It’s Plastic-Free July (Here’s Why It Matters)

| July 1, 2024

By Peter Aronson

The annual and global Plastic Free July is upon us and it couldn’t arrive soon enough.

All you have to do is delve into recent scientific literature and articles about plastic pollution, particularly the omnipresence of microplastics, and you’ll realize it’s an international environmental problem that most likely endangers the health of every single person on earth.

On April 10, 2024, the journal Environmental Health Perspectives published a study by University of New Mexico scientists that may unsettle anyone who reads it.

[Sign our pledge to make it a plastic-free July!]

The report first states something we are all aware of, that global plastic use and disposal has proliferated dramatically over the years, with plastic waste ending up in oceans and landfills at an alarming rate. This plastic waste slowly degrades into microplastics (defined as plastic particles smaller than 5 millimeter), now ubiquitous around us.

Then the report states: “Multiple studies have reported MP [microplastic] detection in food, salt water, fresh water, farming soils, and crops used for both animal and human consumption.” 

 These types of dire conclusions have been building over the past few years.

The report continues: “A growing body of evidence indicates that MPs can cross the gut barrier and enter into the lymphatic and systemic circulation leading to accumulation in tissues such as the lungs, liver, kidney, and brain.”

Scientists estimate that individuals “ingest 5 grams of microplastics particles each week, equivalent to the weight of a credit card,” according to an article on the study in the University of New Mexico Health Sciences journal.  

If that doesn’t make you want to throw out every piece of plastic in your house, and never eat takeout food again without having the order placed in your own reusable (plastic-free) container, then read this March 27, 2023, article from the Center for International Environmental Law.

“Everywhere they look, scientists are finding microplastics,” the article states. “Often so small that they are invisible to the human eye, these tiny plastic particles are imperceptible as they pass through airways and reach the very bottom of the lungs. Scientists have found that inhalation is a major contributor to human intake … It’s estimated that humans can inhale up to 22,000,000 micro- and nanoplastics annually.”

The article continues with what sounds like science fiction, except it’s not. The article’s frightening graphics show, in pictures, that humans are estimated to inhale enough microplastics annually, if the tiny MPs are stretched out end to end, that are equal to the height of two giraffes, and that over a lifetime, the amount inhaled ranges in height from 363 meters (the height of the Eiffel Tower) to 1,019 meters (the height of Snowdon Mountain in Wales).

[Sign our pledge to make it a plastic-free July!]

An anatomical diagram in the article shows microplastics settling in the brain, respiratory system, lungs, spleen, stomach, circulatory system, liver, kidneys, digestive systems, skin and in a placenta and in women’s breast milk. 

In 2022, The Guardian reported that microplastic had been discovered in human blood for the first time, with tiny particles found in almost 80 percent of those individuals tested.

Plastic Free July, begun in 2011, is designed to bring annual attention to the plastic waste problem we face in the world, motivating millions to participate globally as a way to encourage and create change from individuals and businesses to households and statehouses across the world.

A particular focus this year is on eliminating the use of single-use plastic.

As a guide to helping us all change our habits, many environmental websites are offering online personal challenges, from Plastic Free July, SunCommon and The Commons to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and, which lists six categories where an individual or family can eliminate plastic use in the kitchen, bathroom, bedroom, study, community and with family and pets. The kitchen category lists 31 distinct ways to cut back on plastic use, from the aforementioned use of reusable (nonplastic) containers for takeout food, to buying only bulk-binned vegetables, which eliminates much of the packaging, to using glass jars instead of plastic containers for storage to stopping the use of plastic silverware and plastic bags for any reason. 

A vast effort is needed. estimates that plastic pollution in the world is expected to triple from now until 2040 if drastic action is not taken. According to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, in the United States more than 1 million tons of plastic debris enters ocean-bound rivers, creeks and sewers every year.   

Reinforcing what other studies report, Kat Knauer, a polymer scientist at NREL, said, “Among the myriad environmental ramifications stemming from plastic waste, microplastic pollution stands out as particularly enduring. We are finding microplastics virtually everywhere, including in our own bodies, and we do not yet understand the long-term health and environmental effects of these pollutants. We just know they shouldn’t be there.”

The NREL has started a project called Waterborne Plastics Assessment and Collection Technologies (WaterPACT), trying “to develop renewable-energy-powered technologies to detect, quantify, and collect plastic from U.S. waterways.” 

Environmentalists, including NREL, view creating a circular economy for the plastics industry as an essential step in reducing landfill waste and fighting global warming.

“[W]e need to view plastics as a major target for decarbonization,” Knauer said. “We currently use 6% of all fossil fuels in the production of plastics—which, on a global scale, is very significant—and this is expected to approach 20% by the year 2050. Beyond that, plastic production, use, and disposal accounts for nearly 4% of our global greenhouse gas emissions.” 

Environmentalists from around the world are moving in that regulatory direction. In 2022, member states at the UN Environment Assembly (UNEA-5) in Nairobi approved an historic resolution calling for all members to negotiate a legally binding agreement, a treaty, that would address and restrict the full lifecycle of plastic, from design and production to use and disposal.

“Plastic pollution has grown into an epidemic,” said Espen Barth Eide, Norway’s Minister for Climate and the Environment and the president of UNEA-5. “With today’s resolution we are officially on track for a cure.”

Following passage of the resolution, the UNEA-5’s negotiating committee has met four times, with the last meeting in Ottawa in April, and with a final meeting and treaty signing expected before the end of the year.

“We are seeing convergence of eliminating uses that are problematic and avoidable,” said Inger Andersen, executive director of the UN Environment Programme. “We will continue to need plastic for specific uses, such as renewable energy technologies. But there is a growing agreement that short-lived and single use can go.”

To help make this a reality, we urge our readers and our members to join the effort during Plastic Free July. Take the pledge to work towards eliminating most, if not all, of plastic in your life. Visit the websites listed above, or search the web and find others. Countless environmental organizations are offering practical tips on how to de-plastic your life.

[Sign our pledge to make it a plastic-free July!]

If you want to read more about our plastic-pollution problem, check out these articles in The New York Times:

“The fight over the future of plastics,” April 25, 2024, by Hiroko Tabuchi and “Microplastics are a big problem, a new film warns,” March 9, 2024, by Andrew Jacobs. 

Plastic pollution is a huge problem. Let’s work together to try to solve it. 

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