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The Melanie Avalon Biohacking Podcast Episode #190 - Matt Simon

Matt Simon has been a science journalist at Wired magazine for over a decade. He covers a range of beats, including biology, robotics, climate change, and of course, microplastic pollution. He's the author of two previous books. The Wasp That Brainwashed the Caterpillar: Evolution's Most Unbelievable Solutions to Life's Biggest Problems, which cataloged the strangest creatures on Earth, won an Alex Award in 2017. This inspired his second book, Plight of the Living Dead: What Real-Life Zombies Reveal About Our World—and Ourselves, which dove deep into the science of how parasites mind-control their hosts, published in 2018.



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A Poison Like No Other: How Microplastics Corrupted Our Planet and Our Bodies

10:00 - glitter is plastic

10:55 - how Matt came to research microplastics

14:00 - the implications of microplastics in the environment

14:50 - how do we know how much is in the environment?

19:30 - LOMI: Turn Your Kitchen Scraps Into Dirt, To Reduce Waste, Add Carbon Back To The Soil, And Support Sustainability! Get $50 Off Lomi At Lomi.Com/Melanieavalon With The Code MELANIEAVALON!

22:30 - the history of plastics

24:50 - the plastic in conventional clothing

28:00 - Phthalates in blood

29:30 - the lack of regulation

30:00 - car tires

31:55 - rural vs urban environments and levels of toxicity

33:00 - the spread of sludge

38:30 - potential Solutions

40:30 - can we clean it up?

43:30 - are plastics worse on the environment or humans?

48:25 - when was this first noticed as an issue?

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54:30 - have there been any species evolved to ingest microplastics?

57:30 - plastics in the fossil record

59:15 - contamination of food

1:04:30 - The Equity Issue

1:06:15 - burning plastic

1:10:45 - the great pacific garbage patch

1:15:00 - microfiber filters

1:16:40 - laundry pods

1:19:10 - BPA and other plastic components

1:22:10 - items labeled as biodegradable

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1:29:00 - bio-based plastics

1:33:40  - how matt reduces his plastic use

1:36:30 - the progress trap

1:39:50 - climate implications for carbon concentration in the atmosphere


Melanie Avalon: Hi, everybody, welcome back to the show. I am so incredibly excited about the conversation that I am about to have. So, backstory on today's conversation. It's sort of the definition of small world. I was introduced to today's guest through another podcast guest that I've had on the show, Jon Levy, who I really recommend his book and his work, he's amazing and he just something called The Influencers Dinner, where he invites really cool people to meet each other and he basically knows anybody and everybody. He always throws the most incredible guest in my way. So, he introduced me to Matt Simon, who is a science journalist at WIRED Magazine who has a few books, including a new book that we're going to talk about on this show. But it was such a small world, because it turns out that Matt sits-- well, when he is in the office, like were talking about. But when he's in the office, he sits right next to one of my best friends from college, which is just crazy. So, that was an exciting moment. But in any case, his newest book is called A Poison Like No Other: How Microplastics Corrupted Our Planet and Our Bodies. 

Friends, if you read this book or maybe I guess after listening to this interview, I will just say that this book has completely changed my perception of the world. I mean that literally. I see things differently than I did before. I knew the plastic issues was a problem. I was trying to help the situation by doing things like buying BPA-free, which I'm sure we're going to talk about. Or, really cleaning up my skincare and makeup and getting rid of phthalates and things like that. But I don't think I was really thinking about it and I didn't understand the entire implications and I definitely didn't understand what actually feasibly needs to happen or what can be done. So, I'm really excited about this conversation. I think it's going to open a lot of people's eyes. I have a lot of questions. Matt, thank you so much for being here.

Matt Simon: Thank you for having me. 

Melanie Avalon: I just have to tell you really quickly, I think one of the saddest moments reading your book for me was when I realized that one of my favorite things in life, which is glitter, is like just made of plastic. I'm just throwing plastic everywhere. 

Matt Simon: It's the ultimate microplastic. Yeah, it's fun. I don't want to detract from the entertainment of glitter, but it is plastic and it is particularly good at getting into all sorts of nooks and crannies. I think it's actually quite a good representation of the problem of microplastics at large as this stuff can get absolutely everywhere as glitter can in your home if it's escaping from a greeting card or something like that. 

Melanie Avalon: Actually, it's a really good metaphor too, because it seems so wonderful and happy and does so many great things for us but little bit sinister. Okay, so, before we get into all of this, I am super curious. Did somebody bring this idea to you? Were you already interested in this? Are you environmentalist? What's your backstory? Well, in general, because you also have two other books that we're just talking about before this. You have The Wasp That Brainwashed the Caterpillar: Evolution's Most Unbelievable Solutions to Life's Biggest Problems, and also Plight of the Living Dead: What Real-Life Zombies Reveal About Our World--and Ourselves, which is about parasites mind controlling their hosts. So, I really want to read both of these books. What made you so interested in everything that you're doing and ultimately to write this book about plastics? 

Matt Simon: Sure. So, I have been writing at WIRED for a dozen years now. I have been generally interested in, obviously, science being a science journalist. So, my previous two books as you mentioned were more about biology, animals basically doing weird things to each other and the weird inventions that evolution has come up to fix life's problems. But in recent years, I have been reporting more and more on microplastic pollution, which is a very new science, actually. So, it really has been in the past couple of years that we've gotten a lot more studies on the extent of microplastic pollution. In recent years, there have been quantifications of how much of it is in the atmosphere, for example, there was a paper that came out and got quite a bit of press including from us a couple of years ago finding a lot of microplastics in baby poop, which is terrifying, and we know exactly how that's getting into babies, and it's scary in and of itself. But as these studies have been trickling out, I had been reporting on them for WIRED and realized that nobody had really done a cohesive treatment of the state of microplastic science, which is what I set out to do here. So, I read through lots and lots of papers, spoke to over hundred microplastic scientists for the book, and then gathered up the state of the science, what we know about microplastics, what we don't know. We know for sure that it is absolutely everywhere in the environment and in the home. The next frontier is the consequences. What does that mean for ecosystems and for human health in particular?

Melanie Avalon: Two questions right off the bat about that. One, because you said you've been writing about it at WIRED for a while. Was there a moment where you read some headline study and got interested or was it just a slow--? Was there an inciting incident that made you interested? 

Matt Simon: I think the same with how a lot of people come into microplastics is that you hear about it and you think, "Oh, that doesn't sound particularly good." Plastics that are micro, that could be problematic. It wasn't really a defining moment for me. I had just started realizing-- During the pandemic, actually, I was sitting around with not a lot to do and during lockdown I thought, "Here's a great idea to make myself feel worse about the state of the world. Why don't I do a book length treatment of the state of microplastic side?" 

So, there wasn't really a defining moment. It was a slow realization that this is a massive problem and a really exploding field in science, because you can talk to a lot of microplastics researchers who would tell you that I did not set out to do this. I was a biologist or I was a geologist, and I was finding all this stuff out in the environment and started wondering about the implications. That's how I got into being a microplastics researcher. It's drawing in so many people from all these different disciplines because the stuff is everywhere in the environment. Everywhere scientists-- look I'm not exaggerating when I say absolutely everywhere. That has drawn in just a wide swath of people across the scientific spectrum to create, I think this really interesting and burgeoning field. 

Melanie Avalon: Yeah, that really blew my mind, the part about the extreme environments even that it's in and that there's even microplastics on the top of Mount Everest, which is just mind blowing. You provide so many stats in the book about the prevalence and the amount of these in the environment. So, I'd love to hear what some of those are. But in addition to that, how do scientists quantify that? How do we know how many tons of these there are in the oceans and different areas? 

Matt Simon: It's a great question. Because it's a burgeoning field, they're actually still standardizing the methodology for both collecting microplastics in the environment and for analyzing them in the lab. So, you can go to the Pacific Ocean and two scientific teams can pull up, basically, the same liter of water. But they will oftentimes put it through different filters of different fineness. So, if your net is finer, you can actually count more microplastics as you're getting some of the smaller stuff. It makes it a little bit difficult in these early days of the field to compare quantifications of microplastics in a given medium. But those methodologies are coalescing. What we're finding is increasing agreement among studies about the total saturation of microplastics in the environment. 

