The Theme of Earth Day 2024 Is Planet vs. Plastics 

6 min read

| By Amy Hackney Blackwell |

It’s easy to see why organizers chose the theme of planet vs. plastics for this year’s Earth Day. Plastics are everywhere. We see plastic in water bottles, packaging, and everyday utensils. Plastic bags are in every shop, restaurant, and garbage can. Food packaging, prescription drug bottles, tools, and toys of all kinds are made of plastic. There’s no escaping it!

The Plastics portal overview in Gale In Context: Environmental Studies explains the science behind plastics and the history of plastics and introduces new sources for producing plastics.

Plastic waste is widely dispersed throughout the environment. And it comes in all sizes, from giant fishing nets to microscopic particles.

Most plastic can’t be recycled, consumers’ good intentions and the labels on recycling bins notwithstanding. Plastics are made of many different polymers that aren’t usable if they are melted down together. Recycling plastic effectively would require sorting it by type, which isn’t cost effective. It’s much cheaper for manufacturers to produce new plastic. Consequently, most of the plastic that people deposit in recycling bins ends up in landfills. A great deal more is tossed onto the ground or into the ocean.

Head to the Plastic Pollution topic overview to find out the origins of plastic, the threat of single-use plastics, and statistics on plastics.

Much of the world’s plastic waste is microplastics and nanoplastics. Microplastics are plastic particles between 2 and 5 millimeters in diameter, smaller than a grain of rice. Nanoplastics are even smaller, too small to be seen by the naked eye. Some microplastics are manufactured as tiny particles, called nurdles, which are the raw materials used to make bigger plastic products. Others are created by the deterioration of larger pieces of plastic, which break down under ultraviolet light, wind, and wave action in the oceans. Many plastics break down as they are being used; plastic particles from water bottles end up in the water, which ends up in those who drink that water.

Microplastics and nanoplastics are found throughout the environment: in water, in the soil, in the food we eat, and in the air. The Pacific Gyre Garbage Patch is largely made up of tiny plastic particles, as are garbage patches in other oceans.

Tiny plastics are also in our bodies. We swallow them with food and water and inhale them in dust. They make their way through our digestive systems and enter our bloodstream. Microplastics are believed to bioaccumulate in bodily organs. They have been documented in human placentas and in both cow milk and human breast milk. Smaller nanoplastics appear to be able to cross the blood-brain barrier, leaching through the walls of blood vessels into the brain itself.

Is this dangerous? The truth is, we don’t know, but experts have many reasons to worry. Plastics contain chemicals that can be toxic to humans. Microplastics might carry other pollutants with them. It’s possible they could also harbor bacteria and viruses. Researchers are concerned that the chemicals in plastics might have additive effects that build up, just as lead is now known to accumulate in children’s bodies and cause developmental delays. Health experts worry that microplastic exposure could cause a range of health problems, including neurodevelopmental disorders, cardiovascular disease, metabolic disease, and cancer.

Plastic exposure in infants is especially worrisome. Babies ingest microplastics that are shed from the insides of baby bottles. They wear clothes made of plastic and play with plastic toys. Babies put everything in their mouths, which means they ingest a good amount of dust and dirt. Much of this dust is plastic, and it ends up inside babies’ digestive systems. A 2021 study found that concentrations of microplastics in infant feces were 10 times higher than concentrations in adult feces. Babies are much smaller than adults, so this is proportionately a much higher dose of plastics. And the effect of any chemical exposure is dose related. No one knows what the long-term consequences of this exposure might be.

The problems presented by plastic pollution are daunting. But how exactly can the planet take on plastics?

One way is to make the struggle between the planet and plastics the theme of Earth Day. By focusing Earth Day on the single use of plastic pollution, organizers hope to start creating a global solution to a global problem. The Earth Day topic page in Gale in Context: Environmental Studies offers news articles, podcasts, and videos about Earth Day.

Earth Day organizers call for a commitment to reduce plastic production by 60 percent by 2040. This would start by phasing out single-use plastic by 2030, a little over five years from now. It would also require an end to fast fashion as it’s currently practiced; synthetic fibers such as nylon and polyester are a mainstay of fast fashion. The organizers urge researchers to find sustainable alternatives to plastics that aren’t made from petroleum and chemicals known to be harmful to our health and the environment.

Though it might seem impossible for the public and students to do anything to combat ubiquitous plastic pollution, Earth Day organizers believe there’s a lot we can do. An action toolkit on the Earth Day website suggests several ways to act, including joining social media anti-plastic campaigns and taking a plastic-detox challenge. For those who want to get outside on Earth Day, many local areas will have Earth Day marches and rallies that welcome participants. The organizers urge educators and students to learn more about the impact of plastics on health and the environment.

About the Author

Amy Hackney Blackwell’s research areas include plant conservation, historic botany, and the international legal regime governing the ownership of genetic resources. She lives in South Carolina with her family and several cats. In her free time, she enjoys kayaking in Texas, hiking in the Alps, and ballroom dancing.

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