Tiny Terrors: Microplastics’ Threat to Our Health and Environment

Published Jul 6, 2023


Food SystemClimate and EnergyClean Water

During this Livable Future LIVE event, we talk with science journalist Matt Simon about the hazards of microplastic pollution and how we can stop it.

During this Livable Future LIVE event, we talk with science journalist Matt Simon about the hazards of microplastic pollution and how we can stop it.

Plastic is everywhere, and its presence in our lives has grown in the last few decades, as the oil and gas industry ramped up its production to unprecedented levels. The resulting plastic pollution crisis has now entered a new phase in the form of microplastics.

As plastic degrades, it fragments into tiny microplastic pieces. Scientists now find them everywhere, including in our food, water, and air. In fact, we may be eating up to a credit card’s worth of plastic each week.

Researchers are still studying the full scope of what that means for human health and the environment. But they are increasingly finding links between plastic, its toxic additives, and diseases like cancer.

To break down the problem and possible solutions, Food & Water Watch hosted a virtual Livable Future LIVE event, “How Microplastics Affect Our Health & Environment.”

We spoke with Matt Simon, a science writer at WIRED magazine who has reported extensively on the plastics crisis. Last year, he published A Poison Like No Other: How Microplastics Corrupted Our Planet and Our Bodies.

At the event, Matt spoke about the growing body of research on where microplastics come from, how they endanger our health, and how we can respond to the crisis.

Highlights From the Event

Scientists have now found microplastics in the crops we grow, in our drinking water, in the air we breathe, and within our bodies.

One reason this is so concerning is the many toxic chemicals used to make plastics or added to them, including PFAS “forever chemicals.” Many of these chemicals are unregulated, and plastic companies can keep them secret from the public. As Matt explained,

“…. there are at least 13,500 chemicals that have been used in plastic, again, a quarter of which are of concern. 

The issue here is that no plastics company is required in any way to tell us what is in this plastic. There’s no ingredient list on the bottle. There is for the liquid inside of it, but not for the bottle itself. 

So this is up to — it’s absurd — it’s up to chemists to reverse engineer what is in plastic to figure out what is toxic.”

Tell EPA to regulate ALL types of PFAS!

To reduce microplastic pollution, Matt emphasized, we need to reduce plastic use as far upstream as possible. On an individual level, we can buy less plastic and keep bigger plastics like bottles and bags out of the environment.

But to create meaningful change, we need to tackle this problem at its root by stemming the flow of plastic production. That means regulating the oil and gas industry and moving off fossil fuels, the driving force behind plastic production.

Not only will this address plastic’s health and ecological harms — it’s also essential for climate action. As Matt said,

“You can’t fix plastics or climate change individually; you have to do both at the same time. Because if we allow [oil and gas companies] to keep producing exponentially more plastic, tripling production by 2060, that’s just emissions in a different form. 

… These are the same planetary criminals. They’re destroying the planet with climate change, and, not content with that, they’re turning around and deciding to destroy the planet once over again with plastics.”

With your help, we can tackle this crisis at the source. Together, we’re raising public awareness and outrage and calling on our leaders to rein in oil and gas companies.

You can learn more about Matt’s work and the microplastic crisis in the full event recording and transcript below.

Watch “How Microplastics Affect Our Health and Environment”

Check Out Resources Shared at the Event

Read or Follow Along With the Full Transcript

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Kate Schwanhausser: Hello and welcome everyone. Thank you all so much for joining us this afternoon for our Livable Future LIVE event series. Today, we’re going to be talking about microplastics and the health and environmental impacts that they have.

I see people are starting to log in. We’ll give everybody just another minute or so to get joining us here on this Zoom. So in the meantime, I just have a couple of quick housekeeping reminders and upcoming event announcements that I’ll share with you before I introduce our guest speaker, Matt Simon, who is a journalist and author of the book A Poison Like No Other: How Microplastics Corrupted Our Planet and Our Bodies

And I’m really looking forward to the conversation that we’re going to have with him today. So for those of you who are just joining us, go ahead and take a moment to introduce yourself in the chat. You can share your name and where you are joining us from today.

And if you do need to turn on closed captioning to add subtitles to your screen, you can just click on the “show captions” button that you see in your Zoom toolbar to turn those on.

Please also feel free to continue to use the chat box throughout the event as a space where you can share your thoughts and have a conversation with fellow attendees. 

And we are going to save some time for Q&A at the end with Matt. So if you have questions as you’re listening, please add those to the Q&A box, and I’ll keep an eye on those, and we’ll get through as many as we can.

And finally, I am recording today’s event, so I will share that later with everyone who has RSVP’d, along with any links to resources that we share today. 

So before we get started, just a bit of background on who we are: so Food & Water Watch is a national organization fighting for sustainable food, clean water, and a livable climate for all of us.

And we do this by mobilizing grassroots activists to build political power at all levels of government. And it’s really you, our members, who make that work possible. 

We are entirely a grassroots movement. We don’t take any corporate funding, so becoming a member truly does make a difference. So if you’d like to make a gift at any point today to become a member, you can text the word “GIFT” to the number 23321 or click on the link that we’ll put in the chat for you. 

And as many of you know, today’s event is part of our monthly event series called Livable Future LIVE. So I wanted to share the lineup that we have ahead of us over the next few months. 

So in July, we will be talking with a couple of different artists who are using their work as a form of activism. It’ll be a really interesting conversation [about] the different ways that art, music, can be a part of our fight to address climate change. 

In August, we will be talking about the Colorado River Basin; some new research that Food & Water Watch is releasing on water security in the West.

And then in September, we will be discussing food and farm policy with Tom Philpott, who is a former farmer, food policy journalist, and author of the book Perilous Bounty

So if you’re interested in joining us for any of these upcoming events, we will put a link in the chat where you can sign up for those. And I am also really excited to announce that we just launched registration for “Against All Odds,” which is our annual benefit to protect our planet. 

And this year, we are hosting a virtual conference and a reception in New York City on the following evening, and the event is taking place this fall on October 11th and 12th. 

The virtual conference will feature a keynote conversation with some really incredible youth activists: Elise Joshi, who is [the] founder of Gen Z for Change, and Vic Barrett, who is a plaintiff in the Juliana v. United States climate lawsuit against the government. 

And we’re also celebrating our 2023 honorees, including Sandra Steingraber, who was a leading scientific expert, who brings the science behind the dangers of fossil fuels to the public and policymakers, and she was instrumental in our fight to ban fracking in New York. 