I think a good one to talk about and you mentioned microplastics getting up to Mount Everest that isn't necessarily-- and this might be a contribution, it isn't necessarily that people are walking around up there shedding microfibers from their synthetic clothing, which is made out of plastic. It is more because this stuff is all over the atmosphere. So, there was one quantification a year or two ago and actually visited the scientist in the book and talk about it in the introduction. She has these instruments on top of remote mountains in the western United States and she collects what's falling out of the sky. We're calling it plastic rain essentially, there are microplastics tumbling out of the atmosphere. 

By collecting them in these catchers out on these remote mountaintops, she calculated that in just 6% of the United States, in these western protected areas, the equivalent of 300 million plastic bottles fall out of the sky every year as microplastic. So, to scale that up much bigger across the United States, we're talking about the equivalent of billions of plastic bottles falling out of the sky as microplastic each year. That's how much of the stuff is up in the atmosphere. Because it's up there, it can then swirl around the entire planet. It is falling on remote rainforests in South America. It's falling in Antarctica. It's also in the oceans. It's swirling around there. Scientists have been showing recently that it actually can blow out of the ocean and come on shore in sea breezes.

The extent of the problem has not really been realized until recently, but because we have more of these studies now, we're saying, "Wow, we are dealing with just near total contamination of the environment with microplastics." We haven't even talked about nanoplastics yet. So, microplastics are defined as a bit smaller than 5 mm. Nanoplastics are much, much smaller. They're smaller than a micrometer, which is a millionth of a meter. There are way more of those in the environment than there are microplastics, but it's still very difficult and expensive to detect nanoplastics. So, I try to drive this home point in the book as often as I can is that, whenever you hear a quantification of microplastics in the environment, it's almost certainly a significant undercount because there are just a lot more of these nanoplastics out there than they are microplastics. Something to keep in mind going forward is as people may be getting interested in microplastics is just basically considered the worst, unfortunately, because there are limits to what scientists can actually detect in the environment.

Melanie Avalon: So, the microplastics being 5 mm, so you can see that, right? You can see some of them.

Matt Simon: Yeah, I think a good thing about less than 5 mm is about the width of a pencil eraser. So, that's obviously visible with the human eye. In the home, one of the major contributions to microplastic contamination is microfibers from things like polyester, nylon we wear, a lot of that stuff, obviously, that breaks off and flies around indoor air. So, if you look through a window, through sunshine coming through window, you can actually see these things floating in the air. But then obviously, they get much smaller anywhere between 5 mm down to micrometers, millions of a meter. This is a whole spectrum. A piece of plastic can be 5.1 mm. It's basically a microplastic, but because we have to standardize what a microplastic is, it's not technically considered a microplastic. It's a bit of a gray area. But yes, you can see them with the naked eye, but a lot of them where you really can't and those are significantly higher quantities in the environment.

Melanie Avalon: Can we actually step back because you tell the history of plastics in the book and the really interesting relation to billiard balls? So, what's the history of the formation of plastics? Why do we have them now? 

Matt Simon: It's an interesting and tragic story. So, you have mentioned billiard balls. This began in the late 1800s when people were playing more and more billiards. Those balls were made out of ivory from elephants. So, that was obviously a finite resource. This very famous billiards player put out a call for submissions for people to think up to invent a synthetic alternative to ivory to make billiard balls out of. That was what led to the first mass producible plastic toward the end of the 1800s. Because of that, this one guy had this idea in his head, that first plastic just proliferated into a just insane number of different plastics over the following decades. It really was in World War II where people started replacing more natural fibers, for instance, like cotton with nylon, because there were supply shortages. That then started increasing exponentially after World War II, the production of that.

We have had since then, almost a century now, an increasing exponential production of plastics. As that happens in the environment, scientists can look back in sediment samples back to the 1940s and 1950s and beyond, and I can actually plot the increasing concentration of microplastic in the environment in lockstep with that exponential increase in plastic production, the more we produce, the more contaminated the environment becomes, which I do not think this billiards player had in mind when he put out that call for submissions.

Melanie Avalon: I have so many questions about that. Yeah, one is that, I mentioned this even with the glitter, I can't emphasize this enough how much I didn't realize what all is plastic. I think I had such a finite view of what plastic was, I would have like come in my apartment. If you were like pointed the plastic, I would have pointed at certain specific things. I didn't realize it's almost in everything it seems. Clothing is two-thirds, I think you said, two-thirds of clothing is plastic, of conventional clothing?

Matt Simon: Yep. two-thirds, which I don't think very many people actually realize. You go, yeah, buy a shirt having no idea that polyester or nylon, that's a plastic. It's a very soft plastic, but it has a lot of these really great properties, admittedly. It can waterproof. Fleece, for instance, is super warm. Everybody loves fleece. It's made out of synthetic fibers though. The issue is that while two-thirds of clothing is now made out of synthetic fibers, we have a lot of natural fibers, like, what we think is a pure cotton or pure wool garment. It's actually now coated in plastic polymers to make it like fireproof or waterproof. These sneaky ways that plastics have really infiltrated every aspect of our lives. When you think about carpeting in the home, obviously made out of synthetic fibers, but also hardwood flooring. So, if you have vinyl flooring or laminate or something like that that's made out of plastic. There has been, at least, one study that has showed that in homes with that hardwood, you do get little bits breaking off and entering the indoor air. So, all around us, beyond the bags and the bottles, the obvious plastics, there are these sneaky ways that plastics have gotten to every aspect of our lives.

Melanie Avalon: I didn't even realize because I talk about phthalates all the time, because I'm very passionate about safe skincare and makeup. Phthalates are plastic, right or partly?

Matt Simon: Phthalates are a major component of plastic. So, phthalates are a broad group of chemicals that help make plastic plastic. So, at the very base of it, a plastic is just repeating chains of carbon. So, fossil fuel companies will extract that carbon obviously from the environment, from the ground. Natural gas and oil becomes plastic. That's the base layer of those carbon chains. But to make a plastic, a plastic to make it lighter, to make it tougher, to make it melt proof, that sort of thing, they have to add all sorts of additional chemicals, phthalates included. The issue is that these plastics companies do not tell us what is in these plastics. There's no ingredient list for a plastic bottle. So, what chemists actually have to do is reverse engineer these plastics in the lab and they have found that there have been at least 10,500 chemicals used in plastics. A quarter of those chemicals are considered to be of concern. Meaning, they're either known to be toxic or they're persistent in the environment.

So, phthalates is one of these major groups that is a thing very specific to plastic. There was a study that came out a couple of years ago and we're going to see actually more of these kinds of studies going forward that is linking phthalates to human health problems. They calculated by looking at phthalate levels in the blood of people that on a very conservative estimate, phthalates are responsible for 100,000 premature deaths in the United States each year. Phthalates are coming from plastics. That's the source of it. I think in the next couple of years, maybe five years or so, we're going to see more of these studies that are linking plastics to human health problems.

Now, we have to consider, "Okay, where is that coming from? Is that because we're drinking from plastic bottles? Is that because our food is wrapped in plastic or is there also contribution from microplastics? Because we are inhaling little tiny bits of plastic. Are these chemicals getting into our bloodstream that way?" So, phthalates are just one of a number of endocrine disrupting chemicals which I'm sure you've touched on before. These are really terrible chemicals that make our hormone system go haywire. So, we will see, I think, again going forward in the next couple of years more of these studies coming out. This is the urgency, I think, is that we don't need to wait for that. We know that there are lots of toxic things in plastics. We need to reduce our reliance on them, reduce our exposure because we know for sure a lot of these chemicals are terrible for human health.

Melanie Avalon: You're talking about how there's no overview or regulation and we don't know what's actually in these different plastics. How does that compare to other industries? Is that the way it is with all industries of, like, textile materials and different materials or just plastics where there's not regulation?

Matt Simon: Yeah, unfortunately in the United States, we just don't have a very robust framework for testing of chemicals before they enter the market. You actually see much more movement on this in the European Union. They're much stricter about what chemicals can get banned. But the billiards player who put out the call for alternative to elephant ivory in billiards never assumed that we would eventually be inhaling little bits of plastic years down the line. Car tires are another major one. Car tires are made out of synthetic rubber. That's a synthetic plastic. Little bits break off and into the environment. We inhale them when we're walking down the road because they're getting kicked up in the air. Tire manufacturers, I don't think ever assumed that we would be ingesting their tires that is not food safe plastic.

