Kyra Sedgwick, film actress and star of television’s popular show The Closer, is using her famed communications skills to educate the public and world leaders about something that really upsets her: single-use plastics. Specifically, Ms. Sedgwick is concerned about the health impacts of chemicals leaching from plastic food packaging and the continual build-up of plastic pollution in our oceans. That is why Ms. Sedgwick took time from her busy schedule to moderate a discussion on plastic pollution at The United Nations Headquarters in New York City on March 27th, 2012, featuring international experts on the environmental, health and economic impacts of plastic waste.
“A Global Call to End Plastic Pollution” is part of a series of events building to the international Rio Earth Summit this summer where plastic pollution is on the agenda. 110 world leaders have already committed to attend the Rio Earth Summit June 20-22nd in Rio de Janerio, Brasil. The theme of the summit is “The Future We Want.”
Relating to the theme of the Rio Earth Summit, Ms. Sedgwick says she wants a future “free of plastic pollution.” Ms. Sedgwick revealed that she became an outspoken critic of single-use plastics after learning unsettling facts about them, and she believes that education is the first step in solving the crisis.
“When I became aware that plastic trash like the disposable plastic water bottle would survive not only my lifetime but my children’s and their children’s lifetimes, I knew that we, as a society, had a major problem. When I learned that in developed countries like the U.S., we recycle at best around 30 percent of the plastic we use and that even then, we turn the plastic into relatively useless items like plastic ashtrays, I became obsessed with the waste. I can be thrown into a severe anxiety attack at my neighborhood spinning class as I see mothers whom I know to be intelligent responsible parents go through a jumbo size water and then throw it ‘away.’
There is no ‘away,’ and much of the plastic packaging we use could end up in one of the five Gyres — swirling areas of the world’s ocean current where trash is concentrated. Plastic pollution kills and injures wildlife. Tiny plastic pellets in the water absorb toxins, and studies are now being done to learn whether it is poisoning fish, which is globally the most important source of protein for humans.
I have done my best to alter my lifestyle to help solve this problem; avoiding plastic whenever possible and spread the word about its damaging effects. But I can only do so much. This is where the government must step in. There is a real solution that can be implemented now.
This is why I am so honored to be asked to be part of the panel today. I hope that tonight’s speakers will inspire all of you here to make a systemic change in your country…”
Every day, disposable plastics (bottles, bags, packaging, utensils, etc.) are thrown away in huge quantities after one use, but they will last virtually forever. Globally we make 300 million tons of plastic waste each year. Disposable plastics are the largest component of ocean trash. According to leading expert Charles Moore, founder of Algalita Marine Research Foundation, while by EPA’s latest report, 8.2 percent of plastics get recycled in America, and about 40 percent go to landfill, around 50 percent go unaccounted for when they become waste and much of that waste ends up in our oceans. In America alone, that’s 25 billion pounds of plastic that most likely ends up in our oceans according to Anthony Andrady, a leading scientific expert in plastics.
While Fresh Kills Landfill in New York was once known as the planet’s largest man-made structure, our oceans are now known to contain the world’s largest dumps. These unintended landfills in our seas may cover millions of square miles and are composed of plastic waste fragments, circling the natural vortexes of the oceans like swirling plastic confetti.
The commonly known Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a large area of the Pacific between Hawaii and California where plastic objects and fragments float in a veritable plastic soup, is the best known and most studied of five major concentrations of primarily plastic waste circling the naturally occurring gyres in the oceans of the world. Dr. Marcus Eriksen, co-founder of 5 Gyres, says a conservative estimate of the territory covered by these concentrations of plastics in our oceans (21 percent of earth’s surface) plus fresh water accumulations, is 25 percent of the earth’s surface.
United Nations Under-Secretary-General and United Nations Environment Programme Executive Director Achim Steiner has called upon nations of the world and business to cooperate on solutions to plastic pollution:
“Marine debris — trash in our oceans — is a symptom of our throw-away society and our approach to how we use our natural resources. It affects every country and every ocean and shows us in highly visible terms the urgency of shifting towards a low-carbon, resource efficient Green Economy… However, one community or one country acting in isolation will not be the answer. We need to address marine debris collectively across national boundaries and with the private sector, which has a critical role to play both in reducing the kinds of wastes that can end up in the world’s oceans, and through research into new materials. It is by bringing all these players together that we can truly make a difference.”
