Many of us were born in an age where plastic was considered fantastic. But as plastic usage advances, so do the problems. The use of plastic underlies many human health crises. According to research, there are distinct risks and toxicity that plastic poses for human health at each lifecycle stage of the plastic. From extraction to consumer use and disposal, plastic poses a problem at every step. Presently, research into the impact of plastic on human health has excessively concentrated on specific points in the plastic lifecycle, such as single products, exposure pathways, or processes.
Such an approach fails to recognize complex, significant impacts of plastic at every aspect of human health, during different stages within the plastic lifecycle. Right from the wellhead to synthetic refineries, store shelves, and human usage, there are a lot of grey areas that come into play. Waste management needs to be effective because of microplastics in water, soil, and air have triggered a health crisis. As per the report, knowledge gaps and uncertainties have impacted the capability of consumers, society, and those making policies to take informed viewpoints. The complete-scale of plastic’s health impact across the lifecycle of this substance requires a caution-filled approach.
Stages at Which Plastic Poses a Risk
Table of Contents
Plastic disposal management requires a lifecycle perspective. Narrow views of assessing or combating plastic impacts are inappropriate and inadequate. Making informed decisions that address plastic risks requires a full lifecycle approach. This approach helps in understanding the full implications of toxicity from plastic on human health. Reducing toxic exposure to plastic requires considering all the options and putting together innovative solutions. The reason for this is because plastic has a complicated lifecycle. At every stage of the lifecycle, plastic causes risks to human health, emanating from plastic particles or chemicals linked to them.
Fossil Feedstock Extraction
This phase is a typical stage from which plastic poses a hazard. Transportation and extraction of fossil feedstock for plastic launch an array of toxic substances into the water and air, including known health issues such as reproductive toxicity, developmental toxicity, immune system impairment, and neurotoxicity.
Plastic Production and Refinement
Producing and refining of plastic resins or additives releases carcinogenic and toxic substances into the atmosphere. Effects range across nervous system impairment, reproductive or developmental complications, chronic diseases such as cancer and leukemia and genetic problems such as low weight at birth for infants.
Plastic Usage for Consumer Products and Packaging
Plastic products and packaging can trigger inhalation or ingestion of microplastic particles and toxic substances.
Ineffective Plastic Waste Management
Plastic waste management, such as waste-to-energy and other types of incineration leads to the release of toxic substances. Such substances include heavy metals such as mercury, lead, acid gases, and particulate materials. These substances enter the soil, air, and water, causing health risks for not just the workers, but also the nearby communities.
Fragmenting and Microplastics
Fragmentation and entry of microplastics into the body trigger genotoxicity, inflammation, apoptosis, inflammation, and necrosis. These are linked to different adverse health outcomes such as cardiovascular diseases, autoimmune disorders, and even cancer.
Exposure to Plastic Degradation
Plastic degrades, creating cascading exposure, which leaches toxic chemicals into human bodies and the environment.
Plastic further accumulates and contaminates the human, terrestrial, and aquatic food chain, besides the water supply in agricultural soils, causing new ways to harm human health.
Plastic’s Toxicity for the Human Body
Materials that do not readily appear like plastic contain it. It includes plastic polymers, resins, and food can liners. Plastics are everywhere, even in cosmetics, adhesives, toothpaste, detergents, cosmetics, and medical devices. Plastic is generally composed of different chemicals to improve properties, preventing degradation when exposed to light, temperature, humidity, heat, or microbes. Some of the substances present in plastic are not bound to its chemical chain. This difference makes it easy for them to migrate under differential temperature or light conditions. As such, toxic ingredients can evaporate in the air, and you can breathe in these dangerous chemicals.
Further, they are absorbed readily into your skin. They leach foods or drinks, which are ingested. Even everyday actions like breathing near plastic trash burn sites, opening a plastic item with a strong odor, reusing a water bottle, eating food microwaved/stored in containers of plastic, drinking hot coffee from a plastic cup are dangerous.
