To top off my journey of the islands known as Samoa, I was blessed to have a chance to speak to about 40 Robert Lewis Stevenson College (years 10-12) students about the work and passions of being a water protector and environmental scientist.
The presentation started by showing how much rubbish I gathered just walking on the sidewalk of the campus. Really just a handful of bottle caps and a few pieces of plastic. These students were quite sharp when I asked how long does plastic last in the environment. “500 years!!”
The majority of these young minds wish to be doctors and scientists. Big goals indeed! So I figured this would a good platform to explain for them the methods of animal and human toxic contamination from plastics discarded into the environment.
My presentation began with explaining how plastics are made from the same oil we harvest to make gasoline, kerosene and jet fuel; adding chemicals in the same way one might bake a cake.
We then carried through to how these pieces of plastic break down leaking chemicals into the water as the sun beats down on them. The most known toxic chemical is BPA which impacts both humans and fish because it acts like estrogen in our bodies. For spawning fish, high quantities of BPA in the water can cause a minimum amount of male fish to be born.
The chain of contamination goes even further than just leaking chemicals from the plastic into the water on land and the ocean. As plastics are leaching chemicals into the water, they are also collecting these chemicals on their surface. These tiny plastics also begin to grow alge, which causes fish to eat them. As the fish eat these tiny plastics, often less than 5mm in size, the chemicals on their surface are absorbed into the fish. As small fish get eaten by bigger fish, or grow into big fish themselves; a process called bioaccumulation occurs. This means that larger quantities of toxins will be found in the food we eat. We see this already in salmon found in Washington State, USA.
In addition to contamination from plastics, other forms of human consumption are adding toxicity into our food and water. Medicines like antibiotics and birth control join chemicals like pesticides from farming; niccotine and formaldehyde from discarded cigarette filters and a whole host of items that pass through drinking water systems. While many of these are part of life in large urban areas, much of the contamination is preventable.
One of the most important ways to prevent this from happening is by cleaning up the rubbish polluting the Earth and by keeping trash in it’s place. Without managing the way we eat and consume ; chemicals from plastics, medicines and poisons will continue to spread through our water and food supply. In just a few generations we’ll have made this planet into a wasteland as seen in science fiction, including the popular Pixar movie –Wall-E.
But much of this is preventable, by doing your part you can become part of the change this and future generations need to have a beautiful healthy planet. Learn to shop and eat organic foods, practice sustainable consumption, avoid plastic bottled water and always tell your friends to clean it up when they litter and pollute the Earth.