12 Nov 2009

Pervasive Plastics: Why the U.S. Needs New and Tighter Controls

Long a ubiquitous part of modern life, plastics are now in everything from diapers to water bottles to cell phones. But given the proven health threats of some plastics — as well as the enormous environmental costs — the time has come for the U.S. to pass a comprehensive plastics control law.
By john wargo

Since 1950, plastics have quickly and quietly entered the lives and bodies of most people and ecosystems on the planet. In the United States alone, more than 100 billion pounds of resins are formed each year into food and beverage packaging, electronics, building products, furnishings, vehicles, toys, and medical devices. In 2007, the average American purchased more than 220 pounds of plastic, creating nearly $400 billion in sales.

It is now impossible to avoid exposure to plastics. They surround and pervade our homes, bodies, foods, and water supplies, from the plastic diapers and polyester pajamas worn by our children to the cars we drive and the frying pans in which we cook our food.

The ubiquitous nature of plastics is a significant factor in an unexpected side effect of 20th century prosperity — a change in the chemistry of the human body. Today, most individuals carry in their bodies a mixture of metals, pesticides, solvents, fire retardants, waterproofing agents, and by-products of fuel combustion, according to studies of human tissues conducted across the U.S. by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Children often carry higher concentrations than adults, with the amounts also varying according to gender and ethnicity. Many of these substances are recognized by the governments of the United States and the European Union to be carcinogens, neurotoxins, reproductive and developmental toxins, or endocrine disruptors that mimic or block human hormones.

Significantly, these chemicals were once thought to be safe at doses now known to be hazardous; as with other substances, the perception of danger grew as governments tested chemicals more thoroughly. Such is the case with Bisphenol-A (BPA), the primary component of hard and clear polycarbonate plastics, which people are exposed to daily through water bottles, baby bottles, and the linings of canned foods.

Given the proven health threat posed by some plastics, the scattershot and weak regulation of the plastics industry, and the enormous environmental costs of plastics — the plastics industry accounts for 5 percent of the nation’s consumption of petroleum and natural gas, and more than 1 trillion pounds of plastic wastes now sit in U.S. garbage dumps — the time has come to pass a comprehensive national plastics control law.

One might assume the United States already has such a law. Indeed, Congress adopted the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) in 1976 intending to manage chemicals such as those polymers used to form plastics. Yet TSCA was and is fundamentally flawed for several reasons that
Nearly all chemicals in commerce have been poorly tested to determine their effects
on human health.
have long been obvious. Nearly 80,000 chemicals are now traded in global markets, and Congress exempted nearly 60,000 of them from TSCA testing requirements. Among 20,000 new compounds introduced since the law’s passage, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has issued permits for all except five, but has required intensive reviews for only 200. This means that nearly all chemicals in commerce have been poorly tested to determine their environmental behavior or effects on human health. The statute’s ineffectiveness has been recognized for decades, yet Congress, the EPA, and manufacturers all share blame for the failure to do anything about it.

In contrast, the European Union in 2007 adopted a new directive known as “REACH” that requires the testing of both older and newly introduced chemicals. Importantly the new regulations create a burden on manufacturers to prove safety; under TSCA the burden rests on EPA to prove danger, and the agency has never taken up the challenge. Unless the U.S. chooses to adopt similar restrictions, U.S. chemical manufacturers will face barriers to their untested exports intended for European markets. Thus the chemical industry itself recognizes the need to harmonize U.S. and EU chemical safety law.

The most promising proposal for reform in the U.S. is the “Kid-Safe Chemical Act,” a bill first introduced in 2008 that would require industry to show that chemicals are safe for children before they are added to consumer products. Such a law is needed because there is little doubt that the growing burden of synthetic chemicals has been accompanied by an increase in the prevalence of many illnesses during the past half-century. These include respiratory diseases (such as childhood asthma), neurological impairments, declining sperm counts, fertility failure, immune dysfunction, breast and prostate cancers, and developmental disorders among the young. Some of these illnesses are now known to be caused or exacerbated by exposure to commercial chemicals and pollutants.

Few people realize how pervasive plastics have become. Most homes constructed since 1985 are wrapped in plastic film such as Tyvek, and many exterior shells are made from polyvinyl chloride (PVC) siding. Some modern buildings receive water and transport wastes via PVC pipes. Wooden floors are coated with polyurethane finishes and polyvinyl chloride tiles.