While plastic comes in different forms, there are critical concerns about the harmful impact of plastic on human health. Plastic additives come into direct contact with us. Environmental exposure to plastic can also compromise human health. Additives used in plastic exert different health effects for individuals, depending on the type of plastic, brand, and primary use of a product where plastic is handled. For example, PVC gets its flexibility from chemical groups called plasticizers, which are additives. These are found in numerous substances, sometimes, including faux leather seats, kid’s toys, etc., and depend on where the PVC is deployed. It complicates issues for policy-makers seeking to limit exposure to dangerous chemicals, as it is impossible for consumers to ascertain which everyday products use what type of plastic.
But, generally, these plastic additives listed below are linked to diseases:
- BPA: This acronym stands for Bisphenol A, and is used in food or beverage containers such as water bottles. BPA has been banned in baby bottles, and some EU nation-states have also restricted its use.
- Phthalates: These are also known as plasticizers. They are used to make the PVC flexible, and these additives can be used in children’s toys, clothes, flooring, and other everyday items.
- Flame Retarding Substances: These are used in electronic and electrical equipment, upholstery, and items for fire safety benefits. The UN has banned some of the flame retardants due to a dangerous impact on health.
Only a minority of chemicals known to migrate from plastic easily have been tested for toxicity in humans. The fundamental problem is coming up with a testing model because no control baseline has not been exposed to plastic.
Effect of Additives
Scientific studies show 95% of over 2,500 individuals aged 6+ in the US have been exposed to BPA or bisphenol A based on their urine analysis. BPA passes through the body in 6 hours. It is one of the most voluminous chemicals produced globally. BPA also leaches from containers like water bottles to water. The issue with the ready migration is that BPA disrupts endocrine systems and prevents the glands from functioning normally. Endocrine systems regulate numerous bodily functions, including heart rate, metabolism, digestion, mood, temperature, sleep patterns, and bodily functions, besides tissue development and reproductive functioning.
Endocrine systems work by eliminating toxins from the blood, processing the blood for its destination and oxygenating the body. This system impacts every body cell, and if it is disrupted, it can cause problems. The most common endocrine diseases include diabetes and thyroid. Chemicals like BPA can replicate a hormone or block receptors to prevent endocrine gland functioning. Osteoporosis, Addison’s disease, Cushing’s syndrome, hypertension, low testosterone, obesity, thyroid cancer – the list of maladies that plastic causes are endless. Studies have found those under age 75 with subclinical hypothyroidism can suffer cognitive dementia due to plastic exposure. Tissue and development issues are more far-reaching during pre-birth and post-birth periods. This reason is why the US has banned BPA in baby bottles and cups since 2012.
In 2013, UNEP and WHO jointly published a study that found plastic causing endocrine disruptions could lead to cancers, infertility, malformations, brain disorders, obesity, metabolic diseases and negative impact on insulin and glucose homeostasis. Research evidence suggests exposure to endocrine-disrupting plastic chemicals during development in infancy and the teen years can lead to reproductive disorders, endocrine-linked cancers, learning and behavioral issues, such as ADHD, infections, asthma, obesity, and diabetes. Further, plastic chemicals can trigger different forms of cancer, autoimmune diseases, infections, learning disabilities, strokes, and conditions such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.
BPA is not the only chemical that disrupts the endocrine system. Plastics are also associated with plasticizers/phthalates, which are plastic softeners. These also find their way into the human body. Phthalates cause reproductive abnormalities, developmental disorders, pulmonary system diseases such as allergies and asthma, and direct toxins.
Banned by the EU as recently in 2015, phthalates are still used for manufacturing products except for kid’s toys and child-care products in the US. This is despite tests indicating the ill effects of phthalate exposure in pregnant women. Phthalates also pass out quickly from the body, so presence in bodily excretions or urine indicates chronic exposure.
Impact of Marine Plastic Pollution on Human Health
The oceans are essential for absorbing GHG gases like CO2 that would otherwise lead to high temperatures and excessive global warming. Marine ecosystems support the production of oxygen, nutrient cycles, and carbon capture through photosynthesis and carbon sequestration. The oceans are critical for providing food for the population of the earth. Oceans hold 97% of the water found on the surface. Scientists estimate that by 2050, the world’s oceans will contain more plastic than fish. According to a report from Nature.com, ocean pollution has resulted in five major garbage patches in the US over 600K square miles. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch between Hawaii and California alone has over 1.8 trillion plastic pieces that weigh 88K tons!
