Bag It: Plastics in the Environment

kelly_waltGuest Blog Post by Dr. Walt Kelly, Groundwater Geochemist

Read Walt’s Blog: Water Quality, Focus on Illinois

The award winning documentary Bag It will be shown at the Art Theater in downtown Champaign on Tuesday, September 20, 2011, at 7 PM. I have seen the film and highly recommend it. It starts out as a critical look at plastic bags, but ends up being a much broader examination of the effects of plastic on the environment and human society.

Spoiler alert: the film has a point of view, and it’s that our overreliance on plastic products is bad for us and the environment. The negative effects of degraded plastic on marine life is especially distressing.

One topic addressed by the movie is the leaching of organic compounds from plastics into water resources. The two compounds they focus on are bisphenol-A (BPA) and phthalates. These chemicals are part of a family of pollutants known as Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals (EDCs) (more info here and here), which can mess with human and animal hormonal processes. EDCs have been linked to the feminization of fish, amphibians, and other animals, and concerns have been raised that human exposure to these chemicals, especially for pregnant women and young children, could cause serious health and developmental problems (more info here, here, and here).

EDCs can leach from all types of plastic containers, including those that are labeled as BPA-free. These chemicals are clearly getting into the environment; BPA was one of the most commonly detected organic contaminants in groundwater in a study by the U.S. Geological Survey. Concentrations tend to be very low, parts per billion or even less, but even at these low concentrations negative effects have been observed.

After watching the movie, I’ve been very aware of how much plastic I use in my life, usually without any thought.nobottlewater I think the movie is pretty fair in making the point that plastics aren’t evil, in fact are essential to many aspects of modern culture. But it should be obvious that we need to limit the amount of plastic we use for any number of reasons: the potential health effects, the huge volume of undegradable plastic garbage we produce, the fact that plastics are made from petroleum. Of the 3 R’s, Reduce and Reuse are much more effective in protecting us and the environment than Recycling. One of the best things we can do is to not drink bottled water; buy a metal bottle and fill it with tap water.

So go see the movie. All proceeds benefit Prairie Rivers Network. To see the trailer and get ideas about actions you can take, visit the movie’s website.