Plastic, one of the most preferred materials in today’s industrial world is posing [a] serious threat to [the] environment and consumer’s health in many direct and indirect ways. Exposure to harmful chemicals during manufacturing, leaching in the stored food items while using plastic packages or chewing of plastic teethers and toys by children are linked with severe adverse health outcomes such as cancers, birth defects, impaired immunity, endocrine disruption, developmental and reproductive effects etc. Promotion of plastics substitutes and safe disposal of plastic waste requires urgent and definitive action to take care of this potential health hazard in future.”Source: National Center for Biotechnology Information, NCBI. Accessed Online 8/14/2021, Public health impact of plastics: An overview [Article from the Indian Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, 2011 Sep-Dec; 15(3): 100–103]).
Although the opening paragraph is from 2011, the data is even stronger today. The fact is plastic, both on land and in our oceans, is harming every living thing on the planet, including the planet itself. This article is simply an overview, as the topic is huge and cannot be covered in one small digest. CCGKC strongly urges everyone to read up on the topic. There are thousands of scholarly journal articles, some of which are used here, that can offer more data in understanding just how big of a problem we have from simply being consumers of many things plastic.
Plastic wares sales display featuring Dow Styron, 1949. Science History Institute.
Let’s start with the ocean, from where all life began. There isn’t a creature in the ocean, from coral and plankton to whales, that has not been ill-affected by plastic. The plastic heap floating in the Pacific Ocean, as mentioned in a previous article, is known as The Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Yet, it is not the only floating trash island, just the largest. Additionally, beaches around the globe are strewn with single-use plastic. The following image is a screenshot of an interactive map illustrating the size of the floating island of garbage in the North Pacific Ocean. Follow the link to access the interactive map: Ocean Plastics Pollution.
Thousands of seabirds and sea turtles, seals and other marine mammals die each year after ingesting plastic or getting entangled in it. Fish ingesting microplastics eventually make their way to the food chain and are then ingested by humans. Birds and turtles ingest plastic microfibers that are mistaken for food (see photo below), which causes starvation and death at one end, while the plastic debris on the beaches can interrupt the reproduction cycles lowering the annual offspring rates. Dead whales have been found with bellies full of plastic debris. Yet, the plastic industry, using fossil fuels including gas from fracking, want to increase plastic production over the next decade. (See: Ocean Plastics Pollution.)
The adverse health effects are numerous and vary from one plastic to another depending on the chemical breakdown in their manufacturing process:
“In addition to creating safety problems during production, many chemical additives that give plastic products desirable performance properties also have negative environmental and human health effects. These effects include: Direct toxicity, as in the cases of lead, cadmium, and mercury; Carcinogens, as in the case of diethylhexyl phthalate (DEHP); Endocrine disruption, which can lead to cancers, birth defects, immune system suppression and developmental problems in children… Examples of plastics contaminating food have been reported with most plastic types, including Styrene from polystyrene, plasticizers from PVC, antioxidants from polyethylene, and Acetaldehyde from PET.”Source: A chart on the adverse health effects are found at Adverse Health Effects of Plastics. (See: Ecology Center Online accessed 8/14/2021. Factsheets & Links)
The Center for International Environmental Law has published numerous articles on this topic. Reading through the articles and blogs it is not hard to conclude that the increase in autoimmune diseases, birth defects and exposure to hazardous chemicals are probably from our increased exposure to plastic. Plastic is threatening the lives of every living thing on this globe. I strongly urge everyone to read the articles for themselves. I can guarantee you, you will not be pleased. We must educate ourselves and become knowledgeable on this issue, while acting in unison to influence a major change in the blatant practices of corporations that know their products cause harm. We can make an impact through unified action. A majority needs to speak out, boycott corporations who act irresponsibly and take the initiative to change our own practices through every avenue available.
“Research into the human health impacts of plastic must recognize that significant, complex, and intersecting human health impacts occur at every stage of the plastic lifecycle: from wellhead to refinery, from store shelves to human bodies, and from waste management to ongoing impacts as air, water, and soil pollution.”Source: Center for International Environmental Law, Online, accessed 8/15/2021 Plastic and Human Health: A Lifecycle Approach to Plastic Pollution
I would add marine life as well, judging from the amount of plastic being found in our food sources, the starvation of species from eating microplastics and the toxins feeding into the soil and water tables are just as harmful to all life, not just human lives. See also: Plastic Threatens Human Health at a Global Scale – New Report
The damage is our fault. Humans developed plastics and chemicals from fossil fuels. WE did that. WE have no one to blame but human greed and perhaps a bit of laziness in the name of making life easier for ourselves. IF we were truly humane and responsible custodians of our home planet and all living things upon it, WE would have acted decades ago. Yet, here WE are.
Am I passionately emotional about this topic? ….darn straight. I am also not naïve. Making changes in our daily lives and demanding changes from manufacturing corporations is a huge struggle. My involvement with the Climate Council of Greater Kansas City was not by accident. I have always been a conscientious consumer, yet plastic did make my life easier in many ways. I recycled plastic, glass etc, as instructed yet — there is just too much plastic. I am now looking for ways to change even the small amount of dependency that I still have on plastics. For others who look at plastics as time saving necessities, they will have a harder time reducing their dependency.
In order to change, WE as humans, need to see why and remember that each of us is not here as a single entity. We are part and parcel of a whole network of cultures and societies. So, let’s start with the facts as laid out by EarthDay.Org from their website: Fact Sheet: How Much Disposable Plastic We Use. The Plastic Calculator on their website is a useful tool to see just how much disposable plastic is being used in a collective of households. Additionally, each link within the following list will take you to more information on each type of single-use plastic/debris as listed below:
“The following 10 facts shed light on how plastic is proving dangerous to our planet, health, and wildlife. To learn more about the threat and impact of plastic pollution and get tips to reduce your plastic consumption, download our Plastic Pollution Primer and Toolkit and use our Plastic Pollution Calculator today!”
More than half a billion plastic straws are used every day around the world.
Over half of the world’s plastic thrown out in 2015 was plastic packaging. That’s over 141 million metric tons.
Takeout orders account for around 269,000 US tons of plastic waste that has entered the oceans.
The amount of bubble wrap that is produced annually is enough to wrap around the Equator ten times.
The world uses 500 billion plastic cups every year.
More than 480 billion plastic bottles were sold worldwide in 2016. That is up from about 300 billion only a decade ago
16 billion disposable coffee cups are used each year. These are coated with plastic to laminate the inside and use plastic lids.
The world produces more than 14 million US tons of polystyrene (plastic foam) each year. Americans alone throw away around 25 billion Styrofoam cups every year
Around the world, people litter more than 4.5 trillion cigarette butts every year.Source: EarthDay.Org Online: Fact Sheet, How Much Disposable Plastic We Use accessed 8/16/2021, https://www.earthday.org/fact-sheet-how-much-disposable-plastic-we-use/
So, what do we do to reduce this nearly compulsive dependency? If there was a collective effort on the part of all consumers to stop buying single use plastic products, this, in and of itself, would go a long way to reduce plastic waste. WE have a long way to go and the time to cut single-use plastic may have run out.