What is even more terrible is that this is just on the surface. It is impossible to estimate the level of plastic pollution in the deep ocean. Scientists believe 70% of the marine garbage sinks to the base. When plastics degrade, they release dangerous chemicals like BPA, phthalates, and toxic components including cadmium, mercury, and dioxin into the sea. Further, plastic compounds also adsorb each other. This process involves attracting like plastic objects and chemicals like cadmium or mercury floating next to it. The toxicity is, therefore, magnified. A lot of plastic bags have been found in the carcasses of fishes, which often mistake them for jellyfish, and even plankton have been photographed eating plastic! Toxic plastic chemicals bioaccumulate in fatty tissue or lipids and are found in higher concentration levels in the food chain. Ingestion causes fatal outcomes. So, instead of nutritious seafood, you could be ingesting toxins. Marine ecosystems are essential for maintaining planetary life, according to the European Environment Agency. The vitality and health of marine ecosystems impact the health of food chains, the welfare of local populations relying on the sea and even seafood fans.
Reasons Why Plastic is Bad for Health
If you consider your office or home, the chances are high that you’ll find at least twenty to fifty objects made of plastic. Single-use plastic products such as plastic grocery bags, water bottles, to-go coffee cups, food wrappers, takeaway containers, single-serve coffee cups, produce bags or disposable cutlery abound. It’s not possible to remove plastic from usage, but you can certainly reduce plastic footprint. Why, you ask, should you do that? Well, here are the reasons why plastic is bad for human health, and this should motivate you to give up on plastic.
#1 Harming the Marine Ecosystem
Plastic became popular in the 1950s and has now shot out of control. Close to 18.2 trillion pounds of plastic have been produced worldwide, according to the American Association for the Advancement of Science. By 2050, expect another 26.5 trillion pounds of plastic to be produced worldwide. Plastic takes forever to decompose, further. Every plastic we throw into landfills lands in the oceans and destroys the marine ecosystem, indirectly impacting your health. An average American throws 185 pounds of trash each year, and that means over 320 mt of plastic annually. As fish is the main source of food for many communities, human health is threatened due to marine ecosystem disruption. Further, half of the plastic produced worldwide is single-use. This production includes items like plastic bags with an average lifespan of fifteen minutes, straws, water bottles, and packaging. Liquid detergents, for example, are packed in HDPE plastic jugs, and 68% of these products are not recycled.
#2 BPA Mimics Human Hormones
BPA is a plastic chemical that is lethal because this additive, also called Bisphenol A, directly comes into contact with food. This includes plastic packaging, kitchenware, and inner jar cap or can coatings. BPA further interacts with estrogen receptors and plays a role in the emergence of endocrine disorders, such as male and female infertility, prostate and breast cancer, early puberty, and PCOS.
#3 Plastic Chemical BPA Causes Obesity
Besides being a known endocrine disruptor, BPA comes in the way of normal endocrine system functioning, including hormone serum levels regulating the metabolic rate. BPA plays a role in obesity development during fetal stages of growth and later in life.
#4 Additive BPA Harms Kids
Reports suggest plastic containers to either heat or store food can be a major health hazard for kids. The American Pediatrics Academy has called for changes after studies showed plastic chemicals in packaging material, additives, and coloring agents could harm children. Numerous studies show plastic chemicals like BPA in metal cans and plastic containers impact hormone, growth, development, and the likelihood of becoming obese.
#5 BPA Causes Thyroid Glands to Malfunction
BPA also alters thyroid hormones regulating energy production and the metabolism of the body. Evidence shows BPA can be linked to certain autoimmune thyroid disorders, and lab tests measuring BPA have exceeded measurable detection levels in 52% of those with elevated thyroid antibodies. Toxic BPA levels can cause autoimmune attacks on the thyroid gland.
#6 BPA Leads to Miscarriages and Reproductive Defects
Studies have also found BPA can impact the reproductive system and cause chromosomal damage, miscarriages, and congenital disabilities. Animal studies have shown BPA can lead to children developing Down’s Syndrome or congenital disabilities.
