW | 13:50 – This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio, and I’m speaking to Matt Simon. He is a senior staff writer at Wired. And his latest book is “A Poison Like No Other.” It’s an exploration of the microplastics industry. We have a little gray water set up downstairs that pumps our laundry water into a barrel that we then can water our gardeners. Great. Yeah. But we don’t have it filtered. So are we, I mean, we’re not growing green beans and tomatoes that we’re eating, but you know, we have a lemon tree and we eat those lemons. Does that mean we’re like, we should not be eating those lemons?
MS | 14:28 – So this is a, a tough one because early studies have shown that crops are able to take up microplastics and nanoplastics through their roots. So as they’re absorbing water and nutrients, um, microplastics are going along for the ride that is likely then moving into the tissues that we eat. So broccoli or, or lemons in your backyard, it is moving into those, those fruits nanoplastics are so small, they can get into individual cells in an organism. So like it’s freely moving around our bodies and the bodies of every other animal and every, every plant on this planet. So yeah, where it gets extra tricky is that you might be getting a good amount of microplastics just falling out of the sky onto your lemon tree. So in the book, I, I talk about visiting a scientist in Utah. She took me up to the top of a remote mountain where she had this plastic catcher. She is figuring out what is falling outta the sky – microplastics-wise. So she can she quantify it and then scale it up for the entire United States? By her calculations, several billion bottles of plastic are falling out of the sky each year as microplastics in the continental United States. That is not worldwide. And then we get into the problem of indoor era, which is probably six to seven times more polluted with microplastics.
AW | 15:50 – Why more indoors than outdoors?
MS | 15:51 – Yeah. So we are absolutely surrounded by this, this stuff inside. So, you know, the clothing that we wear by one calculation, we shed a billion microfibers each year just by walking around in our clothing. That all settles on the floor in your living room or what have you. You then walk around and kick up those particles, um, that are really a fundamental component of indoor dust now, which is also made out of skin cells and other bits of dead tissue, hair or whatnot. So it is now, by some calculations, in a typical living room, you’re getting hundreds of thousands of these particles deposited each day on the floor. So yeah, it’s, it’s absolutely surrounding us now. And that’s why indoor air is so thoroughly contaminated. Um, but, you know, coming back to solutions as best I can, uh, you can vacuum religiously. That tends to help. And overall just, uh, just be more cognizant of, of the sneaky ways that plastics are all around you. And these are things that I go through in the book, like, just to be aware of. Um, we need to not work toward a more circular economy with plastic, which would include much more recycling. We need to understand that this is not a material that we want to surround ourselves, ourselves in, in any way because it is highly toxic. And we’ll get more studies in the next five years, probably showing, I think, pretty severe effects of, of microplastics nanoplastics on human health.
AW | 17:15 – And then turning to the oceans, we’ve chronicled a lot of efforts on Sea, Change Radio in the past about trying to measure the great Pacific garbage patch. And, and these efforts to try to not just monitor, but clean up as much plastic as possible. What are some of the ones that give you a glimmer of hope?
MS | 17:36 – So moving farther upstream, one of my favorite pieces of technology of all time is Mr. Trash Wheel in Baltimore Harbor. This is a barge with big googly eyes, <laugh>, its name is, it’s, it’s actually a Mr. Trash. Well. So what it does is a very simple piece of technology, plastics that are floating down the river into that harbor are captured, uh, and kind of funneled into this barge, which is then emptied out periodically. They are capturing a lot of plastic that would otherwise fly out to the ocean, at which point it’s too late. Beach cleanups are great. Interesting fact that one of the, if not the most commonly found item for plastics on these beach cleanups are cigarette butts. Cigarette butts are made out of plastic microfibers and happen to be a very large source of microplastic into the environment as they’re breaking down out there. So beach cleanups great, but just coming back to this idea that this is not our problem. This is not our responsibility. We need the industry to pay massive amounts of money to fund much larger beach cleanups. Like this is their fault, this is their responsibility, but also to invest in, you know, Mr. Trash wheel many, many times over in every river system in the world. And it is actually, uh, spreading around the world, luckily. So just coming back to this idea that the farther upstream we could go, the better, um, once it’s out in the ocean’s, probably too late, but the farthest, absolutely farthest is this. We just gotta stop producing this material. It’s gotten to just a truly bonkers production of this known toxic material.