Foods and beverages are normally packaged in plastic, including milk bottles made from high-density polyethylene. Most families have at least one “non-stick” pan, often made from Teflon, a soft polymer that can scratch and hitchhike on foods to the dinner table. Between 1997 and 2005, annual sales of small bottles of water — those holding less than one liter — increased from 4 billion to nearly 30 billion bottles.

The billions of video games, computers, MP3 players, cameras, and cell
Ingredients of plastics need not be labeled, and most manufacturers are unwilling to disclose them or their sources.
phones purchased each year in the United States use a wide variety of plastic resins. And the almost 7.5 million new vehicles sold in the United States each year contain 2.5 billion pounds of plastic components, which have little hope of being recycled, especially if made from polyvinyl chloride or polycarbonate.

The chemical contents of plastics have always been a mystery to consumers. Under federal law, ingredients need not be labeled, and most manufacturers are unwilling or unable to disclose these contents or their sources. Indeed, often the only clue consumers have to the chemical identity of the plastics they use is the voluntary resin code designed to identify products that should and should not be recycled — but it offers little usable information.

The true costs of plastics — including the energy required to manufacture them, the environmental contamination caused by their disposal, their health impacts, and the recycling and eventual disposal costs — are not reflected in product prices. The American Plastics Council now estimates that only about 5 percent of all plastics manufactured are recycled; 95 billion pounds are discarded on average yearly. Adding to the environmental toll, most plastic is produced from natural gas and petroleum products, exacerbating global warming.

Plastics and Human Health

The controversy over BPA — the primary component of hard and clear plastics — and its potential role in human hormone disruption provides the most recent example of the need for a national plastics control law.

Normal growth and development among fetuses, infants, children, and adolescents is regulated in the body by a diverse set of hormones that promote or inhibit cell division. More than a thousand chemicals are now suspected of affecting normal human hormonal activity. These include many pharmaceuticals, pesticides, plasticizers, solvents, metals, and flame retardants.

Scientists’ growing interest in hormone disruption coincided with a consensus within the National Academy of Sciences that children are often at greater risk of health effects than adults because of their rapidly growing but immature organ systems, hormone pathways, and metabolic systems. And many forms of human illness associated with abnormal hormonal activity have become more commonplace during the past several decades, including infertility, breast and prostate cancer, and various neurological problems.

BPA illustrates well the endocrine disruption problem. Each year several billion pounds of BPA are produced in the United States. The Centers for
David McNew/Getty Images
Plastic water bottles made with the carbonate plastic Bisphenol-A (BPA) hang on display at a California outdoor supply store.
Disease Control and Prevention has found, in results consistent with those found in other countries, that 95 percent of human urine samples tested have measurable BPA levels. BPA has also been detected in human serum, breast milk, and maternal and fetal plasma. BPA travels easily across the placenta, and levels in many pregnant women and their fetuses were similar to those found in animal studies to be toxic to the reproductive organs of the animals’ male and female offspring.

Government scientists believe that the primary source of human BPA exposure is foods, especially those that are canned, as BPA-based epoxy resins can migrate from the resins into the foods. In 1997, the FDA found that BPA migrated from polycarbonate water containers — such as the five-gallon water jugs found in offices — into water at room temperature and that concentrations increased over time. Another study reported that boiling water in polycarbonate bottles increased the rate of migration by up to 55-fold, suggesting that it would be wise to avoid filling polycarbonate baby bottles with boiling water to make infant formula from powders.

Scientists have reported BPA detected in nonstick-coated cookware, PVC stretch film used for food packaging, recycled paperboard food boxes, and clothing treated with fire retardants.

Since 1995 numerous scientists have reported that BPA caused health effects in animals that were similar to diseases becoming more prevalent in humans, abnormal penile or urethra development in males, obesity and type 2 diabetes, and immune system disorders. BPA can bind with estrogen receptors in cell membranes following part-per-trillion doses — exposures nearly 1,000 times lower than the EPA’s recommended acceptable limit.