#7 BPA Leads to Hypertension
Consuming beverages from BPA lined cans raises blood pressure. In clinical trials, volunteers who drank the same beverage in BPA cans as against glass bottles showed higher BPA levels, and systolic blood pressure counts.
#8 BPA Raises Risk for Diabetes
According to the American Endocrine Society, exposure to EDCs or endocrine-disrupting chemicals like BPA raises the risk of diabetes. Numerous studies link EDC to Type 2 Diabetes.
#9 BPA Causes IBS/IBD
IBS/Irritable Bowel Syndrome is another disorder in which BPA triggers. BPA impacts gut microbiota badly impacting amino acid metabolism. IBD or irritable bowel diseases are also resulting from this, such as ulcerative colitis, and Crohn’s Disease. BPA exposure drives colonic inflammation, too.
#10 BPA Contributes to Heart Diseases
BPA harms the arteries in the heart leading to cardiac heartbeat abnormalities and arteriosclerosis or build-up of fatty deposits on artery walls. What’s worse is the finding that even BPA-free products undergo wear and tear working just like BPA plastic. Replacements to BPA also exert similar effects. For example, BPS behaves the same way as BPA and is yet touted as a safer option for storing food or drinks.
#11 Possibility of Genital Birth Defects
Studies show prenatal phthalate exposure disrupts the formation of testicles and leads to testicular abnormalities during fetal development. Phthalate is also associated with hypospadias, another genital congenital disability.
#12 Microwave-Safe is not Good for Health!
Harvard medical experts have found when food is wrapped in plastic and microwaved in plastic containers, BPA or phthalates leach into the food. Migration is more likely with fatty food items like cheese or meat. Heated plastic leaches chemicals 55x times faster. So whether you’re using microwave-safe containers or putting hot food in plastic bowls, you’re running the risk of chemical leaching.
#13 Know the Dangers of Microplastics
Bottled water can be deadly for health when it is in plastic bottles. Large plastics break into micro versions. A study found 11 bottled water brands sold across nine countries mostly contained this microplastic contamination, at an average of 10.4 plastic particles in every one liter of water. This doubles the plastic pollution in tap water. Of these particles, nearly 65% in one study were plastic fragments.
It includes plastic used for bottle caps. Instead, make the switch to stainless steel or glass water bottles.
#14 Phthalates Stun Brain Growth
Studies have found phthalates alter brain growth. Animal studies show pregnant females eating food with phthalates were found to produce offspring lacking adequate medial prefrontal cortex growth involved in high-level cognitive functions such as error detection, decision-making, memory, cognitive flexibility, and conflict monitoring.
#15 Plastic Leads to Alzheimer’s Disease
Plastic promotes toxicity through dangerous brain proteins linked to Alzheimer’s disease. Brains of individuals with Alzheimer’s disease are riddled with plastic deposits. Even your plastic shoes can be a problem. Plastic-based flip-flops have harmful chemicals like phthalates that leach into your skin.
#16 Scratched Plastic is Deadly for Health
Plastic, when scratched, speeds up the leaching process. Due to this reason, worn plastic items like food storage containers must be thrown away. Eat less canned and more frozen or fresh foods. Avoid using plastic containers and bottles made using polycarbonates/PC and phthalates/PVC.
#17 Plastic Dust Can Damage Your House & Health
Research has revealed you could be swallowing more than 100 tiny particles of plastic with every meal. This comes from soft furnishing items and fabrics in the house, which then mix with the dust and end up on your plate. An average person swallows up to 68, 415 plastic fibers a year through eating.
#18 Biodegradable Plastic Does not Break Down
A Michigan University study showed special additives in plastic bags, and soda bottles don’t break down in landfills and composts. Single-use plastic has reached the deepest oceans. A study found a plastic bag 10,898m below the ocean’s surface!
#19 Plastic Emits CH4
Plastic emits methane or CH4. A study in PLOS One found conventional plastics release GHG methane, or CH4 and ethylene when exposed to sunlight. These gases are detrimental to health and the climate, too.
