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Life in plastic: from good intentions to a health risk

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By Marco Vesters

· 8 min read

Good intentions

My first plastic waste removal activity started in the deep. At 22 meters depth, to be exact. My fellow scuba divers and I removed all sorts of plastic from coral reefs that day. Mixing pleasure with doing good makes you feel good. That was during COVID-19. After many dives, I thought there must be more I could do, so I also participated in beach cleanups, which was easy back then because there was not much Plastic on the beach since the beaches were closed and most people were in lockdown.

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I believed I could do more, and living in one of the countries that suffer the most from plastic pollution, it was easy to get active. Opportunities abound, all voluntary, of course. You also develop a need to understand the problem. What are the causes? Why is this happening? What are the risks? More importantly, what is required to solve the problem, and how much would it cost?


When you research the issue of plastic pollution, you quickly learn that it is generally a waste management problem. Local, regional, and national governments have finite resources. Often, waste management is one of the last services to receive a budget, usually less than 1% of 4% of the total budget. Residents pay the rest. The result: Waste gets dumped where it is not supposed to, and what ends up in landfills is left to cause more damage by releasing methane. Waste management in many parts of the world means out of sight, out of mind.

In addition, you find out that plastic is a harmful substance when it starts to break down. First, physically, it creates micro and nano plastic particles that end up in the air, in waterways, and on land. This is not a problem because, from a human psyche perspective, it's an external issue, and you can’t see it. Subsequently, it ends up in your food and the liquids you consume. Almost all humans today have plastic in their system because we breathe it in daily. You are free of plastic in your body if you are not surrounded by it every day, and since there is so much plastic in clothing, no one is safe anymore.

When you read that these particles also leach cancerous chemicals and cause endocrine disruption, you stop there. Enough research already. It is just too much to take in.

All this research creates an urgency for you to do something about it. Still, you quickly realize that nobody wants to pay for cleanups. Not to the extent that is required. I ran the numbers. We are talking tens of trillions of dollars at a global level. By some estimations, at least 20% of global GDP for the following five years minimum, assuming we plug the holes today. Conclusion: We are stuck with it for centuries while it continues to wreak havoc on us and our environment.

There is no way to get rid of this stuff.

I decided to stop working in the plastic waste removal business when my brother had to be admitted to a hospital with a thyroid storm. I also found out that my nephews had to take hormonal support medication for the rest of their lives. These teens suffer from endocrine dysfunction. I was suffering from something else for which there was no name, so I made one up. All that remains is the awareness that it exists and the desire to warn others. I’m fortunate that I do not have to take medication for the rest of my life.

My brother has loved canned sardines in tomato sauce ever since he was a kid, and he has worked with epoxy resin all his life as a carpenter. Doctor’s diagnosis: Acute endocrine dysfunction, probably from lifestyle and possibly dietary habits, maybe hereditary. Why didn’t I or my son have it if it was genetic?

I also realized that I never ate many foods containing the most microplastics. I eat sushi sometimes, knowing full well what it contains, and I’m not talking about plastics alone. I ended up avoiding everything that was even slightly suspected of containing microplastics. I started buying food at local markets. I avoided canned foods like the plague, even though assurances abound that they are safe. I became highly suspicious. The WHO raised the alarm to “level of concern.” 

But there was something else happening to me. I noticed that plastic was everywhere I went. Traveling by car, I saw plastic by the side of the road. I was walking on the street, and plastic was everywhere. Convenience stores and supermarkets were bursting with plastic, even though the government banned plastic shopping bags long ago. At home, in the kitchen, there is plastic, plastic and more plastic. In the bathroom, plastic, plastic, plastic. No matter where I turned, I saw plastic. There was no escaping it. Let's go diving. Nope, sorry, there is plastic there too. Except in the bedroom, the only place I made plastic-free in the house. I stopped using condoms, in case you wanted to bring that up, and yes, I still have sex.

When I first visualized the plastic waste heap, it came up to my head. After a few months, the plastic waste mountain was so tall, it blocked the sun and darkness blanketed me. I became paralyzed. 

Honestly, I was starting to lose it. I had never considered the psychological impact associated with this work, and I grossly underestimated it. I even thought it was all a conspiracy, so I double-checked all the research. Not surprisingly, I found even more research, all peer-reviewed and published in reputable science and medical magazines, journals, and studies available online. Each new report tells the reader that it is getting worse. I'm not talking about the pollution. I'm talking about the health risks of plastic pollution, and what I mean is not just the plastic waste you find outside but the tiny particles you cannot see that are flying around in your house or at the office. Where there is plastic, there is plastic pollution. There is no plastic in air capture technology.

I wish I had never walked down this path.

I started to shout it from the rooftops and posted about the risks everywhere, but no one cared. Perhaps because people are not aware and they haven’t done the research. 

I still saw plastic everywhere. I even started to imagine that people were turning into plastic and men were buying Japanese silicone dolls as their partners until a close friend told me to look at the trees instead. I did. It helped, and slowly, gradually, my days became greener and bluer and filled with the colors that nature provides.

I still see plastic everywhere, and I still pick up plastic. There is no escaping the stuff. But I see more nature now. Take nature away, and we are doomed. I noticed that more and more people are becoming aware of the problem, especially the health risks. There is despair, no doubt, but there is also hope. There are many active now in searching for alternatives to plastic. Many are trying to stop the source of the pollution crisis. There is resistance, of course. This is nothing new. Companies with the most to lose from restricting plastics will do anything to maintain the status quo. 

What have I learned?

  • People don’t care until it happens to them. That’s why celebrities who suffer from an illness become such great awareness ambassadors.
  • Most people keep silent; their lives are busy enough, and leaving it for others to solve is best. It is all too much.
  • There is no urgency, perhaps because it hasn’t affected the masses yet.
  • Waste management is a poor investment as profitability is questionable at best. ROI is mostly decades away, which does not suit our current free markets economy criteria.
  • Waste management is an inconvenience for most governments and residents.
  • Our Polycrisis is a health crisis both mentally and physically, and support is needed.

My conclusion is that plastic should be considered a hazardous material. If it is true that we cannot live without plastics because we lack the scale of natural resources to replace them, then at least treat the material the same as we do nuclear waste. The health risks of plastics are not just a concern; they are of high risk, as will soon be agreed upon by experts in this field.

Plastipsychosis is what I called it because I recovered, and it does not sound as bad as plastic schizophrenia, which is what I first thought I had. That was six months ago, and I can now say that I have recovered from my illness.

illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

Marco Vesters is Chief Exploration & Curiosity Officer in the Age of Consequences and a deep thinking analyst on the metacrisis. Marco is on an expedition to discover and design frameworks for global protopian stewardship. He deals with topics related to the underlying dynamics of our global ecological, socio-economic, physiological, and psychological crisis.

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