Dr Sallie Burrough
Research Fellow, Science Communicator, Exhausted Parent. Telling it how it is.
I didn’t notice how much plastic was in my life until I had children, then suddenly, a growing stash of brightly-coloured, petroleum-based paraphernalia made me feel like the mere existence of my offspring was enough to support a small petrochemical plant. To be clear, some of this I merrily and unthinkingly purchased – plastic baby bottles, children’s cups, baby baths, car seats, change mats, a safari animal themed mobile. The list was long. Much was also thrust upon us by well-meaning relatives whose motive in showering us with plastic playthings was wholeheartedly the happiness of my kids. I don’t blame them, it’s hard to find alternatives - plastic toys, which are notoriously difficult to recycle, account for 90% of the toy market, largely because they are inexpensive to produce.
I get it, the unquestionable joy on a child’s face after handing them a gift creates treasured moments for grandparents, friends and family whose brief encounters with my children lead them to believe that their gift has left nothing but lasting happiness in my home. What I have learnt as a parent however, is that the much coveted plastic monstrosity is, more often than not, discarded more rapidly than a rocket-full-of-monkeys. Kids are fickle creatures and there is well-documented evidence that the more toys they have, the less they play with them. It’s not just Nana and Gramps – plastic comes at my kids from every direction, it’s in gift bags at parties, on magazines, inside cereal boxes. @CBeebiesHQ magazine - I’m talking to you, we love your mags but we don’t want your gimcrack plastic debris stuck to the front.
I’m also not immune to pre-schooler pressure and will climb down from my high-horse to admit that this year, I caved when eBay couldn’t provide the preloved version of a much coveted plastic archaeologist doll. But the momentary joy of its acquisition, wasn’t priceless. My daughter, like many others, will pay for our birthday gift choices in the world she will inherit. The irony of my plastic archaeology friend is that she was loved for a full 72 hours before being unceremoniously relegated to the murky depths of the toybox. Nonetheless, she will remain with us on Earth for another 500 years. Where exactly, archaeo-doll will eventually end up is hard to say - languishing in the ever expanding landfill? floating amongst the 150 million tonnes of plastic that circulate in our oceans?
The scale of the plastic pollution problem was famously catapulted into public consciousness in 2016 when David Attenborough directed his weighty influence on to the issue in Blue Planet II, but our plastic predicament is neither new nor unpredicted. Arguably, we slept-walked into the crisis, guided by action and inaction that was shaped by corporate campaigns. Investigative studies have found good evidence that industry leaders pre-empted regulatory action by pushing recycling as a solution whilst being fully cognizant of its infeasibility as a viable economic solution. They weren’t wrong – less than 10% of all plastic has ever been recycled in the last 40 years.
Since my childhood, plastic production has doubled every decade, my car is built out of it, my clothes are made from it, it’s in my teabags. Its inexpensive, mind-boggling ubiquity has defined the throwaway, convenience-is-king culture that pervades this century. Covid has contributed to the problem, not just in terms of adding facemasks to the debris. In both Europe and the US, plastic industries used the pandemic to attempt to delay plastic regulations and in the latter case solicited an official declaration of support for single-use plastic products as ‘the sanitary choice’, despite the lack of scientific evidence to support that claim. Similarly, supermarkets put pressure on the UK government to pause or postpone the implementation of deposit return systems (DRS) due to come into force in 2023, with the wholly unsubstantiated claim that such schemes would be a breeding ground for the virus.
As our oceans choke with lego star-wars ships, plastic dolls and carrier bags, the scientific community has understandably focused its fastidious eye on how these alien objects have affected marine ecosystems, not least as these plastics break down into tiny particles and constitute chemical additives. They’ve accumulated in the food chain, in the water, in the air we breathe; they end up inside us. There is a growing body of research tackling the challenging issues around what that means for human health. Everything from the impact of chemical additives like BPA and toy-softening Phthalates (the latter now banned from children’s toys) to the physical interaction of nanoplastics with our cells, remains poorly understood. Most scientific studies still frame microplastic risks as hypothetical, while 24% present the risks to human health as well established. Regulation trudges reluctantly along the same path as scientific progress but there is an awful lot we don’t yet understand about the health implications of where all those plastic chemicals go.
With those uncertainties and my love of turtles in mind, I will try, all be it with some futility, to avoid plastics where possible. In my new role as killjoy for my children’s highly marketed-to brains, here’s some other stuff I know they will love just as much as archaeo-doll’s latest ballerina cousin:
Sallie is a Quaternary Scientist, National Geographic Explorer, Trapnell Fellow of African Environments at the University of Oxford and a mum; though not necessarily in that order.