So, there isn't really this regulatory framework that we need to phase out these specific chemicals that we know to be terrible. Because again 10,000 different chemicals in plastics, at least, which one is going to be bad for human health? It's probably going to be a bunch of them at the same time. But then we have to think about, "Well what about every other organism on this planet that is now exposed to microplastics, because this stuff is so pervasive in the environment?" What might be okay for the human body might not be for some small crustacean that's part of a very important food web in the ocean.

So, this is why there's a lot of problems also with thinking about alternatives to plastic is that we need to test the toxicity of these things against all sorts of different organisms, because this stuff is going to get out in the environment. It's going to break into little tiny pieces. That's the challenge here. It's very daunting. I don't imagine that's a very hopeful answer for you all, but this is why we need to pressure governments to be stronger in the regulation of plastics as we're realizing more and more the plastic is just toxic, it's terrible, and we need to figure out to what extent it is impacting human health. But the early studies are pretty alarming, I think. 

Melanie Avalon: You talk in the book about how in addition to the actual potential toxicity of the plastic itself, other pollutants can come with it, or heavy metals, or things in the atmosphere and it can assure that in as well. So, it just seems like such a problem. You talk about how, I think you said urban environments are actually-- Well, how does it compare rural versus urban? I thought it was a little bit counterintuitive, the concentrations because you talked about things being trapped by buildings, and there was more plastics maybe in rural areas.

Matt Simon: It is counterintuitive. Yeah, but I think it's actually rather fascinating in a morbid way really. So, when we're talking about urban areas in dense cities, we have a lot of microplastic production from roads. Cars are driving around lots in cities. Brake pads are wearing off as cars are in bumper-to-bumper traffic. But atmospheric modeling is actually showing that cities tend to hold on to a lot of those microplastics because there's not a lot of wind being able to whip through a downtown area, for example, compared to a rural environment. If you have a road that's exposed, there are a lot more winds coming in and taking up those tire microplastics in particular into the atmosphere. This is a good time I think to talk about sludge, which is not particularly nice term for a very gross product. 

So, when we do laundry, we wash our synthetic clothing. These little fibers break off, perhaps millions of them, in a single load of laundry and flow out to a waste water treatment facility where that water is treated. Those microfibers actually mix with human waste and are sequestered into something called sludge. This is human waste that is then taken and spread on fields as fertilizer. So, we are actually seeing that about 90% of the microplastics that flow to a wastewater treatment facility are sequestered in sludge and then spread on fields. There was one calculation that it's something like a billion pounds of microplastics spread in Europe each year on fields just from our clothing. The remaining 10% at the wastewater treatment facility is pumped out to sea in the relatively clean water. That is a big reason why the seas are quite contaminated with microplastics.

So, when we are thinking about rural areas, people in cities with higher population densities are sending their sludge to these fields to be spread as fertilizer that is applying concentrated microplastic to fields. There is some evidence showing that it's being taken up into crops through the roots. These particles are quite small and are capable of doing that. But then in these rural areas, you get these high winds. If a field dries out and those microplastics take to the sky, they can actually be propelled quite high into the atmosphere and then carried, perhaps, thousands of miles. And in addition, when you are thinking about rural highways, roads, that sort of thing, cars are driving much faster than they are in a city center. So, if you're going 70, 75 miles an hour, you're providing much more energy to fire those tire microplastics into the atmosphere. That's why cities tend to hold on to, presumably-- This is what the modeling is showing, tend to hold on to more of their microplastics, whereas it's just coming off of the landscape in these rural areas and taking to the sky in addition to the stuff that is falling back out of the atmosphere as that researcher I mentioned has been calculated in western areas. So, there's this extremely complicated microplastic cycle that's now coming into view, how it's moving between these different mediums, between the land and the air and the ocean, it is doing so quite readily. And that's why everything is so contaminated is because these things are tiny, they're light, they very easily take to the air and nowhere is untouched. You'll ask any microplastic scientists, "Is there anywhere that's clean?" They say, no. No, everywhere. Absolutely, everywhere is contaminated.

Melanie Avalon: That is so, so crazy. 

Matt Simon: Sorry. Yeah, I wish I had better news for you. [laughs] 

Melanie Avalon: No, I know, I know. It's funny. I sent because my assistant helped me with prep for the show and so she's reading my notes and I don't remember exactly what she said, but her comment was just like, "Well, we go home now. I don't know how I feel now." So, I thought that was so interesting though. So, the plastics actually work as a fertilizer. They actually help the plants grow?

Matt Simon: It's an unintentional byproduct of sludge. So, what's helping the plants grow is weird to think about, but it's our human waste. It's used as fertilizer from our urine and feces. It's disinfected as best they can first and then spread on fields. Microplastics are just accidentally in there. But there's not very much research on what that actually means for crops, but also soils. There have been a few studies that have showed that the more that you increase the concentration of microplastics in soils, the more you change the property. So, sometimes, it actually absorbs less water or lets go of more water to evaporate away, which could have implications for growing crops. It also harms all sorts of critters in the soil. There's good research showing that when earthworms ingest microplastics, they eat less regular food, their mortality is higher, their reproduction goes down. 

Coming back to this idea that there are at least 10,000 different chemicals that have been used in plastics. Any one of those can be harmful to an earthworm, probably several at the same time. We just need more research on, oh, my God, if every organism is corrupted in its own way then ingesting these things, what's going to be harmful for one but not another? 

Melanie Avalon: I did not realize that that's how conventional agriculture fertilized stuff. I just didn't know that. 

Matt Simon: Yeah, it's gross. It's gross and it's weird and it's very widespread. It's a billion pounds of microplastic supply to fields in Europe each year. It's a little bit less in North America, in the United States, and Canada, just because we have a little bit less agriculture here than they do across the entire European Union. Wow, it's a lot. It's close to a billion pounds here. It's hard to fathom. This is also accumulating in those soils. There have been a couple of experiments that have actually looked back for many, many years and have shown that the more microplastics applied to a soil o a given year, the more that stick around in that soil. So, it's gathering, it's accumulating year after year and that could have detrimental effects on our crops going forward.

Melanie Avalon: Before leaving the urban and the cars and all of that stuff, so, you do talk about the implications of solutions like magnets under cars that gather plastics or electric cars, both of those options. What would happen there? 

Matt Simon: Yeah, that's a neat little piece of technology still in development. There's a group called The Tyre Collective that is developing the attachment that goes behind a car tire and uses basically the static electricity that's generated from the friction of the tire to gather up microplastics as they're flying off of that synthetic rubber before the stuff has a chance to hit the road, which is neat. It would require getting these on lots and lots of cars, because every car and truck on the road is spewing microplastics. Lots and lots of them, year over year. There are other farther downstream things that we could do for roads. 

So, I'm a huge proponent of something called a rain garden. This is a little green space you might have seen in a city next to a road where there's some plants growing, perhaps. This is predominantly used to gather rainwater and reduce flooding in an urban area. But there was a study that showed that this actually has the added benefit of capturing over 90% of microplastics in rainwater coming off of roads. So, these have multiple benefits. You green up an urban area, you reduce flooding, and at the same time, you capture these microplastics before they're able to flow out to a body of water. So, there are these small solutions that, I think, can add up to something quite substantial to reduce the amount of microplastics going into the environment. But there are just so many ways for this stuff to get out there that it is going to be very difficult to turn down the tap of microplastics flowing into the environment.

Melanie Avalon: Speaking to that timeline and just the actual reality of everything, because we're talking about gathering up these plastics. We haven't even talked about recycling yet. I guess, what I'm trying to ask is, so, if we stopped right now and we didn't create any more plastic, is the plastic just here indefinitely--? Is the only option to recycle it into new plastic or can we actually get rid of any of it? Is that even a possibility? Can we launch it into space?

Matt Simon: We'll fire into the sun, yeah. Unfortunately, the microplastic that's out in the environment is out there forever. There's just no way for us to drag some sort of magnet through the ocean to collect the microplastics there, it's impossible. It will, I think, settle in ocean sediments. But I think for a very long time, even if we stopped producing plastic, even if somehow we kept our clothes from shedding fibers that flow out to the ocean or put on to field the sludge, this stuff will be circulating in the atmosphere for quite some time. This is not even considering the fact that any macroplastic. Macroplastic being a big thing like a bottle or a bag, that's really just pre-microplastics. So, as it's in the environment, it's breaking into smaller and smaller bits.

