Plastics: health risks for humans and our environment

My previous post in this series provided an overview and history of what plastics are and how petroleum-based plastics became widespread in their use today.

Petroleum-based plastic use is a hot button issue. It’s discussed not solely within environmental circles anymore, but has made its way into the public narrative and mainstream media coverage. This is because the cumulative impacts from decades of using plastic is becoming more apparent and harder to ignore. Plastic, like many things I talk about in this blog, poses a threat to our environment and our own health.

I want to clarify that I’m going to use the term ‘petroleum’, since that is primarily what plastic is made from, but it’s also made from coal and natural gas. These substances are cut from the same cloth – they’re carbon-based sources of energy known as fossil fuels.

What are the environmental concerns with plastic?

Peanut the turtle earner fame on social media for being a prime example of the devastating impact of plastic on wildlife.

Plastic is made from petroleum: This is a non-renewable resource and comes with a bundle of its own environmental and health concerns. Drilling and fracking operations contribute to climate change, use massive amounts of water and energy, and produce toxic waste. Petroleum, and coal, is environmentally destructive and poses a threat to human health along its entire supply chain from extraction to disposal.

Gritty details on plastic:

— Since mass production of plastic started during the 1950s, we’ve created a total of 8.3 billion metric tons

— Of that total, 9% has been recycled & 79% sits in landfills or goes into the ocean (6.3 billion metric tons becomes waste)

— 5-12 million tons of plastic enters world’s oceans annually

— Researchers predict that by 2050 the ocean will have more plastic than fish by weight in it

Plastic doesn’t break down: Plastic takes about 400 hundred years to degrade, which means most of the plastic we’ve ever created is still around. It’s also been breaking into smaller pieces over the years. We’re just filling up our planet with plastic. And it just looks gross. Plastic trash ends up on our beaches, our forests, our parks, our sidewalks, and almost every outdoor space. It detracts from the benefits of being in a natural environment and it’s an extra burden on these ecosystems.

Plastic is hazardous to wildlife: Animals are caught in plastic containers, physically disabling them or causing growth problems. Animals also ingest pieces of plastic, which accumulates in their bellies, leading to malnutrition or simply leaving little space in their stomachs for real food. Toxic chemicals in plastic can also cause problems for animals, which I’ll address in the next section. Marine animals are one of the most vulnerable populations, as the majority of plastic waste eventually makes its way to the ocean.

What are the health concerns with plastic?

Well, as I said before, plastic is made from petroleum: While I’ve outlined environmental and health concerns separately, they aren’t really separate issues in reality. What is bad for the environment is almost always bad for human health, and vice versa. Petroleum poses a health threat all along its supply chain – extraction, production, use, and disposal.

Toxic chemicals in plastics are a major health concern for both humans and animals. These chemicals leech out of plastic and enter our bodies.

Phthalates and BBA are two well-known chemical additives in plastics that pose a threat to our health. These substances are called endocrine disrupting chemicals, which mean they mess with your hormones. The endocrine system is incredibly important for normal biological functions – it’s involved in growth, development, mood, metabolism, and sleep. Chemical that interfere with normal functioning can cause a huge range of problems including obesity, developmental problems, learning disabilities, diabetes, birth defects, and more.

Heat is a catalyst for chemical leeching, which is why you’re not supposed to use plastic containers to heat food or store hot food in plastic containers. Unfortunately, many people still don’t know this and continue to heat food in the microwave using plastic Tupperware. More concerning is using plastic bottles to feed infants warm milk – young children are especially susceptible to the effects of toxic chemicals.

Whilst the production of throwaway plastics has grown dramatically over the last 20 years, the systems to contain, control, reuse and recycle them just haven’t kept pace. (Guardian, 2017)

While the studies are limited, there does seem to be some promising evidence of certain bacteria and fungi that can actually breakdown certain forms of plastics. However, the incredible abundance of plastic creates a challenge for using these methods – can we really process all of the plastic in the world fast enough? We’re producing and discarding plastics at such an astonishing rate.

My next post will cover alternatives: this includes how you can reduce your own use and how you can work to reduce plastic in our world on a broader scale.


Update on my life

Dear readers, I generally don’t post about personal events, but I have some very exciting news that may impact how much time I can spend on this blog.