In 2007, the National Institutes of Health convened a panel of 38 scientists to review the state of research on BPA-induced health effects. The panel, selected for its independence from the plastics industry, issued a strong warning about the chemical’s hazards:

“There is chronic, low level exposure of virtually everyone in developed countries to BPA... The wide range of adverse effects of low doses of BPA in laboratory animals exposed both during development and in adulthood is a great cause for concern with regard to the potential for similar adverse effects in humans.”

The American Chemistry Council, which advocates for the plastics industry, has criticized most scientific research that has reported an
Competing narratives have delayed government action to protect the health of citizens.
association between BPA and adverse health effects. The council’s complaints have included claims that sample sizes are too small, that animals are poor models for understanding hazards to humans, that doses administered in animal studies are normally far higher than those experienced by humans, that the mechanism of chemical action is poorly understood, and that health effects among those exposed are not necessarily “adverse.”

Research on plastics, however, now comprises a large and robust literature reporting adverse health effects in laboratory animals and wildlife at even low doses. Claims of associations between BPA and hormonal activity in humans are strengthened by consensus that everyone is routinely exposed and by the rising incidence of many human diseases similar to those induced in animals dosed with the chemical. Two competing narratives — one forwarded by independent scientists and the other promoted by industry representatives — have delayed government action to protect the health of citizens through bans or restrictions.

Action Needed

How has the plastics industry escaped serious regulation by the federal government, especially since other federally regulated sectors that create environmental or health risks such as pharmaceuticals, pesticides, motor vehicles, and tobacco have their own statutes? In the case of plastics, Congress instead has been content with limited federal regulatory responsibility, now fractured among at least four agencies: the EPA, the Food and Drug Administration, the Consumer Product Safety Commission, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. None of these agencies has demanded pre-market testing of plastic ingredients, none has required ingredient labeling or warnings on plastic products, and none has limited production, environmental release, or human exposure. As a result, the entire U.S. population continues to be exposed to hormonally active chemicals from plastics without their knowledge or consent.

What should be done? The Kids Safe Chemical Act represents a comprehensive solution that would apply to all commercial chemicals including plastic ingredients. Yet the nation’s chemical companies, with their enormous political power, are not likely to agree to assume the testing costs, nor are they likely to accept a health protective standard. Rather than pass another weak statute, Congress should consider a stronger alternative.

The nation needs a comprehensive plastics control law, just as we have national laws to control firms that produce other risky products, such as pesticides. Key elements of a national plastics policy should include tough

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government regulations that demand pre-market testing and prohibit chemicals that do not quickly degrade into harmless compounds. Exempting previously permitted ingredients from this evaluation makes little sense, as older chemicals have often been proven more dangerous than newer ones.

Plastics ingredients found to pose a significant threat to the environment or human health should be quickly phased out of production. Congress chose this approach to manage pesticide hazards, and it has proven to be reasonably effective since the passage of the Food Quality Protection Act in 1996. Federal redemption fees for products containing plastics should be set at levels tied to chemical persistence, toxicity, and production volume. These fees should be high enough that consumers have a strong incentive to recycle.

In order to make responsible choices in the marketplace, consumers also need to be educated about the content and effects of the resins, so we need mandatory labeling of plastic ingredients. The chemical industry itself needs to replace persistent and hazardous chemicals with those that are proven to be safe. Finally, manufacturers should take responsibility for cleaning up environmental contamination from the more than one trillion pounds of plastic wastes they have produced over the past 50 years.


John Wargo is professor of environmental policy, risk analysis, and political science at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, chairs the Environmental Studies Major at Yale College, and is an advisor to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. His latest book is Green Intelligence: Creating Environments That Protect Human Health.

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"So we need mandatory labeling of plastic ingredients..."

The second would be to inform the public about the different types of plastic. I completely agree with the stance in this post though.

Posted by Jurken Kopen on 12 Nov 2009

I agree that this type of regulation is critical. What's the status of the Kid-Safe Chemical Act now?

Posted by Kirsten@Nexyoo on 12 Nov 2009

I am struck by the comment in John Wargo's article that, "...the time has come to pass a comprehensive national plastics control law." In light of the extensive production of chemical plastics in the U.S. and their largely unmonitored usage, this appears to be a call for policy that is timely, that has growing support-through awareness, and that is well thought-out.

