Plastics and Their Role in Silent Consent

A recurring theme in Silent Consent by Circa24 is the damage done to the future generations from the plastics that made much of the carbon era so remarkable. Plastics, as we know them, have become rare strategic materials in the Founder’s States of that book. People seek antique plastic products from the 20th century as prized possessions, and decayed city cores and dumps are mined for the remnants of the once plentiful materials.

Paradoxically, in the world of Silent Consent, the breakdown of plastics has led to crises in infertility. Inter-gendered people have become a more common and accepted part of society. The gender changes and the increase in inter-gendered infants are credited to endocrine-disrupting chemicals (ECDs) from the past, including some plastic, compounds used in making plastics, organochloride insecticides, dioxins, and furans. Wildlife studies show that both biological sexes (XY and XX) show behavioral impacts when exposed to EDCs. Most of the identified EDCs in plastics act as estrogenic (feminizing) compounds rather than masculinizing ones.   

Although the current (21st century) focus on the impact of the EDCs has remained on infertility and the feminization of males, women’s bodies, with their greater stores of fat, may be at the higher risk. But studies on the impact of plastics on the female body have focused mainly on damaged fertility and increase risk of breast cancer.  Plastics have not proven to masculinize (=virilize) biological females (XX individuals), but other chemicals, such as progestins (used to carry a fetus to term), can have this impact.  With this in mind, Ptera Hunter populated the universe of Silent Consent with an accepted multi-gendered population, with behaviors ranging from stereotypical and accepted male and female behaviors to ones that blur the boundaries of what most people consider normative actions.  (Even one of the key characters is a sadistic female sexual predator whose activities focus on conquest.)

Virilization in both males and females is usually associated with exposure to androgens. In contrast to the anti-androgenic EDCs that feminize, environmental androgens (masculinizing agents) have received little attention.  A study in the UK showed high androgen levels in 11 of 41 surface-water samples and 10 of 39 samples from sediments.  In the US, waste materials from feedlots show both androgenic and anti-androgenic compounds from the hormones given to the cattle to speed their growth.

So, is the focus on the feminization of males and not the masculinization of females some kind of sexist plot? Are researchers just ignoring women?  Probably not.  Although more research definitely needs to be done, studying the anti-androgen properties is like picking the low-hanging fruit on the tree.  It’s just easier to do.  Also, we know of enzymes (molecular machines in cells) that can quickly turn testosterone into estrogen.  If you watch a male pigeon pursue a female, he does a very aggressive courtship dance.  If the female agrees to mate and raise a clutch with him, they proceed to a nest site.  There, within seconds, his behavior switches from aggressive to gentle as his body breaks down the testosterone to an estrogen compound. 

Partial solutions.

Currently, the world produces about 380 million tons of plastic each year. Some of these plastics will be around for hundreds of years—well within the Silent Consent timeline.  Due to the compounds used to make bottles, they can take between four hundred and five hundred years to decompose.  Some plastic bags can take from 19 years to over 1000 years (depending on the plastic and the amount of UV it receives from the sun). These are particularly devastating to sea life, like turtles, that might mistake them for something yummy to eat.   Straws take about 200 years, disposable diapers, coffee pods, toothbrushes (500 years), and those 6-pack plastic rings (400 years).  (Those plastic rings can entangle wildlife. If you must use them with a purchase, please, cut open the rings before tossing them out. The life you save may be anything from a fish to a cute kitten.)

What can we do?

All changes start with small ones.  The Four R’s of environmentalism still hold true. In order of importance: Reduce consumption, Reuse or Repurpose rather than dispose of, and Recycle when the first two fail.

We can also change materials.  Reusable glass than plastic containers are healthier and last longer.  Paper cups held coffee for years before someone convinced us that we needed plastic cups. 

New materials from nature can also contribute to the fight.  One new idea, Nota™ (for not plastic), is a seaweed-based biodegradable alternative to plastic.  AirCarbon™ uses microbes already in the ocean to break down excess oceanic methane and produce natural plastic as a byproduct. Novo22™ uses a polymer produced by plants to make its 100% renewable, biodegradable plastic  Other microbes degrade this plastic within a year. Also, we can learn from nature to do things with polymers other than compounds.  Bacteria can make plastics using enzymes.  The exoskeleton of insects (chitin) is a biodegradable, flexible material that can give new life to packaging.  Finally, Spintex won the Ray of Hope Prize for its work with spider silk.  Spiders make their fibers using a process about 1000x as efficient as those used to make petroleum-based synthetic fibers.

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