AW | 19:12 – This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio, and I’m speaking to Matt Simon. He’s a senior staff writer at Wired. So getting back to our original, the getting back to what kicked off this discussion in terms of, um, the, the, the short falling of plastic recycling, the shortcomings of, of plastic recycling, are there any innovations in the, um, recycling the, the waste management side of things and both in, in trying to filter out this effluence that you’re talking about and ramping up the percentage of plastics that get recycled? Or is that not really the, the side of things that gives you any optimism?
MS | 20:02 – I derive very little optimism from the recycling side of things. Unfortunately, so, yeah, I mean, I think with that study that we talked about, there might be more, uh, emphasis on, on getting filters onto these, especially older recycling facilities. But we don’t want to, for instance, invent some sort of plastic that is theoretically easier to recycle, but turns out to be more toxic in certain ways. Um, you, you hear about bio-based plastics, for instance. Bio-based does not necessarily necessarily mean that they’re better for the environment. Um, in fact, they’re often not in severe ways. Biobased means that they’re, uh, the carbon that typically makes up the backbone of a a plastic is derived from, um, from plants instead of from fossil fuels. It’s packed with all sorts of other petrochemicals that make plastic a plastic. It’s just a different source of, of carbon. Uh, we need to be very careful when the industry tries pushing these quote unquote, uh, more environmentally friendly plastics on us, that they are not just as harmful, but potentially more harmful. So you have this other issue that scientists talk about called regrettable substitution. BPA being a famous chemical that was phased out at least in some places out of plastics, highly toxic chemical.
AW | 21:24 – Yes, I was gonna ask you about that because we’re looking at policy as being probably our best bet of getting out of this problem. You’re talking about the U.N. trying to enact some policies. BPA-BPH were regulated out largely and, and consumers were made aware of this chemical compound that they probably had never heard of before. But what have we replaced it with Matt?
MS | 21:50 – Yeah, so when we’re talking about plastics, we’re not just talking about that carbon backbone. We’re talking again about those at least 13,000 different chemicals that have been used to make plastics. I don’t think I mentioned the first time, but a quarter of those chemicals scientists consider to be of concern, meaning they’re either known to be outright toxic or they’re bio persistent. You know, they, they last a long time in the environment or organisms. So when you have the phase out of BPA, we need to be careful that in order to make a plastic, a plastic A BPA is a, a fundamental, uh, ingredient. BPA being a one of the many endocrine disrupting chemicals used in plastics. We are dealing with a, just at the end of the day, fundamentally toxic material. There is no way to make plastic non-toxic, at least with, with modern current technologies. So when scientists talk in these negotiations for the plastics treaty, they’re talking both about reducing the amount of plastic produced, but also phasing out chemicals like coming to a, an understanding that this isn’t a cohesive sheet or bottle or, or bag of plastic. This is an amalgamation of different chemicals, uh, a quarter of which scientists consider to be of concern. So we need to bring down production, start with phasing out things like BPA, but then not allowing the industry to just substitute in equally toxic chemicals, but more largely thinking about groups of chemicals that we need to ban. So any endocrine disrupting chemical in plastic needs to be gone because we surround ourselves with this stuff.
AW | 23:32 – I was just watching with my daughter a, Formula One racing show called Drive to Survive. And it, and we’ve just been starting at the early, I think it started in 2018 or 19, and then we got to the pandemic year. And it reminded me that everybody in the first few months thought this was contact related. Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>. And we saw at that period how the plastics industry pounced right away. And they were like, we need to have plastic bags. We need to have plastic, this, this, and this. They’re trying to scrub laws away that will help their agenda. But now that we can kind of sit back and look at it, can we quantify it?