So, all the big stuff that's out there as well is going to break into microplastics over time. We just have such an unmitigated flow of both macro and microplastics into the environment that it's going to be very difficult to stop. In a perfect world, if we somehow did, if we stopped using plastics entirely, yes, the concentrations, I think would go down in the environment as it was sequestered in sediments and things like that. I don't know how long that would take. This is, I think, the ultimate urgency is that, we are up against a plastics industry that will happily triple production by 2050. That's the projection here. That will triple the amount of microplastic going into the environment. We do not have time to get to that. That's an insane thing to think about. 

We're producing a trillion pounds of plastic a year, which is a wildly high number for any sort of material, especially plastic. When you consider that plastic is very light, think about how much plastic would make up a trillion pounds. That is current levels in 2022, that will triple by 2050, unless we get something like a plastics treaty, which is in negotiations as we speak to severely curtail the production of plastic. That's the only thing that's going to stop this problem. The industry will scream from the rooftops for the rest of its days that we just need to recycle more. That was never going to work. Unfortunately, there's a bunch of problems with recycling that's not going to save us here. Microplastics scientists will tell you across the board, "The only way to stop this is to stop producing so much plastic." 

Melanie Avalon: So, the efforts that are in place, like this discussion that you're talking about to curtail plastics? How are plastics framed? Is the main issue, the effect on humans or the effect on the environment?

Matt Simon: It's everything. This is, I think, why I have a good amount of hope for something like a plastics treaty and just generally the momentum that is behind this drive to use less plastic. So, it is both microplastics researchers saying, "Hey, folks, this is absolutely everywhere in the environment. We are already finding effects on organisms." So, for instance, in Washington State in recent decades, there have been mass die offs of salmon in rivers up there and scientists had no idea why until a couple of years ago when they isolated a particular chemical from tire particles, these microplastics coming off of cars that kills the salmon on mass. 

So, we have that, like, one species that we have documented harm with. There have been additional follow-up studies that found two more species of fish are susceptible to this chemical. So, it's probably killing much more fish than we already realize. But in these, I think, more subtle ways, in the open ocean, you have these little organisms called plankton that are at the very base of the oceanic food web. They're just the right size to eat these things, they mistake microplastics for actual food and they're filling up their stomachs with this, obviously, indigestible material that is both leaching chemicals into its body, but also obstructing its digestive system. There's good research showing that this is actually decreasing their appetite for actual food which could have massive implications running up and down the food web.

So, when I mentioned earlier that this field is growing rapidly because so many different scientists from other fields are actually being drawn into, it's because nowhere on the planet is untouched. These are the consequences that I think are driving a lot of the recent movement to put severe curtailments on the production of plastic, that is again the only way that we're going to stop this crisis. We haven't as much talked yet about the human health aspects here. We also have people who work with EDCs, these endocrine disrupting chemicals saying, "This is bad. We cannot be surrounding ourselves with this material, because it is packed with chemicals we know to be really terrible for human health even in very small doses, perhaps, like you would get by inhaling microplastics." 

So, I think the movement is broad. It's gaining momentum for something like a plastic's treaty, but we're up against petrochemical companies which are the most powerful and rich corporations on the planet who have a legal obligation to their shareholders to maximize their profits, which means producing more and more plastics. They are essentially legally obligated to destroy this planet. That's criminal. It's absurd and it is something that is going to take a lot of ground swelling. So, from individual consumers, maybe donating time or money to anti-plastics groups, the only way we're going to see movement on this, in the United States at least, is to wrench our politicians away from the influence of these petrochemical companies. They are very much funded by groups like Exxon and any number of petrochemical companies. Our government is captured by gas and oil interests.

These are the same people that are going to switch as we decarbonize our economy from producing fossil fuels as fuels to producing more fossil fuels to go into plastics. That's the sneaky thing that they're already doing here is they see the writing on the wall, "We're going to switch to green technologies. We cannot let it be that they switch to producing more plastics, because that comes with its own climate implications." There was one calculation that by 2050, the growth in the plastics industry could mean that we're adding 600 coal-fired powerplants worth of emissions to the atmosphere, because these are, again, fossil fuels. 

So, we are going to see movement on the human health side I think, but also from the climate side. Climate scientists are also very interested in the contribution of plastics to the problem. I think once we realize as a society that we cannot let the petrochemical industry bamboozle us again into thinking something like plastic is easily recyclable, it's our fault as consumers that the environment has become so saturated with plastics. We cannot let that happen again with microplastics. This is not a problem of you wearing yoga pants or a nice weatherproof jacket that's made out of plastic. That is not your fault, because not a lot of people realize that was plastic. This is on the industry and that's who we need to hold accountable for this. 

Melanie Avalon: When did we start realizing that this was an issue? 

Matt Simon: This is kind of a tragic thing I think about it. So, one of the first papers on microplastics came out in the early 1970s. I talked to this researcher who's still doing science here in 2022. I talked to him for the book and he described to me what it was like as an oceanographer. So, he found nurdles on the open ocean. Nurdles are these little pellets that are about the size of lentils. These are the raw materials that are melted down into plastic bottles and bags, that sort of thing. They are shipped all over the world and lost along the supply chains in incredible numbers. They leak very easily into the environment. 

So, he was out in the open ocean pulling up nets full of plankton was supposed to be just animals and finding these little pellets way off of the Eastern Coast of the United States. He wrote up those findings and published it in the general science's big prestigious journal, and you would talk about this in the book. He says that he was visited by somebody from the plastics industry who did not take too kindly to this research. He did a follow up study a couple of years later that found them these nurdles in fish stomach closer to the East Coast. He told me that it was basically like, "If you and I had swallowed a bowling ball, that's the obstruction that this is creating to those organisms." 

After that, unfortunately, there was kind of a smattering of studies here and there, but the focus really shifted to macroplastics. So, keeping bottles and bags from getting into the environment, which is all well and good. We should most certainly be doing that. But as those decades went on, the microplastics problem got worse and worse, and very few people were actually noticing until like the word microplastic, the term, the scientific definition wasn't termed until 2004. That is a long time. That is 30 years that we were not fully realizing the extent of microplastic pollution in the environment. But since 2004, almost 20 years now, we have been getting much more studies as again a lot of people from different fields are just tumbling into microplastic science by accident. So, the body of evidence is growing.

Again, we got a good grasp on where it is in the environment in what concentrations. Now more of the focus is turning to the consequences for all those organisms out there, plants and animals, but also for humans who are exposed to a lot of microplastic in the home in particular.

Melanie Avalon: Speaking to the effect on the species and like you said, how it's like us swallowing a bowling ball, have you seen or have any species had any evolutionary adaptions to plastic, or could they be in theory, or is it a poison like no other, like there's no adaption?

Matt Simon: That's actually a fantastic question and something that I was thinking about while writing the book, but did not put anything in there about it. This is something that the scientists are thinking about. So, let's take a crustacean, like a little tiny crustacean plankton floating around on the open ocean. It's like 5 mm long, which is about the size, the upper limit of what a microplastic can be. It ingests that microplastic. Let's talk very theoretically here. So, very theoretically, you could have an organism that ingests that fine, like maybe it has some sort of genetic mutation that allows it to power through a particular chemical in that plastic that would poison one of its peers, and then it survives and it passes down those genes that adapt it to ingesting microplastics. Is that theoretically possible? Maybe, I don't know. It was something I was thinking about or writing in the book and it's something that scientists are thinking about. What we have actually been seeing is on the microorganism scale. 

So, you had mentioned earlier that we are finding that these plastics accumulate things in the environment. This is actually something called the plastisphere. These are very fascinating communities of microorganisms that actually gather on these little tiny particles of plastic. You can get a scanning electron microscope which does these beautiful, very close up pictures of these communities and it's bustling. There're all kinds of things on this plastic and they are finding that some of these appear to be bacteria that are digging holes into the surface of the plastic. They might be in some way digesting the plastic. Maybe that helps this certain kind of bacteria, but it's not a good thing. 

