I’m from a generation when a reference to plastic often brought to mind a moment from The Graduate (1967). In a scene from the movie, a young man (Benjamin) who is searching for his life’s work is being advised by a businessman that the future is in plastics.
Fast forward to 2015, when we are surrounded by items made of plastic, from food containers to car parts, medical equipment, clothing, furniture, building materials, and toys, to name just a few. Plastic has taken on a controversial and often heinous meaning. Those involved in the plastic industry will argue otherwise, of course, since production of the material is their livelihood. However, they as well as consumers need to be more aware of the hazards plastic poses to human and planetary health so they can take steps to reduce them.
I’ve long not been a fan of plastic and actively take steps to avoid using it as well as recycle plastic items whenever possible (e.g., I pick up plastic bottles when I walk and recycle them); However, a September 2015 article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) prompted me to speak out.
The authors of the article point out that 90 percent of the seabirds on Earth have ingested plastic and that by 2050, the percentage will reach 99 percent. Before someone out there makes a comment about “dumb birds,” let me point out that humans may not be so smart either.
Plastic and People
For example, we routinely expose ourselves to harmful chemicals found in plastics, such as BPA (bisphenol-A) and phthalates. These factors are leaching into our food and water from canned foods and plastic containers and can have a negative impact on human hormone levels, reproduction, neurological functioning, and intellectual development. (An alternative for BPA, called BPS, has recently been shown to be as dangerous as the ingredient it replaced.) Pregnant women, fetuses, and infants are most susceptible to these toxins, yet newborns in neonatal intensive care units are exposed to these chemicals in polyvinyl chloride tubing in life-saving efforts, and babies are given plastic toys.
A recent study in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology reported that “Prenatal exposure to BPA and high-molecular-weight phthalates might increase the risk of asthma symptoms and respiratory tract infections throughout childhood.” In another new study (August 2015), researchers in Canada found that higher concentrations of BPA in children “were associated with increased odds of hyperactivity among girls and lower prosocial behavior among boys.”
What about those plastic grocery bags so many people use all the time? They aren’t biodegradable, but they do breakdown and release toxins, such as flame retardants and plasticizers, which can disrupt the endocrine system and hormone balance in humans as well as animals.
Plastic and Animals
Let me return to the PNAS article. In the case of seabirds, the authors noted that birds ingest plastic because they mistake pieces of floating plastic for food, such as fish eggs. Co-author Britta Denise Hardesty explained that “These plastics can block the guts of the birds and if they are sharp pieces, they can even cut the guts open.”
Seabirds are not the only creatures that suffer because of plastics. Take plastic bags and marine animals. Plastic bags make their way into the oceans, where marine animals such as turtles and whales mistake them for food. Once ingested, plastic blocks the digestive tract and can eventually make it impossible for the creatures to dive for food, sentencing them to death by starvation. Marine animals can also choke or strangle on plastic.
Plastic and the Planet
Why are marine animals exposed to so much plastic? Because 8 million tons of plastic are dumped into our oceans every year, and the numbers will continue to rise. Most of the plastic garbage in the oceans has accumulated in five groups, of which the largest is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. This huge marine landfill is approximately twice the size of Texas.
Our record of plastic use and disposal is horrific. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, in 2013 Americans
- Generated 33 million tons of plastic waste: 14 million tons as containers and packaging, 12 million as durable goods such as appliances, and about 7 million as plates, cups, medical devices, and other nondurable items
- Recycled only 9 percent of the total plastic waste they generated
- Recycled nearly 14 percent of plastics in the category of bags, sacks, and wraps
Plastics in landfills give off toxins that leach into the soil and ground water. They take up valuable land space and represent a monumental waste of energy. For example, the plastics currently in US landfills are equivalent to about 36.7 million tons of coal, 139 million barrels of oil, and 783 billion cubic feet of natural gas. In addition, plastics production involves a huge waste of energy, as it uses up about 8 percent of global oil production.
I’ve barely scratched the surface of the devastating impact of plastics on people, animals, and the planet. And I’m not delusional enough to believe that plastics will go away anytime soon. Plastics are here to stay for quite some time…in more ways than one. But that doesn’t mean we can’t produce, use, clean up, and dispose of them more responsibly. On an individual level, each of us can:
- significantly limit our purchase and use of plastics
- stop using plastic (and Styrofoam) plates, cups, water bottles, bags, and utensils
- choose alternatives to plastic products whenever possible (and teach our children the same lesson)
- recycle plastic (become familiar with the plastic recycling numbers and which ones are recyclable in our communities)
- be a planetary steward by picking up and recycling plastic bottles, bags, etc
- volunteer with groups that pick up plastic and other trash, especially those that focus on beaches and waterways
Related Articles: Power Walking, Not What You Think
EcoWatch. Silent killers: The dangers of plastic bags to marine life
Findlay LC, Kohen DE. Bisphenol A and child and youth behavior: Canadian Health Measures Survey 2007 to 2011. Health Reports 2015 Aug 19; 26(8): 3-9
Gascon M et al. Prenatal exposure to bisphenol A and phthalates and childhood respiratory tract infections and allergy. Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology 2015 Feb; 135(2): 370-78
The problem of scale: plastics in landfills. Goecopure.com
National Geographic. Eight million tons of plastic dumped into oceans every year
Wilcox C et al. Threat of plastic pollution to seabirds is global, pervasive, and increasing. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 2015 doi: 10.1073/pnas.1502108112