#20 Research Evidence Suggests Harmful Effects
Strong research evidence indicates people are being exposed to plastic and additives in different ways and suffering ill-health as a consequence of this. A majority of the additives from BPF and BPA to hormone disruptors and brominated flame retardants, additives are EDCs with plenty of potentials to harm the human body. Exposure to plastics can trigger health complications such as disrupted fertility cycles, delayed neurodevelopment in kids, cancers, and immune system disorders. EDCs further impact thyroid and metabolic rate. Plastic chemicals have even been found in breast milk!
In a meta-analysis, researchers found there is widespread usage of plastic, and it’s taking its toll. Since production commenced in the 40s, plastic has been advancing in production volumes. The amount of plastic produced in the first decade of this century will approach the total built in the previous century! Plastics have a long life and can damage your health and the ecosystem because of this. Chemical building blocks that cause the plastic to be versatile also harm people and the environment.
Chemicals in plastics are easily absorbed by the human body, altering hormones and leading to social health effects. Plastic debris with chemicals injures wildlife and poison humans. Floating plastic waste can survive for 1000s of years and transport invasive species, disrupting, and choking natural habitats. Plastic in landfills leaches chemicals spreading into groundwater. People are exposed to plastic chemicals the multiple numbers of times per day. 4% of the world’s oil production is solely devoted to making plastics. Nearly 8 in 10 babies and all adults have measurable phthalates in their bodies. Bisphenol found in bottles and linings of cans can even seep into your drinks, according to CDC. Massive exposure of premature infants in neonatal ICU is of grave concern when it comes to BPA and phthalates.
Some plastic chemicals have even been linked to reproductive abnormalities. There are direct links between exposure and adverse health outcomes. Close to 90-100 percent of the human population has plastic chemicals in their bodies. Further, the current production of biodegradable plastics is 350K tons, representing 0.2 percent of petrochemical-based plastic. Also, the materials degrade in natural habits and disintegrate into small pieces.
The problem of Plastic Disposal
According to APC/American Plastics Council, 32% of bottles and 17% of flexible wraps and polythene bags were recycled by Americans in 2014. Though it is possible to recycle plastic due to new technologies, what is disheartening is that recyclable plastic is often discarded. A 2016 report found US and EU residents use 100 kilos of plastic for packaging annual, but only less than 10 percent of the plastic is recycled per year in America. The remainder, 22 million tons, goes to waste, with 22-43 percent ending up in landfills and the rest being littered or incinerated.
Recycling plastic at the national, community or individual levels is not just far and few in between; it is incredibly inefficient. HDPE, polystyrene, and PET are the plastic types which can be recycled. Polypropylene PP5, LDPE, Polyvinylchloride are sometimes easily recycled. But the most common plastics used, polycarbonate and polylactide for electrical, electronic or medical devices are not recycled. While most plastic can be recycled, one Columbia University study found HDPE, PS and PET recovered made up only 16.5 percent of plastic recycled, with 65% of other plastic ending up in the landfills.
What is interesting to note is that in a landfill, PET takes a decade to break down. PS takes 50, HDPE takes 100, LDPE takes 500, and PP takes double those years to break down. Research shows PET can even take fifty years to degrade fully, and this process can only occur faster if plastic undergoes light exposure. One study noted plastics take 2 to 4 centuries to decompose.
Toxic chemicals in plastic react to water and pollute groundwater and leach into the grounds. Bisphenol A is a known carcinogen while BPS and BPF or bisphenol S and F are known, hardening agents. Other plastic chemicals added as coloring agents or flame retardants impact hormonal activity. Phthalates are found in medical devices and food packages. BPA is found in 90% of premature babies.
Issues with Incineration
Incineration is another common plastic waste management technique. But it can also be dangerous to health, due to POPs/Persistent Organic Pollutants, toxic chemicals which cause harm when breathed in. Plastic like HDPE, PP, PS, and LDPE burn fast when exploding and cause drops. PET needs to ignite at higher temperatures for more extended periods. PVC and thicker plastics require higher temperatures still. PVC is acrid, when burnt and produces dioxins and toxins, causing severe health issues like nerve defects, cancer, congenital disabilities, developmental disorders, asthma, and multiple organ damage. Incineration remains a controversial way of disposing of plastic.