I just want to be clear. We cannot rely on this bacteria to clear microplastics out of the environment. This is something I get angry about. At least, I get pitched a lot as a science journalist about these alternatives that, "Oh, we found this microorganism or this enzyme that can digest plastic." Well, what, are you going to release it in massive quantities into the environment and screw up all sorts of microbial communities? No, but this is a great question. It's a very interesting idea that because every organism essentially is exposed to microplastic. It might there be some of them that develop resistance to the poisons within those plastics.

Melanie Avalon: It's so interesting because if you just want to just brainstorm and think about crazy ideas-- You could imagine a situation where looking at millions of years assuming we're still here. There're some other species that evolves to adapt to all of these environmental pollutants and then humans don't. And so, humans get wiped out and this other species actually evolves like in millions of years like it looks completely different. 

Matt Simon: Yeah, plastic resistance in some sort of species. I think one of the truly embarrassing and devastating things about microplastic pollution is that, it's going to be an artifact. It's in the fossil record. As I had mentioned, scientists can go in sediments in the ocean and dig down through these layers and go back to the 1940s and chart over time the exponential increase in the amount of microplastics over the decades. So, our descendants say, 500 years, if we make it that long down the line, will go back through the fossil record and find this truly astonishing and embarrassing signal of microplastics infesting the fossil record. There should be organisms in there. Now, it's synthetic particles of plastic. That's what I find upsetting is the record that we're leaving for those that come after us is ugly and it's devastating, I think.

Melanie Avalon: One of the things that bothers me is stuff, like, there's so much unnecessary plastic in my opinion. I eat a lot of cucumbers, like a lot. I buy them in bulk at Costco. There's so much plastic wrapped around them in the actual cucumbers and then there's the plastic layer around that. I was always just concerned historically before reading your book about the plastic touching the cucumber, and then somehow leaching into the cucumber, and having that effect. But now it seems like it could be so much more than that. So, actually, first really quick question. When plastics touch food, because there're lots of wrapped produce and stuff like that, and even meats at the grocery store, does that leach into the food, touching? Can plastic, just by touching, leach into things? 

Matt Simon: Yes. This is a good opportunity to talk about what we shouldn't do with food plastics. So, under no circumstances should you microwave plastic or freeze it. That's also terrible. That breaks apart these plastics. In general, the things that tend to break down--

Melanie Avalon: Plastic freezer bags, like that you put in the freezer?

Matt Simon: Don't do it, don't do it. The things that tend to break down plastics are UV light for one in the environment. So, that's why a bottle or bag will, over time, break down, because the UV light bombards it and breaks apart the bonds within the plastic and then it just splits into smaller pieces. Plastics are very tough by design, but heating and freezing, these temperature changes do the same thing. They break the plastic apart. When that happens, it actually allows these bonds to come apart and leach out different chemicals in plastic. When I mentioned that study that linked phthalates and plastics to 100,000 early deaths in the United States each year on a very conservative estimate, that might be from foods wrapped in plastic or it might be from microplastic. There's no way of knowing at the moment that [unintelligible [00:46:24] at that, but it might be a little bit of both. 

You mentioned cucumbers. I lose my God damn mind anytime I'm in a supermarket and I see a cucumber wrapped in single use plastic. It's like, "Are we not aware that cucumbers have their own skins that work perfectly fine?" This is a talking point in the plastics industry is that plastics are so useful, because they keep our food fresher longer. That means there's less food waste in the United States, which is, I think, the numbers on actual food waste in the United States would say otherwise. That also doesn't take into account the fact that-- In the United States, we recycle about 5% of plastic, which is crazy. Historically, about 10% of plastics ever produced have been recycled. The rest have been thrown into landfills or burned or just chucked into the environment.

When we produce this plastic, we don't recycle in the United States. We actually ship it across oceans to developing countries. Until recently, China was taking a lot of this stuff, but a couple of years ago said, "No, we're not doing that anymore." So, it's now flowing into other countries that are openly burning it. When you hear the plastics industry, you say, "Well, it cuts down on a food waste." Well, we are then shipping that plastic across oceans that comes with the tremendous amount of carbon emissions involved where it's then burned and sent into the atmosphere. It doesn't seem particularly efficient to me. But anyway, coming back to what we can do with plastics is just don't use them as much as possible.

Under no circumstances should you prepare baby formula in plastic, warm baby formula. So, when I mentioned earlier that we're finding a lot of microplastics in infant feces. That is probably in large part because when you prepare hot formula in a plastic bottle, it breaks apart that plastic. There was a study, a super alarming study that came out a couple of years ago that showed that a baby might be drinking a million particles of plastic a day through this formula if you're preparing it in plastic. So, prepare it when you can in glass. Just generally buy more glass, put more things in metal. You had mentioned BPA earlier. There was this big movement to get rid of BPA, which is an endocrine disrupting chemical, very terrible for human health. All well and good, except there have been a couple of studies that found that things labeled BPA-free, in fact, have BPA in them, because there's basically no regulatory framework here in the United States. 

The other issue is that as we find these chemicals that are known to be bad for human health, the industry just replaces them with chemicals that are very similar in structure, because you have to make a plastic a plastic. It can't just be pure carbon, as nice as that would because carbon is carbon, it would just melt into the environment, no problem. But it has all these additional chemicals beyond BPA. We have to be very careful about what we let the industry substitute in as we phase these chemicals out, because it could just be something that is just as toxic, if not more toxic in the case of BPA. 

So, yes, no food in contact with plastic if at all possible. But this is where I really struggle is that we don't have choice here. So, you have a hard time going to a supermarket and finding things that are not wrapped in single use plastic. I have the liberty of having a farmers' market here. I get to take a canvas bag and just put things directly in it. That is very lucky for me. That is not the case for a wide array of Americans who may live in a food desert where you only have access to a convenience store for food and more things are wrapped in single use plastic there. So, equity side of this is well that is just now coming into view. There's a couple of researchers looking into our disadvantaged people in contact with more plastic, and therefore, are they exposed to more poisons within them? 

But yes, I like to say don't have food in contact with plastic. It's basically impossible to do right now, which is why we need systemic change. It's super great that individuals use reusable metal bottles. That's fantastic for your health. In the long term, if we get that support swelling for that, we can phase out more plastic bottles, that sort of thing. But it's going to require this huge movement because the plastics industry will have nothing more than to keep producing more and more plastic again three times as much by 2050 and flooding the planet and our bodies with these little tiny particles.

Melanie Avalon: When the plastics are burned and go up into the atmosphere, is that ash still plastic? 

Matt Simon: Yes, well, it's extra bad. It will burn and it'll break into smaller pieces and it will go up as ash. But in that ash, it's basically microplastic ash and maybe some larger pieces of plastic, because the fire, that warm air rises and propels all that particulate matter into the atmosphere. But you're also releasing just straight up chemicals when you do that beyond the microplastics. There have been a number of reports in these developing countries that are openly burning this stuff and terrible health problems for people living around this stuff, because plastic, it was long treated as benign material. "Oh, it's very safe. It makes actually things safer, makes our food safer."

Melanie Avalon: Like it's so inert. 

Matt Simon: It's so inert. Don't even worry about it. It's not going to be an issue. But these people have terrible human health effects, because they're breathing burnt plastic. But then that is also sending the material up into the atmosphere again propelling it because it's this warm air rising. It's again a consequence of the United States and other developed countries shipping the stuff that they can't profitably recycle. I will emphasize profitably because that's been the issue is that it's just not profitable to recycle, so we just don't bother. That's a perverse system in the United States of capitalism, which is, we're totally fine profiting by making all this stuff, all this plastic, but totally uninterested in actually taking care of it and keeping it from getting into the environment. Because once the plastic industry makes it, it could just wipe its hands and walk away and then blame us as consumers that we're not recycling enough. So, recycling needs to be fixed, but it also cannot be a crutch that we stand on because at the end of the day, we just need to stop producing so much plastic. 

Melanie Avalon: I actually am serious, like, could we gather the plastic and launch it into space? Is that actually an option, because space is so big? Would it hurt anything? 

Matt Simon: There's a twofold issue, I think, which is people talking about this with spent nuclear material. They just get it off of earth. Well, if you fire that rocket and it explodes [laughs] and you poison the entire planet with radioactive material, the same could be said for plastic. The bigger issue is, it's just so expensive to launch a rocket. When you think about plastic, it's a very undense material. So, there's only so much you can get into a rocket. I would love for that to be just fire a bunch of rockets into the sun. It'd be cool to watch. Unfortunately, not feasible.

