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The student news site of Allegheny College

The Campus

The student news site of Allegheny College

The Campus

Microplastics are a major issue

Why ditching single-use plastics is not enough
How+many+items+in+your+daily+life+contain+plastic%3F+Observe+and+share+your+results+with+us+with+the+QR+code+above%3A
How many items in your daily life contain plastic? Observe and share your results with us with the QR code above:

Which scientist, musician, award-winning writer and elected government official lives in an all-plastic, highly-stylized miniature house with all her friends? It’s not just Barbie.
In between chem labs, choir practice, ASG meetings and collecting academic accolades, Allegheny students are living their college years inside literal suites of plastic objects.
I want to highlight where plastic is hiding out in our everyday dorm objects, so that as we eyeball housing upgrades to Loomis Street, big-city internship apartments and post-grad bachelor pads, we’re all armed with an awareness about the full scope of the amount of plastic we buy to fill those spaces.
This summer, I went through 39 items on my college packing list, bullet point by bullet point, and identified how many of those objects contained plastic. The total was 82%. This percentage doesn’t take total material mass or volume into account— if it did, I suspect it would be even higher.
Plastic is made directly from fossil fuels, so its manufacture releases carbon dioxide, causing climate change through the insulating effect of greenhouse gasses. This means that each plastic object is essentially like its own physical representation of how much carbon dioxide humans are releasing into the atmosphere.
It never biodegrades, just breaks down into smaller and smaller particles, crumbling into the environment long after the used lifespan of the object it once was. Plastics have been mass-manufactured since the 1950s, but only 9% of plastics ever have been recycled, according to National Geographic.
What’s not recycled ends up in our ecosystems. And by “our ecosystems,” I mean here. Now. Not just on some faraway beach—look down outside Brooks and you’ll see it. Look in the landscaping and in the creeks. Look in your dorm room dustpan.
I’m sure you’ve seen the pictures of dissected animals who have starved to death, a mass of indigestible plastics balled in their stomachs. But plastic’s damage goes beyond charismatic megafauna. It affects you.
Unregulated toxic chemicals linked to cancer and hormonal disruption leach out of plastic in the microwave, in bodies of water and in landfills. There, they build up in increasingly unhealthy levels within the ecosystem, according to the National Institute of Health. Science News and other outlets report that researchers have found microplastic particles floating in human blood and lungs, affecting our lives in ways we don’t yet fully understand. An academic journal article published in “Science of the Total Environment” by Yuan et al. points to plastics as being not only carcinogenic, but also affecting human genomes and development. They categorize extremely common types of plastic— polyurethane, polyacrylonitrile, polyvinyl chloride (PVC), epoxy resin and acrylonitrile-butadiene-styrene (ABS) as most harmful.
It’s worth noting that plastic has revolutionized essential fields like medical equipment, and allows us to care for each other in global, large-scale ways that were unachievable before. Perhaps if we used plastic judiciously, our rate of consumption would be sustainable.
But rugs don’t need to be made out of plastic fibers. The everyday materials used to make the products we fill our homes with need to change in response to our reality: climate change. Widespread pollutant toxicity. Collapsing ecosystems.
Some of my plastic use is currently unavoidable, like charging cords and my computer. Some items contain plastic in unexpected ways. The extra stretch in half my shirts? Elastane—which is plastic. Nail polish? Resin thermoplastic polymer — which is plastic. My reusable coffee filter, marketed to divert paper filter waste? Plastic. Chewing gum? Contains plastic.
This is a tough scene for consumers. The cost/benefit analysis is messy when it comes to trash cans, deodorant, storage bins, rugs, box fans and vacuums: existing plastic-free solutions are more expensive, harder to transport and/or way less effective. Is it better to have a super-durable memory foam pillow that supports my spine, or a natural material pillow that gives me an achy neck? I don’t know.
I generally disagree with environmental solutions that place responsibility on the consumer to solve multifaceted problems. If you don’t disagree, that’s fine—buy less plastic items.
But you’re not just a consumer. We’re all going to college to earn positions of power in the workforce. And to get better at making these kinds of complicated decisions. You might not be a powerful decision-maker right now, but you will be. This is especially true if you’re someone other than an environmental science major: I can quickly think of ways that business, economics, chemistry, biology, industrial design, data science, communications, global health studies, international studies, math, political science, art and history majors all could have some kind of say at work over what to do with plastic. You might think of more.
If plastic is everywhere you look, then solutions could be too. To start developing an awareness of just how much plastic and how many possible solutions there are, try counting up what percentage of individual objects in one room have plastic components. Then, assess what major-related or job-related ways you could change that number.

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