Why is it so bad?
Everywhere you look there is plastic. It’s used for everything from our cellphones to storage containers to pens to toothbrushes and much, much more. While it can definitely be useful, we are starting to realize just how much of a problem it is causing. What are theses problems? How do they affect our health? What can we do about it?
Plastic is everywhere! It’s a material that is made to last forever. The mass production of plastic began in the 1940s and it has a wide range of unique properties, which has propelled it to an essential position within our society. Just how much impact does plastic have on our lives? When you consider that the amount of plastic manufactured in the first ten years of this century matches the total amount produced in the entire last century, it’s a staggering number. Plastic can be made from many different chemicals. This allows its properties to be improved helping it to not degrade in the environment when its exposed to light, humidity, temperature or microorganisms, to make it more or less flexible, to lessen flammability or to make it a certain color. You’d probably be surprised that materials that don’t look like plastic actually include plastic polymers or resins, like Styrofoam and food can liners. Other examples of plastic that aren’t obvious include cosmetics, toothpastes, adhesives, lubricants, detergents and internal medical devices. In 2014, a research review found that about 300 million tons of plastic are produced around the globe each year. Of this massive amount, 50% is used for packaging, plastic bags and other single-use containers that are thrown away instantly. Another 33% of all plastic, like water bottles and straws, are used just once and thrown away. The review also found that plastics make up 85% of medical equipment with IV bags and tubing alone comprising 25% of hospital waste. Every year, US hospitals discard approximately 425,000 tons of plastic material. The manufacturing of plastics results in major use of fossil fuels with 8% of world oil production and 4.6% of the US’s annual petroleum consumption being used to make it. None of this energy is recovered when plastics are disposed of in landfills and very little is recovered when plastic waste is incinerated. Incineration of plastic poses its own set of problems because it results in the release of carbon dioxide and of other air pollutants, including carcinogenic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and dioxins.
In 2008 alone, 34 million tons of plastic was disposed in the US and 86% ended up in landfills. Every year type of discarding continues and of the 14% that doesn’t go to landfills, only 8% gets recycled. This means that 6% becomes litter. The problem with this is that plastic doesn’t biodegrade and it’s only going to get worse because the volume of plastic grows at a rate of about 9% each year. It remains in the environment for thousands of years and only breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces. When you consider that there are thousands of landfills throughout our country and buried beneath each one of them are tons of plastic and that they are leaking toxic chemicals, which enter into groundwater, flowing downstream into lakes, rivers and oceans.
Since the oceans of world hold 97% of the water this is where most of the leached toxic chemicals end up. Also, this is where a good portion of that the 6% of plastic litter goes. For many years, marine biologists and researchers had been witnessing and warning us about increasing amounts of plastic garbage contaminating the ocean. Then, in 1997, there was a widespread plastic garbage contamination area discovered within a cyclonic region, called a gyre, in the part of the North Pacific Ocean between California and Hawaii. This is the result of plastics being transported and converging in the ocean where currents meet making a huge plastic island. At the time it was discovered, the area in the North Pacific was larger than the state of Texas and was given the name The Great Pacific Garbage Patch. By 2005, the area of contamination was nearly the size of Africa, or 10 million square miles. The garbage is thought to be 90% plastic with 80% originally coming from land. The early sampling determined that there was approximately 3 million tons of plastic on the surface. The concerning factor is that the United Nations Environment Program states hat 70% of marine refuse usually sinks below the surface. For example, as Styrofoam breaks into smaller pieces, it sinks lower in the ocean, so that the pollutants are being spread throughout the sea column. This would mean that a staggering 100 million tons of plastic are in this one area of the Pacific. Since there are six similar gyres across the planet’s oceans and each is burdened with plastic refuse, it’s almost unfathomable to picture the scale of the problem. With more plastic entering the oceans every day, it’s predicted that by 2050 the world’s oceans will contain a greater mass of plastic than fish.