Melanie Avalon: Okay. I'm just envisioning some flowing thing that just keeps it projecting up. Again, I realize that's like trying to throw our problems somewhere else, but space is big. 

Matt Simon: Just because we're thinking of it, it shows what a crazy problem this is that we are up against an industry that is going to keep producing more and more plastic. We know for sure that too much of the stuff is escaping into the environment. We know for sure that there are increasing bodies of evidence showing that this is bad for human health. The very fact that we're sitting here thinking about this show is that this is just a very daunting problem. It's very easy to get dejected about it, but that's also what the plastics industry wants us to feel. It's the same thing with climate change. They want us to feel dejected and hopeless, because that's going to keep us from taking action on climate change to reduce our emissions. They want us to feel bad about flying, right? Because you flew across the country, you made climate change worse. No, that's a drop in the bucket as far as emission is concerned. 

It's because we have this economy that is built on burning carbon that is the issue. We need to get away from that. In the same way, we need to stop producing so much plastic. We need to reduce our reliance because we cannot let the industry again make this our fault, because it never was. We never asked for our cucumbers to be wrapped in single use plastic. At least, I didn't and you probably didn't either. I think this is where the movement is going to be, is increasing realization of just how absurd this has become wrapping vegetables in single use plastic, that sort of thing. So, maybe that's where we see movement and maybe that's where we see that we start electing politicians that take this seriously and realize that climate change and plastics are two sides to the same coin. It's fossil fuels. It's one and the same. 

Again, as the industry starts to pivot away from fossil fuels, as we switch to more wind and solar power, they're going to put much more investment in plastics. This is their strategy. It's not a secret, it's just not very well publicized because I don't think a lot of people realize that plastics were fossil fuels. So, that's what we're up against. But I do have hope that we can elect people that actually take this seriously and try to wrestle the influence of the fossil fuel industry away from politics, hopefully, ideally, I don't know. 

Melanie Avalon: What's also super interesting and also disheartening, but it was actually, there was one time I laughed when I read your book, but it wasn't a happy laugh. It was an ironic laugh. When you talked about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which, if listeners google that, it is just shocking to look at. But the attempted cleanup effort, which was great that they were attempting it, but it was such an epic fail. The one that at least what you talked about in the book with the thing that they built to go-- What was it like, something that was going to go clean it up and then it broke and was made of plastic? 

Matt Simon: Yeah. So, this is the fundamental issue with mitigating the problem. They sent out this big plastic catcher. It's a giant tube that plastic floats into in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. You send out a boat to accumulate all that plastic, bring it back on shore, which is like, "All right, good luck even if that works." The first one that they sent out split in half, because I think the open ocean is going to have other ideas about trying to engineer a massive plastic tube to produce plastic, which then ironically breaks into plastic pollution itself and they have tow it to Hawaii for repairs. This is something that microplastic scientists talk about a lot, which is that, that is way too far downstream. We need to get way more upstream when it comes to mitigation. By that I mean that the farthest upstream we can go is to stop producing so much plastic. Again, I hate to keep harping on it, but that is how we fix this problem. 

Going farther downstream, what you can actually do in your home is to buy a microfiber filter for your washing machine. So, aftermarket thing, you slap it on. I have one it works pretty well, I think, and that keeps some of the microfibers from your clothing from washing out to a wastewater treatment facility. The issue there is that we need to somehow dispose of those microfibers in a good way. If you throw it in the trash can and the trash is then exposed to open air and those fibers take to the air anyway, it didn't do much good. So that'll be, I think, worked out in the coming years as we also tried to put just more of those fiber filters standard into washing machines. France is actually the first to mandate this. By 2025, all washing machines in France have to have these filters. So, that's a little farther downstream, still good. 

Rain gardens, as I've mentioned before, are a little bit farther downstream that is closer to the ocean, but still keeps those particles from getting out there. The other one I mentioned in the book is my favorite technology of all time, Mr. Trash Wheel, which is a barge in Baltimore Harbor. It is a giant barge with giant googly eyes that eats trash floating down the river. It collects all of it into a barge and then they take that waste and recycle it. That keeps the very last stop before the open ocean to catch that plastic before it gets in there. Again, macroplastic like bottles and bags are just pre-microplastics, because they're going to break down once they're out there. So, there's up and down this stream that we can move. The farthest downstream you could possibly go is to try to get the stuff out in the open ocean. But farthest upstream we can go is to just not produce the plastic and then we'll have to worry about it escaping into the environment. So, that's when microplastics researchers talk about this, they say, "First of all, the plastic catcher in the ocean is not going to capture microplastics in any way, but also, it's a boondoggle on a wide scale." It's going to be very difficult to make work. 

Melanie Avalon: Are you a Star Trek fan, by chance? 

Matt Simon: You know what, I'm going to embarrass myself and say that I have not seen much Star Trek. 

Melanie Avalon: Okay, never mind. This reference won't make any sense. There's an episode called The Doomsday Machine, where it's this thing that just goes around-- For listeners who know Star Trek, that's what I keep thinking of with these things going into the Great Pacific Garbage Patch or this Trash Wheel. So, the microplastic or microfiber filter, is that different than the lint catcher in your washing machine? 

Matt Simon: It is. That's the frustrating thing is that other countries actually have microfiber filters just kind of standard in their washing machines that become lint in a dryer, because they use more line drying. They don't have dryers. 

Melanie Avalon: Oh, right, okay. I'm looping it all together in my head. Never mind. 

Matt Simon: No, it's a good question. We need them on both. That's the weird thing we think about the next time you dry your clothes and you clean out that lint filter. If you know two-thirds of your clothing is made out of plastic, that's concentrated microplastic, and that's actually the stuff that then gets spread onto fields. So, that would normally go to wastewater treatment facility. That's the stuff that's coming out of your washing machine. [unintelligible [01:01:05] keep the lint filters for sure, but we need safer ways to actually dispose of it, because when you're pulling out your dryer that stuff is taking to indoor air, but we need them on washing machines as well. We need to mandate actually that manufacturers start putting them on like France has started to do. Otherwise, we're kind of left to our own devices getting these aftermarket filters, which are not too expensive. You can get one for like $50. Again, it's not our responsibility. I want to keep coming back to this. I don't want to make people feel bad about their contribution to microplastic pollution, because this is a plastic industry problem, not a consumer problem. 

Melanie Avalon: Is it something that anybody can out fit their washing machine with, they can order this filter? 

Matt Simon: Yeah, it should be. There're a couple of companies that do it. My dad is more handy. He installed it for me. It attaches to the hoses that go in and out of the machine. I guess, it attaches to the one that goes out of the machine, the water passes through it. Then mine is a removable filter that you actually send back to the company, and they will actually turn that into home insulation. So, you're trying to lock away the microplastic for as long as possible to keep it from getting to the environment. 

Melanie Avalon: Very cool. Maybe I'll look up some resources and put a link in the show notes to that. So, it was so interesting reading about the clothing and the washing and all the things. It made me do one change that I knew I should have done already, but I read your book and I was like, "Oh, okay, I cannot do this anymore." I was using the single use, like the pods that you throw in into the washing machine. Those are wrapped in some sort of plastic, I think. It's supposed to degrade or it breaks down in the water, but that's probably even worse. 

Matt Simon: It breaks into microplastics. When people say that this plastic is biodegradable, what they're not telling you is that it is still plastic out there. It's just deconstructed. It's the same plastic, it's just in millions of parts. 

Melanie Avalon: Wow. Okay. Yeah, so that change. And then on the one hand, I felt better about my clothing habits because I tend to wear-- I have four outfits, they're the exact same thing and I wear them every single day because of decision fatigue. I just want to wear the same thing every day. I don't want to think about what I'm putting on, which I always thought I was really crazy, but then I realized that that's what Steve Jobs did and like Barack Obama. So, maybe I'm not crazy. So, that made me feel better because you were talking about how something that we can do is buy good clothing and wear it a long time. But then on the other hand, when I'm going out, I'd like to always wear a new dress. So, I probably offset my [laughs] daily habits that way. 

