You’re Eating a Hamburger’s Worth of Plastic Every Year

Bottled water is a huge source of plastic particle consumption, says Australian study, but at least the halakhically observant are spared the scourge of plasticized shellfish guts

Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Go to comments
aerial photo taken on June 10, 2019 shows a 68-metre long image of a whale formed by plastic waste collected from the ocean during an event to raise awareness on ocean conservation at Rudong Yangkou Harbour in Nantong in China's eastern Jiangsu province.
Whale made of plastic waste, 68 meters long, ChinaCredit: AFP
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

Stop using plastic drinking cups, tableware, straws and bottles — if not for the sake of the turtles and planet, then for your own.

You are eating about 2,000 tiny bits of plastic a week, or about 5 grams (0.175 ounces), in total: That’s equivalent to a teaspoon of plastic or the weight of a credit card, warns a new study commissioned from Australia’s University of Newcastle by the environmental charity WWF International and published Tuesday in the journal of Environmental Science and Technology.

That consumption works out to about 250 grams a year. Yes, you are eating the equivalent of a seriously large hamburger’s worth of plastic each year, on average, based on conservative estimates.

It is a startling truth that we still don’t know what harm eating plastic, let alone in such amounts, can do. But there is mounting suspicion that it will cause harm, especially to the immune and endocrine systems, and it will be accretive (the more plastic you eat and the longer you eat it, the more your body may suffer).

Hamburgers, an iconic patty to all: You eat the weight of one in plastic each year. Here is a vehicle shaped like one in the Red Bull Soap race in Sao Paolo.Credit: Nelson Antoine, AP

From this point we will talk about microplastics, which is any piece of plastic less than 5 millimeters (0.2 inches) in length. You would spit out bigger pieces.

A major source of consumed microplastic is bottled water. In April, a study estimated the microplastic consumption of “mineral” water users, by brand. Nearly all brands tested by the State University of New York at Fredonia in 2018 were found to contain microplastic in the water — and that’s even before you bash the bottle around, as one does, causing even more plastic particles to get into the water.

You eat a credit card's weight in plastic each WEEK, says new studyCredit: ללא קרדיט

Don’t think eschewing plastic bottles, cups and forks will spare you completely. In the United States, 94.4 percent of tap water samples contained plastic fibers: that averages 9.6 fibers per liter. European water was less polluted, with fibers showing up in “only” 72.2 percent of water samples.

However, that's much less than you'd be consuming if you base your water consumption on plastic bottles. 

According to the University of Newcastle study, observant Jews at least are spared another major source of microplastic: shellfish. Never mind their concentration of heavy metal thanks to pollution and climate change: the unkosher seafood are usually eaten whole. So you eat their little digestive systems too, and therefore eat the plastic that they ate. Jews everywhere can be grateful at some long-gone rabbis’ repugnance for bottom-feeding slimy creatures lacking fins or scales.

There isn’t a corner of Earth left untouched by plastic. We don’t know what else is down there in the deepest ocean trenches, but we do think there’s plastic. This May, retired naval officer Victor Vescovo dived nearly 11,000 meters (almost 36,000 feet) into the famed Mariana Trench in his submersible: Predictably, he didn’t find megalodons. But equally predictably, he did find what seemed to be a plastic bag and candy wrappers.

The more your pet plastic water bottle looks like this, the more plastic you're drinking.Credit: Richard Nixon / Alamy Stock Phot

Nor is the production of plastic being phased out, despite the clear knowledge of its dangers. “Since 2000, the world has produced as much plastic as all the preceding years combined, a third of which is leaked into nature,” the Australian study said.

The amount of plastic pollution varies by location but nowhere is untouched, added the report, which was based on the conclusions of 52 other studies.

“Plastic is everywhere, all of the time,” Dr. Denise Hardesty, a research scientist at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization, told British daily The Guardian last year. “It is in the air, the wind, the water and the soil, and we find it in as many places as we look.”

According to the Earth Day Network, every year the world uses 500 billion plastic cups and a trillion plastic bags — none of which degrade. They also use half a billion plastic straws, not one of which was actually necessary. Given that people like straws, one company in South Korea had the novel idea of making straws out of rice. You can’t cook and eat Yeonjigonji’s straw, but at least the thing degrades. There’s plastic in your beer, plastic in your salt, plastic in your coffee.

Science is still studying the harm caused by ingesting plastic. “Evidence regarding microplastic toxicity and epidemiology is emerging,” wrote a team studying what happens when we eat plastic-contaminated shellfish. There are suspicions that plastic ingestion may trigger immune system responses, or damage the immune system, and disrupt the endocrine (hormone) system. There are a lot of types of plastic, and each would have its own profile of potential toxicity.

And make no mistake: That polystyrene foam disposable coffee cup is plastic too — and typically contains molecules that emulate estrogen and seep into your drink. That’s a buzz you weren’t expecting to get with your caffeine jolt.