Problems of Marine Plastic
As plastic is mobile because of lightweight and low density, it impacts the marine ecosystems, with 10 percent of all plastic ending up in oceans. Marine plastic from illegal trash dumps and landfills reaches seas, rivers, oceans, and beaches. EPA has found that 80% of marine waste is from land sources, and ocean liners and platforms dump an additional 20%. Of this, 33-66 percent is single-use plastic. The different types of plastics causing marine pollution are listed below:
HDPE, PP, and LDPE are some of the floating plastics found in aquatic ecosystems. Gyres form when they accumulate on account of currents and cyclonic action. Certain gyres are colossal. The Great Pacific Ocean Garbage is one example of a marine plastic patch more massive than the Texan state. Large gyres have formed in the Atlantic and Indian oceans as well.
These plastics are heavy, dropping to the ocean’s floors. 1000s of animals from sharks and whales to small finches get caught in plastic fishing nets. Over 3 hundred species of marine animals eat plastic, thinking it is food. Close to 100K animals die each year, starving to death as plastic fills the stomach leaving no room for food. Others died due to the toxicity of the plastics.
Plastic breaks into micro-plastics quite rapidly. However, it takes a long time to decompose finally. Its small size causes tiny insects to consume it. Through the process of bioaccumulation, the plastic chemicals end up on the dinner plate. Here’s how it works. Animals eaten by bigger fish and sea life feed on plastic. Chemicals in them get concentrated as they move up the food ladder. Close to 67 percent of seafood and 25% of fishes caught in the US have plastic in them.
Recycling Plastic: Things You Should Know
Energy used to make plastic is considerable. Further, if a plastic product is thrown, it cannot be reused or made into plastic items. Base plastics in the article are wasted. Remember that raw materials are needed to create and manufacture plastics. Conserve water and energy by recycling plastics.
Then, there are also economic costs to consider. Beaches worldwide suffer from marine pollution and cleaning the beachfront costs money. Fishing industries lose millions as do shipping industries, on account of marine debris. The natural capital cost of USD 75 billion is estimated due to plastic use. GHG emissions due to petrol extract and energy use in production are the primary reason for this. Recycling of plastics can help save billions of dollars.
Reducing Plastic Waste
Decrease plastic production by recycling plastic. Without recycling and reworking, wasted plastic cannot be reused. The new plastic is made, requiring additional resources. Help save the environment by keeping wasted plastics out of landfills, oceans, and the atmosphere. Efforts to reduce plastic pollution are being made. The UK and the US have banned the distribution and manufacturing of toothpaste and cosmetics covering tiny microbeads.
Further, NYC has banned single-use plastic containers. Single-use plastic bags at Californian retail stores have also been banned. There’s a 10 cent charge for reusable plastic bags. Austria’s supermarket chains offer reusable bags only.
Plastic bags are hard to recycle. Further, they are often paired with hard plastics and jam the recycling machines as a result of this. Less than one percent of 4 trillion plastic bags end up recycled.
What You Can Do
So, the most crucial step you can take is to use less plastic to start with. If consumers don’t demand plastic products, there will be no profits. Refuse plastic straws. Carry your bags. Another critical step is to spread awareness. Secondly, spread awareness about the health and environmental costs of plastic bags. If individuals understand society and their addiction to plastic, it could help in making a change for the better.
Finally, ensure that plastic is recycled to its end destination, rather than ending up in the environment. Banning plastic bags could solve the problem. Clean polluted rivers to prevent the garbage from entering the oceans.
Local organizations are also making an effort to clear up garbage landfills. Littering laws are not enough. Plastic littering has to be made less socially accepted. Improving recycling collections will ensure plastic bags are separated from other recyclables and freed from contamination while reaching the right destination.
Landfills cannot contain plastic. New uses for plastic are being tried by scientists who have researched how to dissolve plastic. States like Maharashtra in India are trying to build 10K km of roads using 50K tons of plastic waste.
Finding ways to solve the problem is essential. In the US, new businesses are coming up for recycling plastic. Asian countries like China are refusing to accept plastic waste countries are sending it to recycle due to a detrimental impact on the environment. Along with these ideas, businesses also need to be environmentally friendly.
Plastics take a long time to break down. Vast levels of plastics in oceans, landfills and remote areas paint a bleak picture for the future. The key is to reduce the plastic products purchased and used. This will reduce exposure to plastic pollution.