MS | 24:11 – Yeah, I, I had written about, I think, because I had, I had noticed when I was getting takeout, like trying to support my local restaurants in, in the depths of everything that just, absolutely everything is just unnecessarily wrapped in, in plastic. But yeah, you’re, you’re right, the industry will jump on any opportunity you can get to send out the message that not only is plastic perfectly safe, um, on its own, but it makes everything safer. Right? Um, if we can wrap everything in plastic, maybe, uh, we cut down on foodborne illnesses, we reduce the spread of, of covid at the end of the day, it’s all, you know, these are corporations intent on selling as much of this toxic material as they possibly can do not take their word for things <laugh>. We need to get rid of all the unnecessary plastic as quickly as possible because the, the trend here is not looking good. The the triple of production by 2060. We can’t let the industry get away with this because every bit of plastic that we produce, uh, adds more plastic to the environment. And again, organisms that are not suffering today from the current levels of microplastics and nanoplastics in the environment could very well be in the coming years. Now is the time to pump the brakes.
AW | 25:28 – So you, you mentioned how we get this misinformation from the plastics and fossil fuel industries when it comes to plastic, but the fossil fuel industry has been doing a pretty good job of trying to misinform the public about climate change. I imagine there’s some overlap in your work in this space.
MS | 25:46 – There is the, these fossil fuel companies and plastics companies are, are one in the same. So 99% of, of plastics still being made out of fossil fuels. Every step of the, the, the plastics lifecycle. So you extract fossil fuels, takes energy, uh, you produce plastics that takes energy, you ship them around, that takes energy as well. There’s a growing body of evidence that, um, when microplastics are escaping into the environment, they also off gas their carbon, particularly methane, which is an extremely potent greenhouse gas. Um, and again, because this stuff is atmospheric, we are firing extra carbon into the atmosphere by way of microplastics. Um, there was one calculation that in the, in the coming decades, um, because the fossil fuel industry putting more weight into plastics, knowing that we’re going to be using fewer fossil fuels as fuels, they want us to use more fossil fuels as plastic. They’re massively increasing their investment in plastics to, you know, again, get us to the tripling of production by 2060. There’s one calculation in the coming decades that missions associated with that could equal, you know, 600 coal fired power plants. Which is the, the disgusting thing here is that we are making progress in the United States at least decommissioning coal fired power plants, replacing it with natural gas, which is not super, at least it’s a little bit cleaner. Uh, if we are off fossil fuels entirely, that’s the ideal. But as we’re decommissioning coal fired power plants, the industry is shifting to our plastic production, which is coming with a whole bunch of additional emissions in addition to what those plastics are actually offgassing once they’re in the environment floating around that the research is early on there. Um, but there’s also indications that microplastics and nanoplastics are changing the way the clouds work. So like, uh, attracting water vapor and perhaps brightening clouds changing weather patterns. It’s just like it’s, I cannot stress enough what a fundamental component now plastics are of the atmosphere. It’s pretty astounding.
AW | 27:51 – I really appreciate you walking us through all of your work in this, this space. People should follow your work at Wired Matt Simon, thanks so much for being my guest on Sea Change Radio
MS | 28:01 – And thanks for having me.
Narrator | 28:17 – You’ve been listening to Sea Change Radio. Our intro music is by Sanford Lewis, and our outro music is by Alex Wise. Additional music by Young-Holt Unlimited, and Simon & Garfunkel. To read a transcript of this show, go to SeaChangeRadio.com to stream, or download the show or subscribe to our podcast on our site, or visit our archives to hear from Doris Kearns Goodwin, Gavin Newsom, Stewart Brand, and many others. And tune in to Sea Change Radio next week as we continue making connections for sustainability. For Sea Change Radio, I’m Alex Wise.