Plastic pollution in our oceans is of great concern because it threatens wildlife and has become part of our food chain when consumed by fish. In addition, plastics pose another and perhaps more acute risk to human health. Scientific research continues to demonstrate significant health implications from consuming food tainted with chemicals from plastic packaging.
BPA was originally synthesized in 1936 as an estrogen replacement therapy, but since the 1940s it has been used primarily as a hardening agent in the manufacture of polycarbonate plastic. BPA can be found in plastic baby bottles, children’s “sippy” cups, in the epoxy resin coating in the interior of modern metal food and aluminum soda cans, and in many other products, including the large polycarbonate water bottles that water services deliver to homes and offices. There is indeed compelling scientific research linking plastic bottles to BPA exposure, and BPA exposure to breast cancer and many other diseases. Polycarbonate is made from BPA, and that small amounts of BPA can leach out of polycarbonate containers and plastic linings of cans into our food and drink. “Close to 100 percent of our exposure occurs this way,” says Michael Selby of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, a division of the National Institutes of Health.
BPA has been under surveillance for years, but the charges against it grew in May 2009 when a U.S. study made a link between drinking water from polycarbonate bottles and BPA exposure. The report revealed that the average BPA level of those drinking from polycarbonate bottles was 69 percent higher than those drinking from stainless steel bottles.
Polystyrene, a type of plastic known most commonly by its Dow Chemical brand name of Styrofoam, is one of the most common forms of trash at beaches, right up there with plastic bags and plastic resin pellets, the raw material from which plastic items are formed. Polystyrene is particularly dangerous to birds and sea creatures because it breaks into round bits that resemble larvae and fish eggs that mimic food. Styrene a chemical found in polystyrene is a known animal carcinogen. It is not good for birds, fish, turtles or cetaceans, and it’s terrible for people too. Styrene is a known human neurotoxin, possible human carcinogen, and it migrates easily into food or drink when foam containers are heated or come into contact with hot food, acids (like lemon or tomato juice) and fats or oils. A study by the United States Environmental Protection Agency conducted in 1982 found that 100 percent of Americans tested had Styrene in their fat tissue.
Solutions to plastic pollution that were discussed in the United Nations panel moderated by Ms. Sedgwick included:
- Molecular redesign of plastics through “green” chemistry incorporated into the production of goods and packaging so that they will be safer to use and less harmful to the environment when they become waste.
- Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) to help redistribute the burden of handling end-of-life plastic from governments and individuals who may be impacted by the waste, to producers who will have the incentive to find ways to reduce the amount of plastic packaging used as well as to ensure it is properly recovered when the product reaches the end of its useful life.
- Use of fees and bans to discourage the use of single use plastics like plastic bags and fast food containers.
- Engineering solutions to keep plastic waste from entering storm drains and rivers, where it is carried to the oceans.
Kyra Sedwick led five distinguished panelists in a multimedia presentation at the United Nations on these and other issues relating to the impacts of plastic pollution on human health, wildlife and the environment. The panelists were Dr. Marcus Eriksen, Executive Director of 5 Gyres Institute; Dr. Lev Neretin, Scientific and Technical Advisor to the Global Environment Foundation and an author of the groundbreaking report on solutions to plastic pollution; Dr. Suja Lowenthal, Vice Mayor of Long Beach representing The City of the Future, Winner of the TED 2012 Prize; and Jimena Leiva Roesch, Third Secretary, Mission of Guatemala to the UN and part of the Do-Tank Trash Patch; and Tom de Blasis, Design Innovation Director, Nike Foundation.
Kyra Sedgwick also appeared on Morning Joe with NRDC’s Leila Monroe to promote the UN panel and educate the public about plastic pollution.
(This article originally appeared on The Huffington Post in April 2012. It has been reprinted here with permission.)