Another component of plastic pollution are microplastics, which are small plastic pieces that are less than five millimeters long. They come from a variety of sources and are classified as either primary and secondary. Primary microplastics are meant for external human use while secondary microplastics occur as a result of the breakdown of large plastic debris. An example of primary microplastics are microbeads. These are tiny pieces of polyethylene plastic that were often added to health and beauty products as exfoliants. Microbeads are not a recent problem. They first appeared in personal care products about fifty years ago and, as time went on, they increasingly began to replace natural ingredients. The fact that they were causing an issue was still relatively unknown until 2012. Up until then, there was an abundance of products containing them on the market and not a lot of people were aware of the problems they caused. In December 2015, President Obama signed the Microbead-Free Waters Act, which banned plastic microbeads in cosmetics and personal care products. Unfortunately, they are also used in paint, household and industrial detergents and manufacturing waste, which aren’t included in the Act. Some examples of where secondary microplastics come from are large plastics, clothing, manufactured goods, coastal tourism, shipping and natural calamities such as flooding.
The reason that microplastics are so bad is because aquatic life and birds mistake them for food. Once eaten, they block the digestive system of these animals and they leak hazardous chemicals which are absorbed by the bodies of these animals. Even plankton, which are the tiniest creatures in our oceans, are eating microplastics because they are displacing the algae that the plankton need to survive. When you look at ocean water under a microscope, plastic debris outweighs zooplankton by a ratio of 36-to-1. There is documented evidence of more than 180 species of animals have been found with plastic debris in their stomach, including birds, fish, turtles and marine mammals. The animals who eat this plankton are exposed to a mixture of the chemical pollutants absorbed from their diet, but also are exposed to the chemicals that are being released into their environment as it leaches from the litter. This too accumulates within their bodies. Since each successive predator consumes ten times its body weight, by the time you end up at the top of the food chain, the small bit of mercury, cadmium, phthalates and bisphenol-A (BPA) consumed by the tiny plankton is now a potent amount. Guess who is at the top of the food chain—humans. Marine ecosystems are an essential component for maintaining life on our planet. However, due to the reduced UV exposure and lower temperatures of aquatic habitats, plastic can endure for even longer in the ocean than it can on land. Plastic toxins are destroying coral reefs, which is the home to many species of fish. Also, floating plastic waste serves as mini transportation devices for invasive species resulting in disruption of habitats.
Plastics are found everywhere throughout the globe, so, there are no populations that haven’t been exposed to them. The toxic chemicals that leach out of plastic are absorbed by human bodies and found in the blood and tissue of nearly all of us. The chemical building blocks that make plastics so versatile are the same components that are harmful. We’re exposed to chemicals from plastic multiple times every day through the air, dust, water, food and use of consumer products. There are numerous ways that you increase your risk of exposure, such as breathing near plastic trash being burned, opening a new plastic item that has a strong odor, applying body lotion, drinking hot coffee from a Styrofoam cup, reusing a water bottle or eating food that has been microwaved, frozen or stored in a plastic container. Exposure to these chemicals is linked to cancers, birth defects, impaired immunity and endocrine disruption. Numerous additives are used in plastics depending on the kind, the primary use of the product, where the plastic is used or even the brand! This makes it complicated for policy-makers seeking to limit our exposure to harmful chemicals and makes it near impossible for consumers to know what everyday products are really made from. The three most commonly cited plastic additives that have been linked to numerous diseases are phthalates, flame retardants and bisphenol-A (BPA). Phthalates (plasticizers) are primarily used in PVC to make it flexible or in children’s toys, flooring, clothes and innumerable of other everyday items. Phthalates are linked to reproductive malformations, developmental disorders, pulmonary system issues, including asthma, allergies and direct toxicity. Flame retardants are used in electric and electronic equipment, upholstery and other items to provide fire safety benefits. BPA is often used in food and beverages containers, such as water bottles, and is known to interfere with human hormonal function. A 2010 study in the Annual Review of Public Health found that BPA has endocrine-disrupting properties. The endocrine system is extremely important to making sure our bodies function correctly and affects every cell in your body. It’s made up of a number of glands that control several vital bodily functions including metabolism, heart rate, digestion, temperature, general