And we’re also honoring Karen and Alan Warren, who are champions in our fight to get out the vote to elect climate leaders.

So throughout various sessions at the conference, we’re talking about, you know, finding hope in activism, strategies for building grassroots power, and more. 

And we are still developing the program, and because this is a conference for you, our members and volunteers and fellow activists, we really want to give you an opportunity to contribute to it. 

So I’m going to have Keya drop a link in the chat for you, to a survey where you can give us some feedback on what you’d most like to see at this conference.  

We really want to make sure the sessions that we host are designed for you, to empower you as activists. So please do fill that out, and we are going to be doing a drawing to select a lucky winner to receive a free pass to join us for that virtual conference.

And I’ll also share that we do have a special pre-sale happening through the end of the month. So if you register for a Defender level ticket, use the code “DEFENDER” for a discount. That’s valid until June 30th. 

And this event is just really a great way to strengthen our work; to fight fossil fuel projects, keep our water clean, ban factory farms, and mobilize activists just like us all across the country. 

It’s just a really great opportunity to come together, learn from each other and from experts, and just feel really energized for the work ahead. So I do hope that you will join us for “Against All Odds” in October.

All right. So, now let’s turn to the topic of the day: microplastics. Before I introduce our guest, Matt Simon, I just wanted to share that we do have a special opportunity to win your very own copy of his new book about microplastics, which we’ll be discussing this afternoon. 

We have a few copies that we’ll be giving away, so if you’d like to win one of them, please go ahead and add your name to the form that we’ll put in the chat.

And, you know, in this book Matt spends time with a number of scientists who are studying the impacts of microplastics on our health and environment, and he documents their findings about how prevalent they’ve become.

So it’s just a really interesting read. I encourage everybody to check it out. So yeah, so let’s get to it. I’m going to stop sharing my screen. I’m going to introduce Matt. I’ll have him join us here. 

He is a science journalist at WIRED magazine, where he covers biology, the environment, and robotics. And he is here today to talk with us about his book and the research he’s done on microplastics over the years. 

So yeah, thanks so much for being here with us today, Matt.

Matt Simon: Yeah, thank you for having me. It’s a pleasure to be here. Wish we could all be meeting under better circumstances, but alas, here we are. 

Defining Microplastics and Where We Find Them (6:36)

Kate Schwanhausser: All right, yeah, let’s just dive right into it. You know, I think first, just to, you know, sort of set the stage for people who might be newer to this topic, can you tell us — What are microplastics? 

What does that definition encompass? And where are they coming from?

Matt Simon: Sure. So we all know about macroplastics. These are the larger things; bottles, bags, that sort of stuff. 

A bottle or bag then breaks into smaller and smaller pieces over time. It never really disappears, it just kind of fragments into these smaller bits. 

So as scientists define them, microplastics are when those bits get down below 5 millimeters, and that’s about the diameter of a pencil eraser. 

But these things can get much, much smaller, and as they do so, they get much, much more numerous in the environment.

So we now have to consider things called nanoplastics. That is down to a micrometer. So that is a millionth of a meter. We are talking very, very tiny particles. 

Those nanoplastics are still very difficult to technically find because it’s very expensive to get that equipment to do so. But yes, scientists have over the past decade-and-a-half really been able to document exactly where all this stuff is in the environment. 

And spoiler alert: it is everywhere, and there is a lot of it.

The Connection Between Microplastics and Climate Change (8:00)

Kate Schwanhausser: Yeah, thank you for that overview. And just before we, you know, go deeper into it, I just want to zoom out a little bit and talk more about the life cycle of plastics. 

You know, we know that they’re created from the byproducts of fossil fuel extraction. So that, you know, links the plastic crisis with the climate crisis. 

And you actually have this really great quote in the intro of your book, where you say, “Plastics are fossil fuels and plastics are climate change, so in scorning the material, we tackle both crises; we really can’t fix one without fixing the other.”

So I’m wondering if you could just talk a little bit more about that link between fossil fuels and plastics for those who might not be as familiar.

Mat Simon: Right, so, as you said, these are intricately linked: fossil fuel companies and plastics companies. They are the same thing. Fossil fuel companies have divisions that do plastic. 

So something like 99% of plastics are made out of fossil fuels: oil and gas. So that is, of course, a very intensive process, as far as the emissions are concerned, to bring those fossil fuels out of the ground, to then process them into plastics. 

You have to add a whole bunch of additives that are known to be extraordinarily toxic to humans, or to just like, in general, on the planet. 

You have to ship that plastic places. You have to dispose of it. Every step of the way, there are emissions associated with plastic.

And, there’s now additional research showing that as these microplastics are breaking down in the environment, they’re off-gassing a lot of this, especially methane, which is an extremely potent greenhouse gas, something like 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide. 

So every single step of the way — and even once it’s all out in the environment, we have to worry about the emissions associated with the plastics that we’ve already put into the ocean. 

And microplastics are also in the air here in the atmosphere, adding carbon up there, as well.

Kate Schwanhausser: Yeah, just an enormous footprint, and we are going to talk a little bit more later about some of the solutions to address that. 

But I’m also, you know, just curious — you have been covering plastics and microplastics for a number of years now, both as a journalist and then with this new book of yours. You know, what really prompted you to start focusing on this topic and digging deeper into it?

Matt Simon: I had been reporting for WIRED just here and there on studies that we’re coming out about microplastics. I think in like — starting about five years ago, there [were] a lot more studies showing just how thoroughly it had contaminated outdoor air. It’s blowing around the world. 

I did a couple of stories on that, and I was just sitting around during the pandemic, and I apparently thought, like, “What could make me feel worse about the state of the world right now — How about writing a book on microplastics?”

I had just noticed that nobody had done, really, a comprehensive overview of the state of the science for a popular audience. 

That’s what I — what I set out to do here, is talk about, first of all, where scientists have found microplastics, which is — that’s well-established. 

Now, really, the field is moving toward, “Okay, well, what are the consequences?” If this is in every ecosystem, and you can’t test every single organism on the planet for microplastics — but it is reasonable to assume that everything has plastic in it now, because these things get so small on that nanoscale. 

So yeah, I was just very interested in kind of doing a cohesive treatment of this to lay out for the public, really, the threat that we’re facing here.