Matt Simon: You're right though. I think that's a great strategy. I talk in the book about a number of studies that actually agree on this that the more you wash a garment, the less microfibers it actually expels. The first couple of washes, probably a lot of the microfibers from the manufacturing process are just getting jostled loose and wash out in the washing machine wastewater. But over time, it actually produces less and less microplastic. If it's a high-quality garment that lasts you for years and if it's not breaking apart, like if you have something from fast fashion and you notice that it's breaking apart after a month, it's breaking into microplastics that are then flushing out to a wastewater treatment facility. So, you're right. It's good to wear the same stuff, whatever. I do the same thing. I'm fine with it. I think we should start a movement. I don't know. 

Melanie Avalon: It's funny. I feel embarrassed because there are a few things that I do every single day. I go to cryotherapy. You probably think I'm so weird that I wear the exact same thing in every single day, but it makes my life easier. And so, another question about the BPA. I'm fascinated by BPA because I was already curious or skeptical about this, but then reading your book, I became even more so. You talk about all of these potential compounds and chemicals and plastics. So, BPA, why do we focus on BPA? Is it really the one thing or is it just so happens that for whatever reason BPA is what they focused on? You wished earlier, like, the alternatives like BPA-free might still have, like, BPF or BPS, and those haven't been studied as much. So, is it possible that BPA-free is worse than BPA? 

Matt Simon: It's possible. It's actually quite a concern among scientists is that we started in plastics with BPA. That was linked to a number of human health problems, which pressured the industry to start phasing it out. As you mentioned, we might be phasing in these alternatives because you're still going to need to make a plastic, a plastic. BPA served a very good purpose. So, they need to substitute something. We don't really have good data on, "Okay, well, is that chemical because it's so much structure, just as bad, if not worse, for human health." In the United States, there's just almost no regulation around this sort of stuff. This is certainly what we need more of. 

I think BPA is one of these EDCs and a number of different chemicals that have effects on the endocrine system. We are now in this situation where we have to start picking through all of these and plastics and doing more studies on what they do for human health. There are a number already that are linking them to health problems. The scary thing, the way that EDCs work is that their dosing doesn't work like a typical poison would. So, you think of something, like, aspirin, if you take enough it, it's a poison. If you pull out a graph, there's this line that just goes up and up and up. EDCs work differently where it's more of like a U shape. So, even at very, very low concentrations, you can get a severe effect. Then moving right on the graph, it actually goes down that middle dosage, but then it comes back up again at very high doses.

So, the concern with microplastics is that maybe even on these very small scales getting into our lungs and our digestive systems, the EDCs could have an effect there. We're at the very, very beginning of understanding the human health effects of microplastics. I had quote of scientist in the book, who says that, "We don't know about 99% of it. We have 1% and that's a start, but it's going to take much more research to figure out what these different chemicals are doing to human health." 

Melanie Avalon: The U-shaped toxicity curve is so even more concerning, because you would like to think that the dose is in the poison, so you require more for it to be toxic. But basically, different exposures might have just as much of an issue which is crazy. Another question about the biodegradable. So, when things are labeled as being biodegradable, so that does not mean it's plastic free to clarify, that could just mean that it breaks down faster. 

Matt Simon: Yeah, the terminology here gets tricky. So, biodegradable basically means that it's going to break down faster. The issue with biodegradable, I think a lot of people think about compost bags as biodegradable and they're still plastic to a certain extent. In that they are meant to degrade under a certain set of conditions and that is in these industrial composting facilities at very high consistent temperatures. Coming back to this idea that heat is one of the things that breaks down plastics, that compost bag is still plastic and then the issue becomes that that's mixed in a lot of times with the compost and then spread on crops. So, we're getting microplastics from compost bags on our crops in addition to the microfibers and sludge from our clothing. That's the problem with composting.

The other issue is that if that compost bag is in some other environment, that is not an industrial composting facility with consistently high temperatures, it does not break down. There was a good say that-- actually did this over time, putting bags in soil and in ocean water and showing that sometimes after years, they would be intact enough to still carry stuff in. Biodegradable is not a regulated term that is also different from biobased-- So, it's a little tricky. Biobased means you're getting the carbon chains in the plastic from plants, so sugarcane or corn instead of from fossil fuels. Unfortunately, you still have to have all of those chemicals that make plastic a plastic mixed in with them. You're just getting carbon from a different source. That's little bit of difference between biobased and biodegradable. It's all messy. It's the Wild West of terminology and regulation. Just think of when you're using a plastic, at some point, it's just going to break down into microplastics, regardless. Where it does so is an open question because the chain of possession here when it comes to taking care of plastic waste is very unclear. 

Melanie Avalon: Okay. So, this is perfect timing. So, this week, literally this week, I got approached by a brand to partner with for the show and I'm vetting them right now. And so, I'm looking at their website. I'm not going to say what the brand is because I'm not sure if I'm going to partner with them or not. This is like a good example where I can't tell, like reading the information, if it's great or if it's not great. Can I read you some of what they say and you can let me know what this is saying? 

Matt Simon: Sure. 

Melanie Avalon: So, what they make is they make, it's like compostable bags. So, like grocery bags, storage bags for food in your freezer, the gallon bags, but their main thing is trash bags. So, they say, "We use nontoxic ingredients like PBAT, PLA, and cornstarch to produce our strong and sustainable material. Our plant-based renewables come from the earth and degrade cleanly back into the earth without producing microplastics or toxic residue. And then, for the breakdown, they say that, so PBAT is a biodegradable polymer that requires less crude oil during production than plastics and breaks down quickly without emitting methane gas or creating toxic residues. And then they say that PLA is a monomer derived from organic renewable sources like sugar or corn. It requires less energy in production and emits less greenhouse gas and decomposition than plastic. 

Then they say cornstarch is an organic substance that is ethically harvested from corn and biodegrades quickly without toxic gas. Then they say that they use responsible packaging, minimal recyclable packaging made with 100% FSC, which I don't know what that is, certified material from responsible sources in an effort to reduce waste. So, that type of stuff. 

Matt Simon: It's a lot. 

Melanie Avalon: Yeah. You don't have to comment in detail on everything. So, is that what you're talking about with the biobased stuff rather than biodegradable? 

Matt Simon: If they're using PLA, they're talking about biobased. They're making their chains of carbon out of plastic instead of fossil fuels. I get pitched on this sort of thing all the time as a science journalist about these alternatives. With anything, I'm very curious about the scientific rigor behind any claim. So, when you say it's nontoxic, well, nontoxic to what? If it's a microplastic breaking down in the environment, is it toxic to other things? I never cover these things, because at the end of the day-- I harp on, we just need to use less plastic. at the end of the day, alternatives are going to help, but we need to be very careful that we are not producing things that are just as harmful as plastic. These things I would love to see scientific rigor behind what they're claiming here. But yes, that is sounding like a biobased plastic instead of a fossil fuel based one. 

Melanie Avalon: So, have you heard before of polybutylene adipate terephthalate, PBAT? It has more phthalate in it. 

Matt Simon: Yeah, I've heard of terephthalate. I haven't heard that other one. Actually, the fascinating thing about plastics is there are so many different varieties. So, from that original synthetic billiard ball, it has diversified into this whole range of different plastics, which has made actually figuring out a lot of things in microplastic science quite difficult, because one variety of plastic might break down differently under UV bombardment. A biobased plastic might break down differently than a fossil fuel based one. This is the issue. As we are transitioning perhaps away from plastics and looking for alternatives that are nontoxic, again, are not based on fossil fuels. We need to apply scientific rigor to what all that actually means in practice. So, I'm hopeful to a certain degree that there are going to be alternatives coming out in the years to come. But we cannot lose sight of the fact. We just need to use less plastic in general across the board, period. At the end of the day, that's it, that's how we fix this problem. 

Melanie Avalon: Yeah, because I'm just thinking about this even more and more. I would look more into this PBAT, because they say it's an alternative to plastics, which makes it sound like it's not a plastic. So, this is something where-- because you're talking about just reducing our use of this in general, but something like trash bags. We all need trash bags. So, I guess, we need something that is a non-plastic trash bag or is there another alternative that doesn't even require that? 

Matt Simon: Yeah, trash bags are quite useful, but not necessarily always necessary. I think recycling is probably easier. You don't need to necessarily put all your recycling in a plastic bag before you put it on the curb, because it's not really dirty. There's not food stuff on it if you wash it, that sort of thing. It's just I think being more mindful really to begin with. So, thinking about all the ways that we are using plastics in our daily lives, which was never our intention. I want to come back to this. We never asked for this much plastic, but little by little picking out things that we know that we can reduce our reliance on plastic with, again, switching to glass and metal which is reusable as long as you don't break your glass, reusable over and over again and is not as problematic as plastics are. So, yes, new materials are going to be, I think, good going forward. But really to start with right now, at this very moment, we can all take inventory in our daily lives of ways that we can cut out plastics entirely. 