Last week I started a new job at PCC Community Markets as their Social and Environmental Responsibility Program Manager. For any of my readers who don’t know me personally, and simply found my blog because of the content, I have been searching for a job in my field for the past year. I’ve also been wanting to work at PCC for a long time, so this is a dream come true for me!

What does this mean for my blog?  Mainly, I will post less frequently. I’m committed to keeping up with this blog, but I don’t have as much time to dedicate towards developing and publishing posts. I will feel things out over the next couple months as I settle into my new job and assess how much time and energy I have for researching and writing.

Currently, I’m in the middle of writing the next piece for my series on plastics, so stay tuned for that guy as soon as I finish it up! Thank you for your patience and support!

Plastics: Introduction and History

In this series on plastic, I’m going to cover the history of plastic, the environmental and health concerns associated with it, and explore in detail some specific uses of plastic that are particularly worrisome. I started this series with a post on microbeads in personal care products, so now we’re going to step back and look at plastic on a broader scale.

In our world today, I don’t think there is a single individual left who doesn’t own at least one item made from plastic. It’s literally everywhere, and its presence has become a source of significant environmental damage, health concerns, political contention, and has even instigated niche lifestyle philosophies.

This is a famous quote from the 1967 film The Graduate

While plastic is useful in some applications, our heavy reliance on it as a material has detrimental consequences. It also represents a deeper, more fundamental, problem in our society – our hyper-consumerist culture in which cheaply made crap is mass-produced, used, thrown out, and replaced. We consume SO much stuff, and the majority of it breaks quickly so we have to go out and buy more! Annie Leonard has an amazing video about this on her website The Story of Stuff, which I recommend everyone check out.

So, what is plastic?

Technically, plastic is any polymer material. Without going into too much chemistry here, these polymers are long chains of carbon atoms, sometimes with attached oxygen, nitrogen, or sulfur. Cellulose is a naturally occurring polymer. Plastic can be made from renewable materials, but most commonly, it’s made from petroleum or coal.

There are many different categories of plastics depending on their shape, form, and function. As a result, some plastics take more energy to make, are harder to reuse or recycle, and require more petrochemicals in their production than others. PET, a plastic used for water bottles or food containers among other products, can be recycled to some degree, whereas soft and pliable PVC (polyvinyl chloride) contains higher levels of toxic chemicals that can contaminate the recycling stream. For more information about the use, recyclability, and toxicity of different plastic types, visit the website Life Without Plastic.

History of Plastic

History fact: In the United States, John Wesley Hyatt invented the first commercial synthetic polymer in 1869 as a replacement for ivory by building upon previous work involving chemically treated cellulose from cotton fibers.

The late 1800s and early 1900s marked the dawn of the age of plastic. Polymers from natural substances were the first step, but in 1907, Leo Baekeland created Bakelite, an entirely synthetic plastic from coal tar derivatives and formaldehyde. Bakelite was heat resistant and could be molded into different shapes, making it extremely versatile; radios, phones, kitchen appliances, and even children’s toys started being made from Bakelite.

DuPont and Dow are two companies still around today that led the way in expanding plastic production throughout the 1920s and 1930s. DuPont introduced Styrofoam and nylon stockings, two unique applications beyond what Bakelite could do as a rigid plastic..

Bakelite radio

Widespread use of plastic started during WWII with natural resources being expensive and scarce for both civilians and the military. Synthetic versions were created as cheaper and easier to produce alternatives. Popularity of plastic increased after the war, with new and cheaper products flooding the market. Many of the products first introduced were actually created specifically for the military, but since companies didn’t want to lose money, they found ways to market these products to the public. Saran wrap, for example, was originally used in a spray form application for military aircraft to protect their exteriors from the elements. Dow Chemical, the owner of Saran, obtained approval for their product to have contact with food and began marketing a solid version to consumers as a method of food storage. As we know, Saran wrap has been an extremely successful product and is a staple in almost every household.

While before the war, conservation and thriftiness was valued, the decades after ushered in a wave of hyper-consumerism in which spending and accumulating stuff became fashionable. And plastics offered individuals of lower and middle classes the ability to purchase affordable and seemingly high-end products. Partly manufactured demand through marketing and availability combined with actual consumer demand for these new products drove the accelerating plastics industry through the 1960s and onward.

Today, we use plastic to make and package millions of products and it’s almost impossible to avoid. Plastic is cheap, lightweight, and easy to produce. It is not, however, a sustainable material. My next post will address this issue, through examining the environmental and human health impacts of plastic.