Kate Schwanhausser: Yeah. And I mean, it is scary to think about how they really are everywhere. But it is encouraging, in a way, to hear that there is more research starting to be done, specifically on those health impacts. And your book does a really great job of, like, bringing that all together.

The Problems With Microplastics in Our Environment (11:48)

Kate Schwanhausser: So you know, your book does sort of lay out the problem of microplastics in sort of three big buckets: our waterways, particularly oceans, the soil, and then in the air. So I figured we could kind of talk through each of those in turn, starting with water, with oceans.

So how are microplastics, you know, getting into our oceans, impacting marine life and ocean health?

Matt Simon: This is actually really where microplastics research began. So back in the early ‘70s, there was a researcher who was out in the middle of the Atlantic. 

He was not searching for plastic. He was dragging up nets to sample for plankton out there and was noticing these little beads of plastic and thought that was kind of strange.

They turned out to be nurdles. Nurdles are these little pre-production tablets, essentially for plastics. They are melted down into bottles and things like that. 

They very readily escaped into the environment, especially as these petrochemical companies are situated along coastlines; so, like, the Gulf Coast, for instance. 

These pellets escape, and in really astonishing numbers. So this scientist found them in the early ‘70s, wrote it up in a paper, and there was — he described in a second paper that he wrote about microplastics in the ocean — he thanked this plastics association because, as we talk about in the book, he claims that a representative from the industry came out to talk to him in not-so-pleasant terms about what he had found. 

And unfortunately — well, I guess not unfortunately — so, in a good way, the focus — the ensuing decades focused on macroplastics, bottles and bags, like how do we stop that from getting into the environment? How do we pull that out of the ocean if we can? 

There was very little done, actually, on microplastics in those ensuing decades. It wasn’t until 2004 that the term microplastic was actually coined. 

So, since 2004, you have this really big ramp-up of research as the stuff has been found not only in the oceans but in other water bodies that are carrying — like rivers and things like that — that are carrying the microplastics to the ocean. 

But that’s really where it all started. And now the attention is focusing also on lakes, other bodies of water, and that sort of thing. So that’s the O.G. [original] microplastics research in the ocean. 

Kate Schwanhausser: Yeah, and you mentioned that there, the newer focus of this research is, then, the impact that has on human health. 

So you know, what does research show about how plastic in the ocean is potentially making it up the food chain to us as we’re eating seafood, or what have you? And what impact that might have on our health?

Matt Simon: This was also some of the early research in how microplastics are getting into the food chain. 

So there is good evidence showing that because these particles are getting so small, when a fish ingests them, it can actually pass through their gut and into the tissues that we eat; so the muscles —

So if it were the case that these microplastics are passing through the digestive system, maybe it wouldn’t be an issue, because we don’t eat the digestive system, typically, of these fishes.

But there is research showing that it is migrating into these tissues that we are consuming. 

I think the bigger dosage that you would get is in filter feeders. So clams and mussels, oysters, that sort of thing. They suck in water, filter out food, and in the process are filtering out microplastics. 

And there has been some good calculation showing that there are lots and lots of microplastics in an individual oyster. If you eat a lot of them, you get a fairly big dose of microplastics. 

So, we then talk in the book, though, about that just being one avenue of exposure for plastics. 

And there was actually a good study showing that if you were to eat — like, prepare a meal in your kitchen, eat it, you would take in a certain number of microplastics, just from what was already in the food. 

But you would get an equal dose of microplastics from what had fallen out of the indoor air onto your food as you had cooked it, and as it was on the plate as you were eating it. 

So we have to be concerned about, obviously, the ecological implications in these ocean ecosystems, of these organisms, eating more and more microplastics as the level of microplastics goes up exponentially in the environment. 

But it’s very early days, also, on the research on the human health impact. Are the microplastics passing through our guts as well? The answer is probably yes; there just isn’t a lot of research on that yet.

Kate Schwanhausser: And I want to kind of circle back to one thing that you mentioned in your previous answer when you were talking about nurdles. And, you know how there is a higher concentration of these plastic production plants along the Gulf Coast of the United States, and those nurdles are making it into waterways in those areas. 

And that kind of brought to mind how this is also an environmental justice issue with, you know, many of those plants in low-income or communities of color. 

And then, even on, you know, an international scale, as well in terms of how there are higher concentrations of plastic pollution in lower-income communities or countries who are not necessarily, you know, producing the plastic, but they’ve sort of become this dumping ground.

So, you know, how should we also be thinking of this plastic pollution crisis and microplastics from an environmental justice lens as well?

Matt Simon: Yes, it’s really important to return to the previous point that at every step of the cycle, production to disposal, to the way that plastics are floating around the environment, there are climate impacts, but there are also toxicological impacts. 

So, a few months ago we had the train derail in Ohio that was carrying vinyl chloride. That’s the precursor to polyvinyl chloride, the PVC that is a very common plastic that we use. 

When that burned, that cooked off dioxins, which are an extraordinarily toxic compound.

But, you know, as the stuff is moving around, it is exposing these communities to these chemicals, as you have mentioned, in these kinds of fence line communities that are butting up against — especially in the Gulf Coast — these production facilities that are known to be toxic, and are known to be exposing these people to really terrible things. 

And now it’s when we’re thinking about disposal, as you have mentioned, there are developing countries that are being saddled with our plastic. 

It’s a dirty secret in the plastics industry for a long time, that we recycle — the United States — something like 5% of our plastic waste, which is abysmal. Well, where — where has the rest of it been going?

We are burning some of it, which is not great. We are landfilling some of it. 

But, we have also been sending millions upon millions of tons of this stuff overseas to developing countries. So China was a major importer of this plastic waste until 2019. 

And they said, “No, we’re not doing that anymore.” That has then been forcing a lot of this plastic waste into other developing countries — Indonesia, places like that — where these people are not using these plastics; they are being overwhelmed with the plastic that we are creating in the developed world, [and] shipping to them.

What they cannot make room to bury, they are burning in open pits because there’s nothing to do with it. 

But this is — the dirty secret was we cannot profitably recycle 95% of the plastic in the United States. 

“Well, let’s just ship it elsewhere where the labor is cheaper. Maybe they can make it make economic sense.”

It — There’s no way to make plastic circular. At the end of the day, we have to stop the production of it. More recycling is not going to get us out of this.

