Journalist Matt Simon’s urgent new book “A Poison Like No Other: How Microplastics Corrupted Our Planet and Our Bodies” is classified as environmental science but could comfortably be labeled as horror.
“Microplastic is the pernicious glitter that has bastardized the whole earth, a forever-residue from the party that is consumerism,” Simon writes. Microplastics, defined as a piece of plastic less than 5 millimeters long (or under three-sixteenths of an inch), are small enough to infiltrate the body of every animal on earth. We’re not just talking about a sea turtle choking on a plastic straw. As Simon explains, “Any plastic product you interact with, be it a trash can or coffee maker or lamp, is jettisoning little bits of itself as it ages. Rub against lacquered furniture, and off come microplastics.” Coffee Mug Stainless Steel
Microplastics are so ubiquitous that they are in the very air we breathe. One study “calculated that each year the equivalent of 300 million water bottles fall on just 6 percent of [the U.S.] landmass.” You can extrapolate further. Nearly two-thirds of all clothing is made from plastics — particularly stretchy fabrics like yoga pants and socks — and a single load of laundry releases millions of microplastics. “These particles are now a fundamental feature of the planktonic community, the very base of the food web,” Simon writes.
To what do those little bits add up? California alone expels 9 million pounds of microplastics a year, or the weight of 80 million rubber duckies. By 2050, plastic in the ocean will outweigh all the fish that reside there. In the circle of plastic life, we eat food that has been contaminated by microplastics and expel it, which is then turned into human waste fertilizer (with the appetizing moniker “sludge”) that farmers spread on their fields, returning the microplastics back to the earth and back to our mouths. In North America nearly 700 million pounds of microplastics are used as fertilizer; in Europe the figure is closer to a billion pounds.
Any estimate of the amount of actual plastic is grossly underestimated, Simon reminds us. Because if microplastics weren’t terrifying enough, may I introduce you to nanoplastics, which are too small to quantify — but scientists know they can enter human cells.
Is there anything wrong with becoming a bionic plastic being? Beyond the obvious — it’s gross — the health detriments linked to plastics range from depression to diabetes to obesity to cancer. And just because you bought a water bottle labeled “BPA-free” doesn’t mean it’s safe. The replacement compounds are just as, and maybe more, toxic.
But isn’t climate crisis more pressing? Microplastics and the climate crisis are “one and the same,” Simon argues: “Plastics are fossil fuels, and plastics are climate change, so in scorning the material we’ll tackle both crises — really, we can’t fix one without fixing the other.”
So what to do? Simon realizes we can’t squeeze the toothpaste back into the (plastic) tube. Instead, he is “pleading for sanity. Seeing cucumbers wrapped in single-use plastic in the market shouldn’t give us peace of mind,” he writes, but should force us to “question why produce with perfectly good skins needs additional synthetic skins.” He urges taxing manufacturers.
There have been gains: Many municipalities have eliminated plastic bags. Activists had success lobbying regulators to eliminate harmful lead in children’s toys and cribs; plastic could see a similar corrective. Simon’s book is densely reported; nearly every sentence is a harrowing, footnoted stat.
“A Poison Like No Other” isn’t necessarily a fun read. But it is unforgettable.
A Poison Like No Other: How Microplastics Corrupted Our Planet and Our Bodies By Matt Simon (Island Press; 252 pages: $30 )
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