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The Journals are the premier publications for high-quality, hyperlocal news and advertising in Monmouth County, New Jersey

Dec 21, 2020

Pollution and Health: Taking a Closer Look into Plastic

By Lori Draz

Every day we come in contact with plastics hundreds if not thousands of times – from household and office items like remote controls and keyboards, to medical waste, recreational items and food handling products, and everything in between. Plastics are a double-edged sword. They make our lives a lot more convenient, but they leave behind waste that impacts the environment.

Jody Sackett, a member of the Rumson Environmental Commission, an educator and program coordinator at the New Jersey Sea Grant Consortium shared some scientific explanations of how plastics travel through the waste stream. Micro plastics, the polymers that are 5 millimeters or less in size, are now found just about everywhere in our environment, including our food, water and the air we breathe. They originate from either a larger plastic item that has broken down or from initially manufactured tiny polymers for consumer products.

According to Kristen Hall, chair of the Rumson Environmental Commission, of the six common consumer plastics, “only three are commonly recycled in Rumson and other communities. These three commonly recyclable types of plastic can be identified by the numbers 1, 2 and 5 inside a triangle stamped on the item. One of the most common is polyethylene terephthalate (PET or No. 1), which is used to make soda and water bottles, peanut butter containers, condiment bottles and the like. Milk jugs, detergent and shampoo bottles are all made from high density polyethylene (HDPE or No. 2). Bottle caps, straws, yogurt containers and food containers are made of polypropylene (PP or No. 5).  Other types of plastics including Styrofoam, straws, toys, plastic bags, PVC pipe and cereal box liners are not as easily recycled.” The Environmental Commission website provides information on where these other plastics can be recycled or reused.

According to Sackett, all of these plastic items, like most polymers, take a long time to degrade. A plastic grocery bag takes 20 years to decompose; nylon fabric takes 30 to 40 year; Styrofoam cups take 50 years; disposable diapers and water bottles take 450 years; and monofilament fishing line takes 600 years.

Over that time, plastics break down into smaller and smaller micro-pieces which eventually enter our bodies. It has been estimated that a credit card’s weight worth of microplastic enters our bodies every week.

Hall continued, “Manufactured microplastics include microbeads and nurdles. Polyethylene microbeads, smaller than a grain of sand, were created for use in toothpastes, facial scrubs and many other personal-care products. Many water-treatment facilities are unable to filter out the tiny pieces, allowing them to enter the water stream. Nurdles are resin pellets, about the size of a lentil. Typically, recycled plastic is cleaned and then reformed into long thin rods which are then cut into tiny pieces called nurdles; these pieces are then melted by manufacturers to make new plastic products. Nurdles can be found on our local beaches and waterways in many colors. They are extremely long-lasting, and wind and ocean currents can spread nurdles worldwide.”

There are some solutions, like recycling plastics into other polymer items such as insulation, furniture and consumer goods, though some estimates say only 9 percent of trash is recycled. Additionally, chemical solutions are being developed to remove plastics directly from the water or to reformulate polymers for faster degradation. Sackett added, “Adding a simple sugar to the polymer attracts bacteria to eat it. Behavioral changes, like using refillable bottles and skipping disposable products, can make a big difference too. This November, Gov. [Phil] Murphy signed Senate Bill 864 into law, which banned single-use plastic bags, Styrofoam products like takeout containers and meat trays, and plastic straws. This mandatory behavior change will eliminate a major source of plastic litter and reduce the use of the fossil fuels to make them.”

Recycling, behavior changes, legislative bans and education can all promote awareness of the plastic problem and identify solutions, but individual commitment and community involvement is needed to inspire stewardship for the environment. To learn more, visit the Rumson Environmental Commission website at