Kate Schwanhausser: Thank you. Yeah, I think that’s really great context to keep in mind, of that full — that full picture. And I do just want to share for folks who are watching, Food & Water Watch does have an action that you can take. I’m gonna drop it in the chat. 

We are urging the EPA to ban vinyl chloride, the chemical that Matt mentioned that was in the train derailment in Ohio. So if you have a couple of minutes, please do send a message through that link that I just dropped in the chat there.

How Microplastics Get Into Our Food and Our Homes (20:07)

Kate Schwanhausser So I want to switch gears a little bit and talk about the next section of your book, where you meet with some researchers who are studying our soil, and they’re discovering that the soil and the fertilizer used to grow our food crops [are] also highly contaminated with microplastics. 

So, you know, can you tell us a little bit more about that research?

Matt Simon: Yeah — another actually, literal, dirty secret of the industry. 

So I’m sure a lot of you have heard about clothing now being a significant source of microplastics, or something like two-thirds of clothing is now made out of synthetic fibers: polyester, nylon, that sort of thing. 

That is plastic. It’s a very soft, comfortable kind of plastic, but it’s plastic nonetheless. 

When you do your wash, millions upon millions of these fibers break off and flush out to a wastewater treatment facility. 

So something like 10% of the fibers then get flushed out to sea in effluent. It’s relatively clean water. You wouldn’t want to drink it, but they consider it clean enough for the environment.

But 90% of those fibers are sequestered in something called sludge. This is a literal dirty secret. It is human waste that is then treated and applied to fields as fertilizer. 

So there was one calculation that found that in Europe they might be applying on the order of a billion pounds of microplastics to their fields each year via sludge. A little bit less in North America, but not by much. 

It is a truly astonishing amount of, kind of, this hidden plastic that we’re applying directly to our crops, and that has a number of potential consequences. 

There is early research saying that particularly small plastics will actually get taken up by the plants through their roots as they’re delivering water and nutrients. That then migrates into the tissues that we eat as produce. 

You are also seeing, though, effects in these high doses on the soil, organisms, earthworms, and things like that, that we rely on to process these nutrients and keep our crops healthy, 

Earthworms fed a lot of these particles die much more easily. They reproduce less. It’s just — it’s poison. It’s not something that you want in any organism, much less the organisms that we’re relying on to keep our crops healthy.

So yeah, so we have to worry about, okay, the fish that we’re pulling out of the ocean have these plastics in their tissues, these plastics — there hasn’t actually been a lot of research on this, but it’s — we can assume that yes, there are these plastics in the tissues of the plants that we’re growing as well. 

But coming back to this idea that we probably should worry more about what we’re inhaling in indoor air because indoor air is so thoroughly corrupted with microplastics.

Kate Schwanhausser: Yeah. So let’s talk about that a little bit. That was honestly the biggest shock to me. You know, I had heard that microplastics were in our water. They were making their way through the food chain. 

But it was new to me to think about microplastics in the air that we’re breathing in and really alarming, honestly. So can you talk a little bit more about that newer line of research and what’s going on there?

Matt Simon: There are a few studies that have come out that are in actually pretty strong agreement on the amount of microplastics and indoor air. 

They are finding that it’s something like six times more microplastics in indoor air than in outdoor air. By one estimate, we’re inhaling 7,000 particles a day.

And there — these other studies, that were in pretty good agreement about the concentrations in indoor air, are finding that, like, in a typical living room, you will have tens of thousands of these particles settling on the floor every day. 

That is because everything around us is made out of plastic in these really sneaky ways. Our clothing again, is made out of plastic. Another study that you might shed a billion fibers a year of microplastic just by walking around. 

Carpet is made out of plastic. Furniture upholstery is made out of plastic. Flooring now is, you know, like vinyl flooring, plastic, in addition to all kinds of other flooring that, you know — it’s very expensive, and it’s very rich to make like a pure hardwood floor. So we have switched more to these plastic alternatives. 

So indoor air is heavily corrupted, and we also have to consider about what’s on the ground. Remember that toddlers spend a lot of their time rolling around on the ground and probably inhaling a good amount of these fibers. 

So when people ask me what they can do to lessen their exposure to microplastics, it is about religious vacuuming in particular, but also being very careful about how you’re disposing of that dust, so you’re not just kicking those particles back into the air as you’re dumping into the bin. 

So yeah, the next frontier here is that we have these good calculations of how much of it is in indoor air. What does it mean for us to be inhaling all these? 

Early indications are that it’s — I mean, we know that it’s not good — early indications are that it’s actively bad.

Kate Schwanhausser: Yeah, and it seems like the biggest health risk is that these chemicals that are used in making them are then absorbed by our bodies and that there’s just so much that that can do to our internal systems.

The Health Impacts of Microplastics and Their Toxic Additives (25:35)

Kate Schwanhausser: We’ve gotten a couple of audience questions on this point already, so I’m going to kind of wrap those in here. In your book, you talk a little bit about, you know, BPA and the campaign to phase that out. 

So one, if you could talk a little bit about that, that would be great, and two, from the folks in the audience, they’re asking about, you know, What are some of the newer chemicals that scientists are concerned about, things that are disrupting our hormones, or PFAS, for example?

Matt Simon: Sure, yeah, great questions. So BPA kind of became this poster child for the toxicity of plastic. BPA is an endocrine disruptor, also known as an EDC. 

This is a broad class of chemicals. There are way, way, more of them in plastics than BPA. So the public got outraged; the industry said, “Okay, we’re just going to replace BPA with a chemical that is chemically similar, might be as toxic, if not more toxic.” 

It’s known as a “regrettable substitution” among scientists; that as we try to phase out these toxic chemicals in plastic, we can’t allow the industry to just phase in things that are equally bad for human health. 

So when I wrote the book, I cite a study that found that there have been at least 10,000 different chemicals used in plastic, a quarter of which scientists consider to be of concern, meaning they’re either straight-up toxic, like known toxic, or they’re bio-persistent, so they’ll stick around our bodies or they’d persist for a long time in the environment, like PFAS, as you you mentioned. 

So that study has been updated with a new study that found that there are at least 13,500 chemicals that have been used in plastic, again, a quarter of which are of concern. 

The issue here is that no plastics company is required in any way to tell us what is in this plastic. There’s no ingredient list on the bottle. There’s for the liquid inside of it, but not for the bottle itself. 

So this is up to — it’s absurd — it’s up to chemists to reverse engineer what is in plastic to figure out what is toxic. 