mood, ability to sleep, sexual function, fertility, reproduction and tissue development and function. It works by removing necessary materials from your blood, processing them for a destination and then making sure the materials get there. For example, all the cells in your body need glucose to survive because it’s the main fuel source. The most common endocrine disease in the US is diabetes, which is when your body doesn’t process glucose correctly. The problem is that BPA can mimic a hormone, block a receptor or do any number of things that would upset the proper functioning of any one of the glands. So, the list of disorders that BPA is thought to have an impact on is extensive, including osteoporosis, thyroid cancer, low blood pressure, high blood pressure, strokes, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, Addison’s disease, Cushing’s syndrome, low testosterone, obesity, reproductive diseases, endocrine-related cancers, diabetes, autoimmune disorders, asthma, infections and behavioral/learning problems, like aggressive behavior and ADHD. The scary thing is that detectable levels of BPA have been found in urine of 95% of US adults and since it only takes six hours to pass through the human body this indicates current exposure. This is most likely due to the fact that it easily leaches from its containers into the substances we are ingesting, such as water from water bottles. So, how are we to protect ourselves from all of this toxic plastic?
Unfortunately, only haphazard efforts have being made to reduce plastic pollution. Sadly, the US doesn’t lead the way in formally recognizing adverse health consequences from the chemicals that are widely used. Some of the toxic substances have been banned by the United Nations (UN) due to the harmful effects they have to the environment and human health. In 2012, the European Union (EU) banned the use of BPA in baby bottles and, in 2015, they banned the use of phthalates. Some EU member states have taken restrictions even further. In Austria, most of the larger supermarket chains have voluntarily stopped providing customers plastic bags. If you didn’t bring a bag with you, you can buy a sturdy, reusable bag at the checkout. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) still approves the use of BPA for most food applications, but in July 2012, it did amend the regulations to no longer allow the use of BPA in baby bottles, sippy cups and formula packaging. Also, here in the US, phthalates are still used in manufacturing in everything but children’s toys and child care products. Both the United Kingdom (UK) and the US have banned the manufacturing and distribution of rinse-off cosmetics and toothpastes that contain plastic microbeads. So, while we are making some progress, it isn’t enough. Thankfully, individual states are stepping up and doing something. New York City has recently banned single-use Styrofoam containers and California has banned single-use plastic bags at large retail stores and requires a minimum ten cent charge for reusable plastic bags.
Part of the problem is that plastic can only be downcycled rather than recycled. This means that the item is broken down into its component elements or materials and once these are recovered, they are reused, if possible, but usually as a lower-value product. Yes, this is still better than not even reusing it at all, but recycling programs remain underutilized. Another issue is that recycling plastics can pose major logistical difficulties, including sorting the different types effectively, which increases costs. The mixing of different plastic types affects the subsequent post-consumer products. Plastic bags are incredibly challenging to recycle because they require completely separate facilities from those that recycle harder plastics. Regrettably, they still end up at the facilities for harder plastics and jam the machines. Less than 1% of the 4 trillion plastic bags that are used annually end up in the appropriate recycling facilities. Banning the use of plastic bags would help significantly in preventing further problems. In the meantime, we need to improve our recycling collection habits so that plastic bags are separated from other recyclables before they ever make it to the facilities. This would allow us to ensure that they are free from contamination and not subject to blowing away.
As far as the rest of the plastic pollution, we must gather it and dispose of it properly. In order to do this, we need to clean the polluted areas. We know where most of the plastic litter comes from. It starts on land and makes it way to rivers that then lead to the ocean. The first step would be to make littering less socially acceptable and promote programs, like Adopt-a-Highway, that encourage people to clean up their communities. The next step is to clean up the plastic in the rivers. There are ten main rivers that are contributing to most of the plastic pollution in the oceans. So, removing it from these rivers, we would be significant in stopping the garbage from entering the ocean. The last thing we need to do is continue efforts to clean the garbage patches that are in the middle of the oceans. In order to be able to do all of these, we need to treat plastic as a reusable material rather than as a disposable commodity that we can quickly discard. We need to shift our thinking that plastic is a raw material and not waste.