Small steps can go a long way in combating plastic pollution. Use glass or steel instead of plastic. Switch to reusable grocery bags or cloth bags made of lightweight mesh. Don’t buy packaged foods processed in plastic.
Next, replace plastic bags and plastic containers with safer options. Note that plastic bags, plastic wrap, and thin plastic storage containers are a significant source of plastic exposure. Switch to stainless steel or glass for storage. Try unbreakable options like silicon.
You can try wooden or metal items for daily use. Always bring your glass or thermos for buying beverages and avoid Styrofoam containers for takeout food. Consider using cloth diapers and glass or metal cutlery/crockery instead of plastic. Recycle whenever possible.
Frequently Asked Questions
How much plastic do we produce?
Plastic of around 2 mt was produced in the 50s, and by 2015, the production rose to 381 mt. This means a 200x times growth in the production of plastic. In 2010, plastic production was 270 mt, but the plastic waste was 275 mt. So, even if plastic production comes down, what is important here is to recycle.
How much oil is needed to produce plastic?
The estimates vary, but most peg it at 4 to 8% of global oil consumption, and 6% is the middle range.
How does plastic in the ocean come about?
Around 3% of global yearly plastic waste enters the oceans. Mismanaged waste in coastal areas where there are open landfills or dumps is a crucial problem. In low to middle-income countries, waste management is less effective, especially in East Asia, Pacific, South Asia, Africa, and MENA regions. River inputs are the key source of plastic in the ocean. Top 20 polluting rivers account for two-thirds of the global data. A majority of these rivers are in Asia. When waste is not formally managed, it also enters oceans through inland waterways, outflows, and wind or tidal waves.
Which sectors use the most plastic?
The packaging is the primary sector accounting for 42% of plastic consumption in 2016. Another industry is construction. As packaging has a lower product lifetime, it creates a lot of plastic waste.
Does marine plastic debris come from fishing activities?
Estimates suggest 80% of global marine plastics come from the land, while 20 percent form fishing activities, like discarded plastic nets, fishing lines or even abandoned ships and vessels. The contribution of different sources varies depending on the context and geographical location. Plastic lines, ropes, and fishing nets comprise 52% of the plastic mass in the Great Pacific Garbage patch, for example. This is due to excessive fishing activity in the Pacific Ocean.
What is the problem with landfills?
One way to describe plastic waste disposal is through landfills, disposal sites for materials through burials. In high-income countries, there are professionally managed. But, in low-income countries, uncontrolled and mismanaged open landfills, dumps or pits make environmental plastic and marine plastic pollution a reality.
Well-managed landfills gather, compact and store waste. This involves covering or burying soils or other materials. Landfills generate GHG like CH4 and CO2. Plastic degrades over a very long time. Another problem is if decomposing material produces leachate or polluted waters that enter the soil and waterways, there can be environmental contamination.
If plastic waste is not handled correctly, PVC mater can leach chemicals. EU Commission found leachate of substances at landfills can only be controlled if there are adequate liner and leachate treatment.
How does the incineration of plastic waste impact the environment?
Incineration is when material like plastic is burnt. Unfortunately, burnt plastic generates CO2. The efficiency of the incineration process determines whether it can be useful. Across countries like the EU, incineration energy recovery can reduce emissions. However, a common cause of concern is that incineration releases toxic emissions within the environment, caused by incomplete combustion of PE, PP, PS which releases CO and noxious gases, and PVC which produces dioxins. Open, uncontrolled plastic burning should, therefore, be avoided. It also depends on the efficiency and environmental controls of the site for incineration. Modern incinerators should be able to deal with dioxin or toxin emissions without impacting the environment. Technologies here include effective combustion, selective catalytic reduction, and use of inhibitors. But such incinerator technologies or standards are not implemented in every place. In countries where environmental regulation is less strict, open burning or unsafe disposal of municipal waste remains common.
Recycling, Landfill, or Incineration: Which should be chosen?