We are very certain that there are a whole slew of chemicals in plastic that make plastic — like, you can’t really get rid of the plasticizers right? They make plastics hard or bendy or heat-resistant. These are chemicals that are fundamental to this product. 

It is a difficult thing to re-engineer to be perfectly safe. So this is the — the trick going forward is that we cannot let the industry create “alternatives” that are going to be just as bad for human health.

At the end of the day, we need zero plastic in our lives if possible, but we need to switch to alternatives. So flats, metal, cardboard, we’re perfectly fine. 

I am 39 years old. I remember a time in my life when I was not surrounded by anywhere near this amount of plastic. There is a very not-distant past where we were getting along perfect — that’s what drives me crazy — getting along perfectly fine without plastics. 

Because there’s so much of it that is toxic, we just — we can’t let the industry keep getting away with this, because it is threatening human health.

Kate Schwanhausser: Yeah. And yeah, that’s wild that they are not required to disclose any of that information, and seems like an easy, basic first step that should be made to make that a requirement, that we need to know what they’re using to produce this.

Matt Simon: One would hope, but that’s, you know … Under the current form of capitalism, that is not how things work. 

Kate Schwanhausser: And I do just wanna just jump in and add — since there were a couple of people in the chat asking specifically about PFAS — so I do just wanna share that Food & Water Watch is advocating for stronger regulations that would protect us from PFAS, which are also known as forever chemicals.

Some of you might have heard that earlier this year in March, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed for the first time federal enforceable limits on six types of PFAS to make our water safer, which is great; that’s an important first step. 

But regulating six chemicals out of the 13,000 that Matt just mentioned is only a start. So Food & Water Watch is pushing the EPA to regulate all PFAS chemicals.

So I’m gonna have Keya drop a link in the chat for you all, where you can add your voice to this fight by sending a message to the EPA administrator urging them to monitor all classes of PFAS.

And to take it one step further, we are also asking people to send messages to President Biden to step in and hold corporations accountable for using PFAS chemicals, which we know are harming our health and environment. So she’ll also put a link in the chat for you to take that action as well.

So, Matt, another thing in your book that really caught my attention was your discussion of something that’s called the “plastisphere,” essentially like a microbiome that exists on these tiny plastic particles. 

So can you tell us a little bit more about what that is, and what implications, you know, that’s showing in research?

Matt Simon: It’s totally fascinating in a, I guess, kind of scary way. 

So it’s this — we have created a new ecosystem on earth called the plastisphere. Scientists, especially in the ocean, go out, pick out these particles, put them under a microscope — specifically, a scanning electron microscope which can detect the very littlest of organisms. 

And they can image this really complex community of hangers-on to these little pieces of plastic as they’re floating around. Bacteria, viruses, algae — they’re even finding little tiny larvae of animals that are stuck to these. And this is a community of organisms that are interacting in these really interesting ways.

There’s one scanning electron microscope image that you can probably find on the internet of an organism; I believe it’s a diatom, it looks like a lollipop. 

But on the head of it are little tiny bacteria. So it’s like — it’s multi-layered. 

So there’s a couple of concerns here, one being for organisms like fish. So you can have a fish ingest a microplastic, and we don’t need to just worry about what that plastic itself is doing in the digestive system. 

If it’s small enough, it’s passing through the gut. When these plastics get into those hot acidic environments, they leach out those chemicals — again, 13,500 of them, any one of which might be toxic for that particular species of fish.

But that plastic is essentially delivering a payload of organisms that the fish might not have before ingested. 

And then — maybe not an interesting thought experiment, but a weird thought experiment would be to think about — you can have a microplastic pass through the gut of a fish, and it’ll essentially clean it of those organisms as it’s digesting and the plastic might come out at the end of the fish relatively clean. 

There is other research showing that these microplastics are blowing out of the ocean in really high numbers. As bubbles come up to the surface, they capture these microplastics, and when they pop, they fling them into the atmosphere, and that blows in on sea breezes. 

It’s very thoroughly modeled. It’s actually kind of an interesting dynamic between ocean and atmosphere.

Okay, but the thought experiment being: a fish poops it out; it ascends to the surface. The microplastic takes to the air, comes onto shore, and then you eventually breathe it, right? 

So it was once in the gut of a fish. Very strange to think about, but we are also finding some concerning organisms on these microplastics. 

So Vibrio being one example. This is a parasite, a pathogen, that is really terrible for human health. It’s actually what’s responsible for severe seafood poisoning. 

That is found in very high concentrations on microplastics in this plastisphere. So it is interesting in that it is a brand-new ecosystem that we have created on planet Earth, but scary in what it might be doing, as far as dosing fish in particular with different pathogens. 

But also transporting, maybe, these pathogens places where they couldn’t be, across all oceans if they’re in currents or coming into the air and blowing onto land, where they don’t necessarily belong.

How to Stay Optimistic and Motivated to Work Toward Solutions (34:15)

Kate Schwanhausser: Yeah, I mean, you said it yourself, like, this is pretty alarming stuff, pretty scary stuff, and you know — and in all honestly, like, listening to this does make me feel a little stressed out. I’m sure there are others in the chat who might be feeling the same way. 

We are gonna talk about solutions in a minute. But before that, I would just love to know, you know, you research this, you’d read about this, you write about this all the time — what keeps you from panicking, basically? 

Like what keeps you motivated to not just give up [because] this is an overwhelming problem and makes you hopeful that we’ll be able to tackle this crisis?

Matt Simon: Therapy helps. Therapy is a big one. Shout out to my therapist. I’m lucky enough to have that available to me. 

But no, so, as you’ve mentioned, there are solutions to this, and that is what I like to focus on, and hoping that the book brings attention to this issue, as this field of science is developing, and as scientists are finding really alarming signals that this stuff is bad for human health and bad for every organism on this planet. 

So what keeps me going is that there are ways to fight against this. 

And I think what makes me particularly hopeful is that a tide is turning here; is that the public is — I wouldn’t want to say that we were ignorant to it because this was information that was kept from us, right? 

If that scientist in the early ‘70s had not been intimidated, maybe there would have been more microplastics research in the coming decades, and maybe it wouldn’t have waited until 2004 for that to be coined — the term microplastics to be coined — and for the science to really get going. 

But I see a tide turning here, and that people are angry that the plastics industry has knowingly poisoned humans and the planet with this material that was always pitched to us as this benign thing, right? 

