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Reduce use of plastics for better health, oceans

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After expanding by another $194 billion last quarter, China’s foreign exchange reserves rose to a record $2.65 trillion. This reflects a recent influx of "hot money" with expectations of a stronger yuan and increased asset prices. More important, it reflects a chronic and continuing trade surplus, largely the result of China’s low labor cost and weak currency married with America’s insatiable appetite for consumer goods.

Our family remembers watching a large, attractive building go up on the last piece of prime, waterfront real estate in Hawaii Kai. Would it be a hotel, we mused, with tasteful cafes or a bookstore, something we could all enjoy? Imagine our shock when we realized it was a storage facility. No one would ever look out those windows and enjoy the view. People, we thought, must be willing to pay a pretty penny to store plastic from China bought on the cheap from Costco. At least, for a while. Until somehow, its value fades and it gets pulled inexorably toward the Pacific Gyre, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a swirling mass of trash in the middle of the ocean, now twice the size of Texas.

According to the Independent (U.K.), Curtis Ebbesmeyer, an oceanographer, says the gyre travels like a living entity: "It moves around like a big animal without a leash." When it hits the Hawaiian Islands, "the garbage patch barfs, and you get a beach covered with this confetti of plastic." It serves us right since 80 percent of this garbage comes from land.

So the Chinese have $2.65 trillion in foreign exchange reserves, and for all our money, well, we bought the Great Pacific Garbage Patch amassed by currents traveling along the North Pacific Rim. Tragically, while plastic never fully breaks down, the bits become small enough to mimic plankton. Both fish and birds mistakenly ingest the material and suffer from blocked digestion, malnutrition and toxicity from plastic chemicals.

Bisphenol A (BPA), frequently found in plastic, was just officially classified as a toxic compound by the Canadian government. It is commonly used to create clear, hard plastics that store food and drink. Several states in the U.S. have already outlawed its use in baby bottles. The compound mimics estrogen and is implicated in obesity, early puberty and infertility.

San Francisco recently ruled that all municipal office supplies must be free of polyvinyl chloride (PVC), another chemical that leeches from plastics. This one releases dioxins implicated in cancer among other health issues.

These toxic plastic chemicals are literally under our nose every day. Even the vitamins and supplements people take in an effort to optimize health, get packaged in bottles with BPA and PVC.

How can we minimize the immediate risk to our health and the long-term risk to the environment? Here are some recommendations for plastic hygiene.

» Use glass instead of plastic to store food and drink.
» Avoid freezing food items packaged in plastic.
» Avoid using the microwave to heat foods packaged in plastic. Instead, transfer them to microwave-friendly glass containers.
» Minimize the use of plastic pipes to transport drinking water.
» Optimize ventilation inside new cars and new or renovated buildings.
» Minimize plastic toys children might chew on.

» Use blue recycling bins rather than gray trash bins for plastic disposal.
» When purchasing plastic products, use those made from recycled material.
» Commit to reusable cloth bags for grocery shopping.
» Support the use of natural or recycled materials for new construction.
» Take measures to keep plastic out of the ocean.

Once again, we need to be mindful of seemingly trivial details in our daily life. We can directly optimize our health by consciously avoiding toxic exposure, and we can optimize the health of our oceans by actions taken to protect the environment, especially aquatic life.

Whether posturing for a currency dispute or a trade war, the world’s only superpower and its biggest creditor are tied at the hip. We cannot separate our economic fate, nor can we ignore the fact that although the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is the work of many wasteful nations, we are at the forefront. It continues to swirl in the middle of the great ocean we share and still grows each day. It’s time to take out the trash.

Ira Zunin, M.D., MPH, MBA, is medical director of Manakai o Malama Integrative Healthcare Group and Rehabilitation Center and CEO of Global Advisory Services Inc. Please submit your questions to


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