Yet, in spite of these weighty motivations, there seems a lack of popular will to make the changes needed. What will enable the U.S. to make the broad, cultural transformations to meet the challenges facing us in monitoring plastics? No doubt this issue is folded into the increasingly interrelated range of environmental problems. And all of them await some fundamental insight into our large sense of being at home on this planet.

Posted by John Grim on 12 Nov 2009

And plastics are building up in the worlds ocean. There is apparently an island of plastic waste bigger than Texas in the Pacific.

Thanks for this timely post, although in Europe we still have some way to go in cutting down the plastic menace.

Posted by Derek Wall on 12 Nov 2009

The Kids Safe Chemical Act, introduced by Senator Frank Lautenberg (NJ D) in 2008, failed to make it out of committee during the last session of Congress. Although there is broad interest in the principles embedded in the bill, health care reform and climate change are are now dominating the scarce attention of Congress. Since plastics now constitute the majority of the synthetic chemical industry, they pose a fresh and I think reasonable target for statutory control.

Posted by John Wargo on 12 Nov 2009

A comment by John Grim, above, "What will enable the U.S. to make the broad, cultural transformations to meet the challenges facing us in monitoring plastics?" is the key question.

Politicians respond to contemporary cultural norms and voices - and lobbyist /chem’ industry money speaks loudly. How many people can join John Wargo in simply having the ability to grasp the concept of "billions of pounds" and "20,000 new chemical compounds," let alone imagine how all 20,000 can be tested for safety - especially longitudinally, which only seems right given the insidious nature of how new compounds affect human health and how some of the bad side effects take a long time to emerge or to expose themselves.

Even if we tested all 20,000+ this year, next year’s technology will allow us to further test, probably discovering more problems. Perhaps, in the early days the testing was done with a nod-and-a-wink to the industry, maybe not, but as Dr. Wargo points out, some of the substances now known as dangerous ”… were once thought to be safe at doses now known to be hazardous.”

How can I have confidence that the testing done today will not be proven inadequate tomorrow? As our technology is able to do a better and better job analyzing risk, more and more chemical compounds are being created – probably outpacing the testing side. And that testing costs a lot of money. Discovering and producing the new chemicals costs a lot of money as well, but it also makes money. How can the regulators survive?

Which brings me back to the original point - "What will enable the U.S. to make the broad, cultural transformations to meet the challenges facing us in monitoring plastics?" Somebody has to pay for this and it is a cultural, paradigm shift. If society as a whole can be convinced of the value of looking ahead and watching out for the future – there is hope. But right now, I am just glad I don’t have any kids.

Posted by jeff davis on 13 Nov 2009

Thanks Mr. Wargo, for posting something about chemical safety. I think making industrial chemicals safe for everyone is something we can all get behind. Problem is: mandating more chemical testing kills millions of animals, cost lots of money, and give use questionable results.

Recently the New York Times gave the example: "The chemical industry cites one recent study in which BPA did not cause harm to the reproductive health of Long-Evans rats. But that strain of rats has been found to be less susceptible to endocrine disruptors, while CD-1 mice (also used in many experiments) are more vulnerable. Are humans more like Long-Evans rats or like CD-1 mice?" This is precisely the problem.

Many people and scientists agree that current legislation which regulates chemicals must be reformed. However, we should also be sure to reform the science that underlies these regulations—namely, the way in which toxicity testing is conducted.

Currently, toxicity testing is largely based on experiments in animals and uses methods that were developed as long ago as the 1930’s and 40’s; they and are slow, inaccurate, open to uncertainty and manipulation, and do not adequately protect human health. These tests take anywhere from months to years, and tens of thousands to millions of dollars to perform. More importantly, the current testing paradigm has a poor record in predicting effects in humans and an even poorer record in leading to actual regulation of dangerous chemicals.

Fortunately, many scientists have worked, and are working, on addressing these problems -- and alternatives to animal testing exist in a powerful way. Chemical reform should not only modernize policy, but modernize the science that supports that policy. Let's ensure that our new legislation uses all the necessary tools to truly make our children, our environment, and animals safe.

Posted by Charli on 13 Nov 2009

As if any of this will happen. Half the people I know willingly walk around with a thousand chemicals lathered over their bodies, giving off a smell that inhabits a room days after they have gone.