So,“It’s perfectly safe, so safe that we can wrap our food in it. And in fact, it makes our food safer, right? Because it keeps pathogens out,” and that sort of thing, “Keeps it fresher.”

The — we’ve been bamboozled, basically. 

And I think the public is coming around to that. And I think that, like, as — what I tell people is like, groups like yourself, the most impactful thing that people can do at this point as individuals is to, first of all, get mad, and to make these changes in their lives individually, like vacuuming more, buying more cotton, that sort of thing. 

What we really need is this ground-swelling of support for organizations that are actually in the room for these sorts of fights. So like, the Plastics Treaty that’s being negotiated at the UN [United Nations]. 

There are anti-plastic pollution groups that are in those rooms that are having a big impact on these sorts of things, much more than you or I as individuals can have. 

So that’s what keeps me going, that I think that there is an increasing amount of public pressure here to finally get things changed. 

Kate Schwanhausser. That is very welcome to hear. And yeah, I do think that, also, just understanding the problem is often like a great first step in figuring out, like, what solutions are available to us. 

So, you know, just, we’re also really grateful for all of the research you’ve done, and for lifting up the research of others and sharing that all with us today.

Avoiding Microplastics With Everyday Choices (37:38)

Kate Schwanhausser: So yeah, let’s talk about some of those solutions. I think maybe let’s start at the individual level and then kind of work our way out towards that bigger systemic change that you said that we really need to see to get to the root of this problem. 

So we’ve had a couple of questions come in from the audience, so I’m gonna tie those in here on this, too. Do you have advice for people as individuals, things that they can do in their homes or changes to their daily lives to help them prevent microplastics pollution, but also to protect themselves from the health risks?

And two people have specifically asked about clothing and washing machines as well. So I’ll add that to the list.

Matt Simon: Great. Yeah, all great, great questions. So yes, at the end of the day, first and foremost, just if you can, surround yourself [with] less plastic; that’s what’s going to keep a lot of that out of the indoor air. Again, buy more cotton clothing, if you can.

The issue there — this is what’s tough about it — is that cotton clothing is more expensive, like there — we — there’s a reason why two-thirds of clothing is now made out of plastic. 

It’s cheap for the industry. It boosts their bottom line. It has what is in large part clothing 8 billion people on this planet, right? If we were to switch to exclusively cotton, everybody — there just wouldn’t be enough land for that sort of thing.

So cotton is great if you can. And then vacuuming, as I had mentioned, is good to keep the floor clean of microplastics. If you can do that, that keeps them from getting kicked back up into the air for you to breathe. 

So for clothing, you can buy an after-market filter for your washing machine.

I have one that seems to work pretty well. It’s like — you attach it, you stick it to the wall. The company that I have a filter from, you have a replaceable filter that you ship back to them, which they then turn that microplastics into home insulation. 

So that’s a way to ideally lock away those plastics, as long as we can, but it brings up a number of issues, right? So like it takes emissions to ship things, right? Not like — in the United States, almost no washing machines have these filters built-in because they were never required. 

We have filters — the lint filters on our dryers, instead. So there is actually legislation in France, now, that is mandating that by 2025, all washing machines that come off the line have to have these filters built in them. That’s a great start. 

We need that sort of legislation here because it shouldn’t be up to us as consumers to have to go buy an after-market filter, deal with the problem — like literally, yesterday I was doing laundry, and it shot me an error from the washing machine, because there’s some sort of blockage, and it was because the filter needed to go. 

But the machine didn’t know that, because it’s not — Anyway, it’s these things that — it should not be on us as consumers to figure this out. It should be on the industry. 

If you don’t have your own washing machine, can’t modify it, you have a landlord, or whatever, you can buy something called a coral ball. It’s a little ball that bounces around the washing machine and collects fibers. There are bags that you can wash your clothes in to collect those fibers. 

You just need ways to dispose of that microplastic in a sustainable way. So, yeah.

But just coming back to this, I really want to stress that this is not our problem. What we need is legislation like France has, that mandates that in 2025 all machines have to have filters on them.

And we just need more awareness around this problem, because at the moment we are flushing all of our clothing microfibers, a million of them in each wash, either out into the ocean, or it’s getting stuck in sludge and applied to fields. 

It is pouring into the environment unchecked at this moment. I think that’s the real urgency here.

Kate Schwanhausser: Yeah. And I think you brought up a great point there about how it can often feel like there’s a lot of pressure on us as individuals. That we’re the ones who are responsible for this crisis. 

And you know, obviously, we all should be recycling and reducing our use of plastic.

But the root of the problem is really that just plastics are being produced in ever-increasing quantities. So, just curious if you have any thoughts on, you know, where that narrative comes from and, like, thoughts on how we can kind of break that and reframe the issue.

Tackling the Root Causes of the Crisis (42:02)

Matt Simon: Yeah, so at the end of the day, the force that we’re up against is that the fossil fuel industry understands that they — that we’re going to stop burning fossil fuels at some point, right? 

Maybe not entirely, but we’re moving toward a world where we are greening up our economy. 

We’re burning — not quite yet — but we’re going to be burning fewer and fewer fossil fuels, hopefully in the near future.

They see the writing on the wall. They are pumping so much investment into plastics. We are, at this moment, producing, as a species, a trillion pounds of plastic a year. 

That’s like — that’s — any material, that’s a crazy number. But consider that, like, one of plastic’s charms is that it’s so lightweight, like you need a lot of plastic to equal a trillion pounds.

There is a — there was one estimation that because of this ramp-up in production from the fossil fuel industry, they’re going to triple the production of plastic by 2060. 

We have less than 40 years for this to get even more out of control, and the narrative from the industry has always been, “It is your responsibility as a public that you screwed this up so badly.”

They have always pitched recycling as, “It’s the consumer’s fault that all this stuff is escaping into the environment.” Never mind that we’re producing exponentially more of this stuff to get out into the environment, and the risk here is that they’re going to do the same with microplastics. 

They’re going to say, “Oh, you idiots! You don’t have filters on your washing machines, that is — that’s entirely your fault.” So when it comes to action, we need to elect politicians. 

Tough in the United States, given how intertwined the fossil fuel industry is with our politicians, but we need to elect politicians that really take this seriously, in that it is the other side of the coin of climate change. 

