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?
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.
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.