Posted by BobTurbo on 13 Nov 2009

I agree with some things you have said in this article, but I am very concerned with your stance on BPA.

BPA is not good and there is no doubting that. The problem is that its not as bad as people make it out to be. Anyone that has taken a mass transfer class can tell you that BPA will go into water bottles. They can also tell you that boiling water will make it happen faster. The problem I have is with the notion of "measurable" quantities. A "measurable" amount is about as loose a quantifier as you can get. There is supposedly a "measurable" amount of cocaine on some absurd portion of U.S. currency but that doesn't mean its getting people high. There is a "measurable" amount of cyanide in apple seeds but that doesn't mean eating one will kill you. Measurable is an instrument dependent concept not a chemical dependent one.

The problem in America is that Americans are scaremongers to substances that are difficult to pronounce (especially ones deemed acronym worthy). The dangers of BPA have been known for years its just gained so much attention lately because in general the population doesn't understand it. The human body is more resiliant than quite a few people give it credit for. Selenium can give you heavy metal poisoning in excess but at low levels it is actually an anti-oxidant. Your body is not a temple, its a vehicle, and you can have a little water in your gasoline from time to time and it will get on just fine. All people seem to care about is existence of dangerous chemicals and ignore the fact that industries aren't trying to poison you. If they did that they'd have 1 fewer customer.

My point is this: articles like this work on little quantitative data. It poses a persuasive argument but it's ultimately unfounded since it offers no hard numbers to prove its point. What makes it persuasive is that by and large readers don't have a full background on what makes these chemicals dangerous and the quantities that they're safe in let alone any idea of how much they were consuming in the first place. It turns helpful and currently safe chemicals into buzzwords people watch out for.

A classic example of what I am getting at is the last time I went to a local organic food store I spotted a sign that said "Sodium Benzoate Free!" The ironic part of this sign is that the people who are most likely to care about this are probably unaware of the fact organically grown cranberries can _naturally_ contain levels of sodium benzoate above FDA regulations. Just because something sounds intimidating doesn't mean it is.

Posted by Patrick on 14 Nov 2009

With the astounding quantities of plastic waste found not only in our oceans but also our landfills it shouldn't be surprising that chemicals are slowing working their way through the food chain and into foods commonly food in our human diets. The CAW states, "Nearly all of us carry in our bodies chemicals present in plastics -- raising alarming questions about the role plastics play in human health and diseases such as cancer and autism."

However convenient plastics are, however common they have become it's time for us to look at the effect they are having on our environment and our health. With more sustainable options such as glass already available isn't it time we cured ourselves of our plastic addiction.

Posted by Mike - classifieds software on 15 Nov 2009

Well, it's all true. We have till now used so much of plastic that even if we stop using anything made of plastic today, the last traces of plastic will not vanish in coming 500 years. The thing that pains me is that except for few things, we have alternate options available in the market, than why aren't we using them? Are we to afraid to step up and be the change that we want to see in the world?

Scientists are no doubt working to give us decomposable plastics that will supposedly be not as detrimental to our health as present plastics are but big question is will they be successful in giving this world a cleaner and healthier future.

Till, we don't get a law, i think we should rather take it up on ourselves to fight this menace, so that we are able to give our next generations, a trace of what we got from our ancestors.

Posted by Coriane on 16 Nov 2009

Particularly our "disposable" plastics should be biologically digestible down to CO2 and water in a safe and reasonable time. Other less biologically disposable plastics should be incinerated into CO2 and water. Any ash residue should be disposed of safely.

Posted by jon on 16 Nov 2009

What has "delayed" government action on BPA is the the simple fact that the studies purporting to show problems were poorly done and, so far at least, have not been REPRODUCIBLE.

In my book "not reproducible" often means "wrong."

Posted by SALLY F on 17 Nov 2009

I wish to respond to the claims of Patrick and Sally F regarding the state of science on plastics, particularly BPA.

You can find a full review of the current science on BPA in a book I authored titled "Green Intelligence", published several weeks ago by Yale University Press, and fully peer-reviewed.

Moreover, the overwhelming evidence in the peer-reviewed journal literature demonstrates hormonal effects following exposure to BPA in numerous species of test animals, and at exceptionally low doses. In addition it is clear that children's tissue concentrations are higher than adults'.