You can’t fix plastics or climate change individually, you have to do both at the same time, because if we allow them to keep producing exponentially more plastic, tripling production by 2060, that’s just emissions in a different form. 

So that’s also where I’m hoping, I think, that the public is coming around to, is understanding that these are the same planetary criminals. 

They’re destroying the planet with climate change, and, not content with that, they’re turning around and deciding to destroy the planet once over again with plastics. 

It’s absurd. It’s astonishing that people could actually work in these C-suites in fossil fuel and plastics companies with a clear conscience. It’s just mind-boggling to me. 

We are running out of time to take really big action here on plastic and climate change at the same time.

Kate Schwanhausser: Yeah, and I think you made a great point about needing to elect leaders who are going to stand with us on these issues, and put, you know, the protection of our environment, stopping plastic, above the corporate profits of fossil fuel — of the fossil fuel industry. 

So for anyone who’s on this call who’s not already a volunteer with Food & Water Watch, please sign up. We can drop a link in the chat. That is exactly what we are working to do. 

So, Matt, I wanted to just ask if you have any other solutions that you’ve, you know, come across in your conversations with other researchers or other policymakers about some of these, like, bigger picture solutions that we need to be fighting for.

Matt Simon: One of the things that I try to get across in the book is that it’s important to think about macroplastics, the bottles and the bags, that sort of thing, as pre-microplastic that is just going to deconstruct into a different, smaller form, out into the environment.

So there’s also a lot that we can do to keep that macroplastic from getting into the oceans in particular. 

So, one of my favorite pieces of technology of all time is called Mr. Trash Wheel. That’s its actual name. It is a barge in Baltimore Harbor that just sits there, and it has big googly eyes. It’s absolutely adorable.

It sits there, kind of at the side; there’s a kind of a boom that comes out, it collects plastic that is floating down the river, and it kind of eats it up, gets put in the barge, and they go and take it and recycle it and properly dispose of it. 

If you are keeping those bottles and bags from getting to the environment, you’re keeping them from deconstructing into these microplastics. So that’s another really — it’s a very simple technology. 

Unfortunately, when it comes to — so like the ocean clean up, you probably heard of it, this thing where they go out into the middle of the Pacific Garbage Patch with a kind of a similar big boom and collect plastic as it’s already out there.

That is, in my opinion, and in a lot of times, it’s just too late. It’s too expensive to get out there to do that. 

It’s actually much more impactful to move as upstream, as far, as soon as we can, and literally upstream. In the case of Mr. Trash Wheel if you keep it from getting out into the ocean, that’s a major preventative measure. 

But, I hate to harp on this, like, I sound like a broken record, but the farthest upstream we can go is to stop producing so much plastic. 

There is no sustainable circular economy for plastic. It’s a farce. This is exactly what the plastic industry wants us to think that allows them to keep producing exponentially more plastic. 

So I don’t know. Volunteer for Mr. Trash Wheel, or something like it. Try to get a trash wheel in the harbor of your local city, that could actually go a long way.

Kate Schwanhausser: I live 20 minutes from Baltimore, so I have seen Mr. Trash Wheel in action. He’s great!

And I do want to add here, we’ve gotten a couple of comments and questions in the chat about — specifically about legislation. So I do want to tell people a little bit about the Break Free from Plastic Production — or, Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act

So this is a piece of legislation that will reduce the amount of plastic produced. It has goals to reform our waste and recycling systems to make them more efficient. 

But most importantly, it’s really focused on shifting the burden and responsibility for clean up and waste management onto the corporations responsible for producing this waste in the first place.

So Senator Merkley of Oregon and Representative Lowenthal from California have introduced this legislation in the past Congressional session, and they are planning on re-introducing it to the current Congress in the coming weeks. 

And at that time, once it’s introduced, it will be critical that all of our elected officials hear from us, urging them to support this legislation and make sure it gets passed. 

So Food & Water Watch will be mobilizing efforts around that, and we’ll send out email updates with ways that you can take action once that bill has been introduced, so please do be on the lookout for that.

And just, you know, as we’ve talked about today, if this is a really systemic problem that’s bigger than you and I recycling at home and we need that type of national policy change, this legislation will make that happen. 

So I thank everyone in advance for their support and [for] taking action on that legislation when we send you information in a couple of weeks. 

Matt, I don’t know if you have anything that you wanted to add on that?

Matt: Not specifically on that piece of legislation, just to mention that California is also doing some interesting work, specifically on microplastics. 

They have had their water people, first of all, defining what they should consider a microplastic. So you can’t legislate something until you can quantify it, like, you have a framework for figuring out how much of it is already in the environment. You need that to figure out if what you’re doing to prevent that is actually as useful. 

So they’re actually going to use that science to inform, ideally, some legislation, specific to microplastics in California. And as we all know, what goes in California typically spreads elsewhere in the United States. 

But, you know, as you say, something like extended producer responsibility, that we should not foot the bill as taxpayers for this sort of thing. That [it] should be on industry to fund ways to keep microplastics out of the environment.

Kate Schwanhausser: Yeah, that’s great. I’m glad you brought that up. We — you talked [about] an example about France, this California example. Are there any other examples where you’re seeing positive solutions that could be emulated elsewhere?

Matt Simon: Yeah. The one thing that we didn’t talk about as a kind of sneaky source of microplastics is tire particles. So tires are made out of synthetic rubber now; it’s a polymer, a kind of plastic. 

A lot — so I didn’t think about this until very late in life — that when you go and get your tires replaced on your car, they’ve worn down. Well, where has that tire gone? Well, it’s gone into the environment. 

So they have — one of the actually earlier studies that found ecological impacts of microplastics was they discovered that in Washington state, with the first rains, washing all those tire particles off of roads and into streams, they’re having mass die-offs of salmon and actually found specific chemical[s] in tire microplastics that was killing those animals.

So there is a group called the Tyre Collective. They spell it “T-Y-R-E” because they’re in the UK. They are working on a device that actually attaches to the wheel well; it can actually collect those particles before they actually reach the road.

But another really interesting solution here are rain gardens. So these are just very simple patches of greenery next to roads that serve a whole big slew of really important benefits. 

They capture rainwater, and you can grow plants in them. That rainwater is sometimes infused with those microplastics from tires, and a study found that they collect something like 90% of those particles before they’re able to wash out to a body of water. 

It’s a green space. People love that for mental health. It lowers urban temperatures to have that kind of green. It’s like — that’s a no-brainer. We should have those on every street corner, if we can get them.

