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.


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.



Plastics: Microbeads

Microbead Facts:

  • Microbeads are 5mm or smaller.
  • Using microbead products for one shower can release 100,000 beads down the drain.
  • One cleansing product can have up to 360,000 microbeads.
  • NY State alone dumps 19 tons of microbeads down the drain every year.

I remember in high school I used this Neutrogena exfoliating gel facewash and sometimes I would squeeze a tiny amount into my fingers and feel around for those tiny orange beads. I would squish them between my fingers and wonder what they were made from, and sometimes I’d test them with my nails to see if they could pop or break open. Back then, I had no idea about all of the toxins in the world or the plethora of ecological impacts from our consumerist society. So naturally, I had no idea those little balls of exfoliating material were actually plastic. Or how terrible those tiny plastic beads were.

Chances are you’ve used some product with microbeads. Companies put them in everything including toothpaste, face wash, body wash, and lotions. If you’re like me, you probably find it weird that you’re washing your face or your body with plastic! So why do companies use these instead of the many wonderful natural exfoliating alternatives? Why else – money! Microbeads are cheaper than natural exfoliates, and they don’t work as well, which means you can use it every day, use up the product faster, and buy it more often.

Microbeads are typically 5 mm in diameter or smaller. They’re commonly made from polyethylene, but can also be made from other petrochemicals like polypropylene and polystyrene. These chemicals are also used in their non-solid form in personal care products, so you may see polyethylene in an ingredient list, but this doesn’t necessarily mean there are microbeads present. If the use of microbeads aren’t already disclosed on the label, you can identify them in a product by the grainy texture.

Microbeads are a huge environmental concern, and they pose a threat to human health:

Water filtration systems cannot catch these tiny plastic pieces, so they wash straight into lakes, rivers, and oceans. Microbeads don’t break down in the environment; plastic in general doesn’t degrade, it simply breaks into smaller pieces. This leads to a massive accumulation of tiny bits of plastic all over the world.

Microbeads are like sponges for toxins. They absorb and release toxic chemicals like PCBs and pesticides. This is why Greenpeace apparently calls them “toxic time bombs”.

Animals consume microbeads either by accident or because they think the beads are food. This can cause problems in a few ways. First, animals can starve to death because microbeads, and other plastics, fill up the animal’s stomach, making it impossible for them to eat enough real food. Many whales, seals, fish, and even sea birds, are found dead on beaches; cutting them open reveals a belly full of plastic.

Second, microbeads and microplastics (bits that used to be bigger plastic pieces) can actually pass through to the bloodstream or muscles. Foreign objects in the body disrupt normal biological functions.

Third, microbeads can release the toxic chemicals they absorbed. Additionally, some microbeads are small enough to enter plankton, worms, and other tiny organisms, greatly disrupting metabolic functions.

Microbeads are also working their way up the food chain into human bodies; fish eat the microbeads and we eat the fish. Thus, microbeads can accumulate in our bodies, potentially causing problems by entering our bloodstream, releasing toxic chemicals, or settling in our stomachs.

What is being done?

Governments all over the world are passing laws to ban microbeads, at least for use in personal care products. Obama signed the Microbead-Free Waters Act in 2015, requiring all cosmetics companies to remove microbeads from personal care products by July 2017 (last month!). Some companies have even stepped up and pledged to phase out the use of microbeads in their products. L’Oreal, Lush, and Unilever are some of the companies that have already started phasing them out of products. The next step in addressing this problem is to target the use of microbeads in other products like laundry detergents.


The abundance of plastic in our environment and our bodies has become ridiculous. Microbeads are just one more source of plastic pollution. The next post in my series on plastics will address this issue on a broader scale and provide some history on the use of plastics.