If this chemical were classified as a "pesticide" it could not be licensed by EPA. As we have no comprehensive plastic control law in the US, BPA escapes EPA's regulatory control.

Finally, a bit of my own history may help you to understand the perspective I bring to the plastics problem. I have been a professor at Yale for 25 years, a member of EPA's Science Review Board and Scientific Advisory Panel on pesticides for many years, an advisor to several National Academy of Sciences panels on children's exposures to toxic substances, an advisor to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on the hazards of children's chemical exposures, and an advisor to the World Health Organization on chemical hazards to children.

Posted by John Wargo on 17 Nov 2009

My point was never that BPA is NOT dangerous. I prefaced my comment with the simple statement "BPA is not good." What I was getting at was the lemming effect: If someone doesn't feel confident in their knowledge on a subject they will blindly accept the opinion of someone else.

All I was asking for was a quantifier. In this particular article you said it was dangerous and you said it was "measurable" but what I want to know is how close is this "measurable" concentration to the more important toxic concentration.

There are other remnants of plastic processing detectable in nearly everyone (PFOA for one) but unfortunately the grandfather rule applied to that chemical as well when the TSCA rolled around. If you trace the history of PFOA you'll find that SOME reputable companies (circa 2000) replaced it even after studies that found "measurable" but still sub-toxic residues from processing PTFE. They changed their policies on using PFOA not because anyone was getting hurt but rather because it was getting such a bad name. I think BPA is following this same path. Companies will start phasing it out because they'll lose more customers to THINKING its dangerous than they would from people actually getting hurt.

I have a theory that if you eat enough wheat bread you'll get cancer. You won't get cancer from any 1 part of the wheat bread, rather you'll get cancer because you've put way too much of 1 thing into your body. There is a reason the pink sweeteners could drop that cancer warning. When you reference studies on chemical / health risk correlations you need to tell people _exactly_ how close or far their probable consumption rate is to the focus of the study.

Posted by Patrick on 21 Nov 2009

I often re-use my plastic water bottles by filling them up with tap water however after a while I notice a very horrible plastic taste from the bottle. I really hate to think about what it is doing to my body.

Posted by Mike on 02 Jan 2010

Our blindness or insensitivity to this subject is as ubiquitous as the plastics themselves. Even my latest shipment of mineral supplements from an alternative health practitioner arrived in several thin plastic bottles...

Perhaps there is an unconscious self-destructive streak in humanity we are not addressing?

Posted by Lucy on 03 Jan 2010

I live in Oregon and about 2 weeks ago, the Oregon State Senate failed to pass SB1032 banning the sale of BPA-containing baby bottles and sippy cups.

I'm very disappointed by this and I told my Senator how I feel.

As a concerned father, I am worried about the health of my daughter as related to BPA exposure.

I use plastic sports drink bottles for water after consuming the product and I'm worried about the effect of these bottles on my own health too.

Oregon’s senate split 15-15. According to the Oregonian (a Portland newspaper), opponents of the proposed ban feared that it “would be a first step toward banning BPA from the lining of canned products, which they said would hurt Oregon food processors because there aren’t adequate alternatives.”

For more info:

This is an FDA Update on Bisphenol A for Use in Food Contact Applications:

Posted by Jay on 03 Mar 2010

Well, it is definitely time to forget about zip-lock bags, however convenient. Up till this point I must admit that I have felt guilty for using them, for environmental reasons, but now I feel terrible about the effects they could be having on my health and the health of my family. I guess it is back to glass jars, my husband will be thrilled!

Posted by Bernadette Power on 09 Oct 2010

As a practicing pediatrician, I would like practical information that could be presented to patients to allow them to mitigate their exposure. Then, individuals can make choices long before the legislation. I must admit that I was ignorant about BPA until it was brought to my attention by a parent of a patient a few years ago. I was just at environmental conference this weekend that brought up the idea that we may even be considering not recommending breast feeding after 6 months because of the passage of contaminants in breast milk! That is a scary thought.

Posted by elizabeth neary on 21 Feb 2011

The International Marine Debris Conference 2011 ( was sponsored by the American Chemistry Council and Coca-cola.


60-80% of the marine debris is plastic. Marine organisms/seafood eat a LOT of plastic.

Posted by Julia Reisser on 20 Apr 2011



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