But another thing: that we should tax the hell out of these plastic companies to fund — It should not be on you and I as taxpayers to foot the bill, as nice as those rain gardens might seem.

Kate Schwanhausser: Awesome. Yeah, those are great suggestions. I’m going to try to squeeze in a couple of the audience questions in the couple of minutes that we have left.

So, Mary is asking if there are any international efforts to work together to eliminate this problem. And I think I saw another comment in the chat asking about the Plastics Ban Treaty at the UN.

Matt Simon: Yeah, those are two, yeah, two very much related things. So that was a couple of weeks ago, or last week? The latest — the second round negotiations for the UN Plastics Treaty. 

So involved in that framework, they were actually able to get mention of microplastics, so not only are they working toward ways of regulating plastic in general — so that macroplastic that most of us are familiar with — there is now going to be language specific to microplastics, given that growing body of evidence and given the known threat that [it] has become among scientists. 

So we are optimistic that in that treaty, there is going to be some sort of cap on production. That is the only thing that is going to fix this problem. It’s not more recycling. It is getting some sort of international cap on production. 

Unfortunately, and probably somewhat obviously, the United States is one of the countries fighting against that, because we have so much plastic production here. Go figure that they would fight against that sort of thing.

But in an ideal world, we’d have a UN Plastics Treaty that both takes microplastics into account, but also some sort of cap on production. 

It — There might be some sort of cap, but it will be non-binding. So if it’s that, it’s just like one country might ban it; it’ll just move to a different country. It’s kicking the can down the road. 

It’s just — yeah. So that’s — but that’s where most scientists and plastics groups are putting their optimism, is that we need some sort of international treaty because you can’t just do it country-by-country.

Kate Schwanhausser: Right, right; it is such a globally connected issue.

Another audience question, and then I think we’ll maybe have time for one more after that: someone is asking about bioplastics. Can those be part of the solution? Maybe if you could explain for everybody what is meant by that?

Matt Simon: Yeah, great question. Bioplastics being plastics that are made — their carbon is made out of plants instead of carbon coming from fossil fuels.

There’s a couple of issues with bioplastics, unfortunately. So, to grow enough of the plants — it’s typically corn or sugar that you get that carbon from — you would need an astonishing amount of land and water. 

This comes back to the issue of cotton versus polyester clothing to grow — like, to completely replace plastics in clothing, you would need so much land for that cotton. 

There was a study that came out a couple of years ago that found that just the water alone to replace single-use packaging in Europe, you would need more water than Europe uses in a year. 

It’s one of these solutions that the industry is going to push because they’re saying, “Oh, it’s bioplastic. It’s good for the environment.” It is, in fact, the same exact plastic, except the carbon came from plants instead of from fossil fuels. 

There are still a whole bunch of chemicals that make that plastic a plastic, that were derived from fossil fuels, petrochemicals. So it’s like a little bit of greenwashing on the part of the industry to pitch that as a friendly alternative when they’re packed with the same toxic stuff as regular plastics. 

But you also have the land and the water issue. We need to feed 8 billion people on this planet with a finite amount of land, and in fact, a smaller amount of land, if you consider sea level rise. 

But yeah, it — I wish I could say it’s a good solution and alternative. It’s just — it’s extremely problematic.

Kate Schwanhausser: All right, we’re going to take one more question. This one is from Tina, who says, “Thank you for sharing all this really great, if sometimes scary, information. Where do you recommend people continue to learn more and educate themselves about microplastics?” 

And I will, Tina, just put in a quick plug for Matt’s book. Everyone should read that if they haven’t already. 

But yeah, Matt, in addition to that, do you have any other resources that you recommend to folks?

Matt Simon: Yeah, I’m not gonna make this all about me, but there’s — If you look at the stories that I’ve written for WIRED since October — the book came out in October, but even before that, the book went to print, and I was able to report on studies that had come out afterwards, some important findings. 

There was one city, a couple of months ago, that came out and found that recycling facilities are actually spewing a lot of microplastics when they’re processing macroplastics.

So it’s like, there’s these studies trickling out here and there that add to this body of literature when it comes to microplastics. So, yeah, look for my stuff on WIRED

The Guardian also covers a lot of this pretty well. But also, just keep an eye out for what is happening in California, too. I think they’re going to make the most progress toward, first of all, standardizing the science around microplastics, and then using that to inform legislation. 

But I, for my part, will keep reporting on it, to keep you as informed as possible.

Kate Schwanhausser: Awesome. Thank you. We are coming up on the top of our hour, so I am going to unfortunately wrap us up on Q&A. 

But thank you to everybody for sending in your great questions and being part of this discussion. And please everyone, thank me in the chat — or, join me in the chat, in thanking Matt for joining us this afternoon. 

We really appreciate all the research you’ve done, and for sharing all of that with us today. 

And if you haven’t already, for those watching, please go ahead and add your name to our survey, our drawing to win a copy of Matt’s book. 

Keya will go ahead and put that link in the chat for you, so you can make sure that you’re entered into that drawing. If you could take a minute to do that, and I’m just gonna do a quick run-through of a couple of the other upcoming events that I invite you to join us for in the coming months.

So we always hope to continue to see you at our upcoming Livable Future LIVE events. As I mentioned earlier, over the next few months, we’ll be talking about the role of art and activism, the Colorado River and water security in the West, and reforming our food and farm policy. 

So Keya will put the link in the chat where you can sign up for any of these three events in our Livable Future LIVE series.

And then I do invite you again to join us in October, for “Against All Odds.” You could join us for the virtual conference, or if you’re near New York City, please come, join us in person for our reception. It’ll be a great time. 

And I do encourage you to fill out the survey to give us feedback on that conference program, so you can really help shape the content and make sure that it is going to empower you as an activist.

And don’t forget that if you register by June 30th, you can take advantage of our special presale discount on Defender tickets.

So I know that we did share a lot of links in the chat today with different ways to take action and learn more, so I will be sending out an email tomorrow morning with all of those links, along with the recording of today’s conversation.

Please feel free to share that with friends, family, colleagues. It really will take all of us to tackle the plastic crisis. So please do share this information widely.

And that’s all. So thank you all again for joining us for Livable Future LIVE. Thank you again, Matt, for being here today. 

I hope that everyone has a great afternoon, and we’ll see you at the next event.

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