Melanie Avalon: I launched a supplement line and I did it in glass bottles, which is really rare in the supplement industry, like most of them are in plastic bottles. But I read your book and I was like-- I called my business partner and I was like, "We have to change the cap," because it still has a plastic cap. I was like, "We got to find an alternative here." Part of the problem. So, in your daily life, what are some of the main things that you do daily to address this? Do you use trash bags?

Matt Simon: For trash, I try to use as best as you can try, like paper bags. This is why I think there will be uses going forward for different formulations of things that act like plastics that are waterproof and are just convenient in that way. I talk about this in the book, that plastic is a wonder material. It has been so extremely useful in a broad range of uses. I'm not sitting here arguing that we should not use plastic in medical devices, that sort of thing. They will serve a purpose for certain things going forward. But just taking a look around us and realizing that there are ways to cut out plastics, again, I have the privilege of going to a farmer's market where I can just put things in the canvas bag. I do the same thing when I have to go to the grocery store. But just avoiding plastic is essentially impossible. It's hard to get out of that place without buying at least one thing that is in plastic. 

So, we need alternatives. We need choice as consumers. I was under the understanding that capitalism was all about choice. In fact, too much choice. We don't need 20 kinds of toothpaste at the drugstore. I think a couple will do just fine. But when it comes to plastics, we have no choice. There are not really alternatives except like niche products. I've seen for toothpaste, it's like a chewable thing that isn't wrapped in single use plastic. I'm big on refillable centers, so buying shampoo in bulk, you have your own glass jar. You go to a local store, there's a couple here in the Bay Area, but that's a privilege. Again, I want to come back to this equity aspect that a lot of people do not have the privilege of avoiding plastic. If you live in a food desert, you only have access to stuff that is wrapped in single use plastic. You have zero choice about your exposure to plastic. I live in a very privileged position where I get to go to a farmers market every Sunday. So, if capitalism is all it's cracked up to be, where's the choice here. As consumers, why can't we choose not to use so much plastic day after day. 

Melanie Avalon: One sort of like esoteric question to possibly end on. Could it have been any other way? If we could go back and know what we know now, what would that have looked like? We would have just produced plastic for the necessary things and started with alternatives from the beginning. I'm just wondering if it could have been any other way for the progress of humanity. You talk about the progress trap.

Matt Simon: Yeah. So, I keep thinking about-- I'm 38 and I grew up in the 1980s. I remember a time where we just had much less single use plastic. Stuff wasn't wrapped in plastic as much as it is today. It was not that long ago in human history where we had access to plenty of plastics that we got along just fine without them infiltrating every aspect of our daily lives. Again, I'm not saying that we should not use them for very useful things like airplanes. Interiors of airplanes, they would not be able to fly if they weren't made out of plastic. I'm not saying get rid of that. I'm saying that it could have been that after World War II as we started producing more and more plastics, we could have been much smarter about the uses. Had we known about the awful effects that plastics would be having as production grew more and more out of control? So, that's both a contamination in environment of macroplastic and microplastics.

Now as we're seeing human exposure to microplastics. There's one researcher I talked to in the book that reckons that we inhale 7,000 microplastics a day. When plastics were first being produced on a wide scale in the 1940s and 1950s, I don't think anybody thought that that was going to be issue. We didn't think that was an issue until very recently in human and scientific history. As you mentioned in the book, we have this opportunity to tear ourselves free from this plastic trap. It seems that we are stuck with this material because it is absolutely everywhere. But we can also look back in very recent human history where we had this material, but didn't have it in so many places and in so many ridiculous forms. Single use plastic is an insane concept and companies did it because it was profitable. This was a market-based thing it made it so it was cheaper to ship soda instead of in a glass bottle which is heavier. It's just harder to do that. Plastics was a much cheaper way to do so.

This is a product of capitalism and it's going to take a concerted effort on the part of the people and then politicians to rein in these truly sociopathic corporations that have flooded the planet with this material with no consequence. We just had not held them to account. It could have gone a very different way where were thinking decades past that, "Oh, this is getting a little crazy, a little ridiculous that we're producing so much of this stuff for ridiculous purposes. Maybe let's pump the brakes." We have that opportunity. In fact, that opportunity is extremely urgent, because production is going to triple in the next 30 years. That's the insanity of this is that you thought it was bad now, just wait 5 years, 10 years, it's going to be much, much worse, unless we actually get together and hold these companies to account. 

Melanie Avalon: Well, thank you so much. Is there anything else about all of this that you think is important for listeners to know? 

Matt Simon: One thing I think that would be interesting to add about the climate implications here is that, scientists are just beginning to explore what these particles might do to the environment carbon wise. So, if they're up in the atmosphere in very high concentrations, are they absorbing some of the sun's energy while they're up there? Plastics are often made out of these dark colors that could more readily absorb the sun's energy in the atmosphere, thus heating the atmosphere. Are they acting as nuclei for clouds? So, clouds form around little bits of dust or even bacteria, that sort of thing, that act as nuclei. You get water glomming onto that. Are microplastics doing the same? Are they changing the way that clouds are forming? 

There is additional research that is showing that microplastics release lots of methane, in particular, as they break down in the environment. So, coming back to this idea. This is carbon. This is carbon from fossil fuels. As it breaks down the environment, where do you think that carbon goes? Often, it comes off as a gas that then adds to the burden of carbon in the atmosphere. That's why this is such an urgent issue, is that we can't let the fossil fuel industry wind down the burning of fossil fuels as we switch to renewables and wind up the production of plastics, which is just carbon in a different form. We're going to see a lot more emissions both from the production of that plastic as we triple production by 2050. But also, what's already out there is off gassing that carbon into the atmosphere. So, that's just an additional climate side of things that I think we'll see more research on going forward. 

Melanie Avalon: I like how one thing you pointed out in the book was the question of, why focus on plastics when there's all of the climate change and climate issues? But you talk about how they're all overwhelmingly interconnected, so helping one helps the other, presumably. Well, thank you so much. Like I said, your book had a profound impact. I see the world differently now, honestly. I literally do. 

Matt Simon: That's great. 

Melanie Avalon: So, I can't thank you enough. 

Matt Simon: That's not great. 

Melanie Avalon: [laughs] Yeah, I know. It's insane. What are you working on now? Do you have any other future books? 

Matt Simon: Oh, man, I'm taking a breather from this. This one took a lot out of me. I don't know what's coming next, but I think just some time off from writing books for the moment. We'll see. 

Melanie Avalon: Nice. Well, how can people best follow your work on WIRED, and social media, all the things?

Matt Simon: Yeah. I don't use Twitter much even before the recent chaos, but you can find my WIRED author page just by googling my name and WIRED. I will be there producing content. But otherwise, if folks have questions, feel free to reach out to me. My WIRED email is on my Twitter page. So, happy to answer questions. 

Melanie Avalon: Well, we will put links to all that in the show notes. And the last question that I ask every single guest on this show, and it's just because I realize more and more each day how important mindset is. So, what is something that you're grateful for? 

Matt Simon: I'm grateful for all of these scientists coming together from different fields to look at not only the consequences for ecosystems, but more and more to really rush-- Not rush in the sense that they're not doing good science, but to do very solid science as quickly as possible to figure out the human health effects of microplastics, because it could be severe and we need to know as soon as possible. So, I'm grateful to those people doing that hard work, not necessarily uplifting work, but so it goes.

Melanie Avalon: Well, thank you so much. I am so grateful for the work you are doing, because it was, like I said, so eye opening and a very interesting and accessible read. And so, I think it's going to really help a lot of people have a paradigm shift that I think is really, really needed. So, you're doing great things that are having actual effects on the world. So, thank you. Yeah, so, thank you so much for your time. This was amazing. If you do ever write another book, again in the future, love to have you back on. And yeah, thanks so much for all that you're doing.

Matt Simon: Thank you very much. I appreciate the interest in the book. 

Melanie Avalon: Have a good day. Thanks, Matt. Bye. 

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