Besides cleaning up the current plastic problem we have, we need to look toward the future in preventing this problem from getting worse. Some scientists are trying to find an enzyme that will eat or dissolve plastic. Another option is to increase the availability of biodegradable plastic, bio-plastics. This type of plastic can be made from renewable materials from plants, such as corn and soy, and is growing rapidly. However, the current production capacity for biodegradable plastics worldwide is around only 350,000 tons, which corresponds to less than 0.2% of petrochemical-based plastic. It allows for nonpetroleum in feedstock, its supportive of the farm sector and biodegradable. Additionally, vegetable oils, like soy, have been proven to effectively replace phthalates as plasticizers in PVC. Some other examples of plastic alternatives are using straw or cellulose-based insulation in walls and roofs, mineral board insulation below basement walls instead of foam insulation, using wood or cement-board siding or plaster as an exterior finish instead of vinyl and using clay, lime, or casein-based finishes instead of acrylic or latex paints. There is no question that bio-plastics hold promise, but they aren’t the perfect solution yet because they’re more expensive to produce and many use plant resources, like corn or molasses, which creates a competition with our food supply. Another potential issue is that commercial facilities test biodegradable plastics at 58 degrees C and 60% relative humidity. Most likely, at-home composting mechanisms may not meet these conditions, which could result in incomplete biodegradation. The concept of reducing the use of the harmful chemicals and developing safer alternatives is known as green chemistry. Some scientists speculate that if this approach been in place 50 years ago it would probably have prevented the development of chemicals that are recognized as endocrine disruptors. Also, there is still more research to be done because most studies only focus on single chemicals, so there is limited data on the interactions between chemicals.
Some other countries recognize that plastic is a problem are trying to their part to reuse it. For example, the government of Maharashtra, India is trying to build 10,000 km of roads using 50,000 tons of plastic waste. For years, China used to accept the plastic waste of other countries because they were “recycling” it. Recently, they have begun to refuse doing this because they realized the detrimental effects this has on its environment. The US needs to do a better job of helping to solve the plastic pollution problem. As of right now, it’s unclear whether we have more than 1300 businesses that recycle plastic out of the thousands of business that operate here. A possible solution for this would be to offer government incentives, such as tax credits, or offer awards to inventors with new business ideas that don’t use plastic. The government also needs to make regulations on the use of plastics and how they should be discarded. There have been some treaties formed with other countries to minimize the amount of trash entering the oceans, but this is definitely not enough. A program that could be implemented at the federal government level would be to use labels that allow consumers to choose packaging based on a lifecycle analysis included for all the components of that product. For example, if the product was made up of mostly recycled materials, had nominal packaging and was easily recyclable, it would get a green dot. If the product had excessive packaging and used a lot of new materials, it would get a red dot. By having this information, consumers would be able to decide which products they wanted to buy. Most people are keen to make the right choice when they are provided with all the information. We, the consumers, are responsible for making sure plastics don’t wind up littering the environment.
Considering that the average person produces half a pound of plastic waste every day, we need to do a better job of being responsible for our trash. This is definitely an issue that starts with each one of us. Whenever we have the opportunity, we should avoid buying products that are packaged in plastic. When you’re at the store, ask for paper bags or bring your own reusable ones. If you do use plastic, you should always recycle it. Instead of buying single use water bottles, use a reusable one. Don’t litter and do community clean-ups to pick up the litter that has accumulated. Since the market is run by supply and demand, we need to take a stand and demand that less plastic is used in products. Also, we need to spread awareness about the problem in order to get others on board with decreasing the use of plastic. It’s up to us to get a handle on plastic pollution!