There are three key options for handling plastic waste such as recycling, disposal in a landfill, or incineration. It all depends on the efficiency of landfill or incinerator sites. If processes at these sites are not in place, recycling is a better option. Regarding plastic that is not recyclable, it should either be sent to the landfill or incinerator depending on the plastic-type and the GHG emission and energy use of incinerators. Across some countries in Europe, for example, discharges are favorable when incineration efficiency is low. Where landfills are limited or poorly managed, incineration may be better
Is it helpful to separate recycled material at home?
Having a separate bin for recyclable and non-recyclable material can be beneficial. If recyclable material is placed in general waste bins, it could erroneously be placed in landfills. Remember that non-recyclable plastics can contaminate the supply. While some facilities may have automated procedures for removing non-recyclables, they are not 100% effective. If waste loads contain a massive amount of non-recyclables, facilities may see them as non-economic. Further, unwashed plastics can contaminate the entire supply.
Are all types of plastics easy to recycle?
A wide range of polymers is used in conventional plastics. Each of these has different properties and are appropriate for different uses. Structures of polymers also help in determining the recyclability of plastic. While some polymers don’t break down due to thermal or mechanical stress, this can impact their ability to be recycled.
How many times can plastic be recycled?
It is commonly conceived that most plastics can be recycled several times over. However, a majority of recyclable plastics can only be recycled once or twice before landing in the incinerator or landfill. Research shows that of plastic recovered to date, 10% has been recycled more than once. This generally ends up in the municipal waste stream. Limits to repeated recycling are due to thermal breakdown, which degrades material quality. Secondary or recycled plastics are of low practical or economic value.
How long does plastic take to break down?
Most plastics are non-degradable, which means they fail to compose and are instead broken into smaller particles. These materials can break down through photodegradation from UV radiation, whereas estimated decomposition time for plastics and other typical marine debris items may vary. Fishing lines take 600 years to break down. Plastic bottles take 4.5 centuries.
What are bioplastics?
Bioplastics are biodegradable plastics. The production of these bioplastics is presently low, estimated at around 4MT per year. Biodegradable plastics break down at faster rates than standard plastics. But sometimes, this may not be eco-friendly. For example, oxo-degradable plastics with additives break down faster but break plastics into microplastics. This is more so with biodegradable plastics. The labels of biodegradable, compostable, and bio-based vary, as a result of this. Biodegradable plastics need particular methods of waste management.
Are alternatives to plastic better for the environment?
Plastics are an environmental concern, impacting health and marine life. Overpackaging and overuse of plastic should, therefore, be avoided. The packaging is taken for granted in many countries. Results of studies show plastic bag alternatives like cloth bags can be reused n number of times. So, it is better to opt for recyclable or cloth bags and other plastic options, as these are practical and economically beneficial.
What are Microplastics?
Microplastics have received plenty of scrutinies. A microplastic is a plastic of small particle size. Microplastics are plastic particles with diameters lower than 5 millimeters or 4.75 millimeters in some cases. Nanoplastics are those plastic particles, which measure less than 0.0001 millimeters. Microplastic can arise through secondary or primary processes. Primary microplastics are small in size and production. Natural sources include fibers, microbeads, pellets, and capsules. Secondary microplastics result from the breakdown of larger plastic products. For instance, when particles are exposed to natural environments, weathering occurs, which degrades them into smaller particles. A challenge of microplastics is there tiny size makes them easy to ingest. This can impact the food chain and human life.
Do plastic impact marine and human life?
Yes, there are many cases of plastic ocean debris impacting aquatic life, triggering deaths due to toxicity. Plastic also affects human health. So, it is essential to cut out non-essential plastics, wherever possible. Replace single-use plastics with alternative substitutes that are sustainable. Recycling plastic works best. Always check your recycling guidelines from civic authorities.
How can we remove the plastic in the oceans?
Plastic removal is a significant challenge. Further, plastics in the oceans break down into smaller particles. Tiny microparticles are challenging to remove. Technologies for plastic removal focus on more massive particles. Some projects like The Ocean Cleanup in the US focus on the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. The technology uses buoyant tubes to capture plastic as small as one centimeter.
Can plastic be broken down using wax worms?
In 2017, researchers discovered the larvae of wax moth, wax worms, could break down PE or polyethylene, which is mostly non-degradable. The rates may be slow, but the discovery could lead to further understanding of how to use enzymes to break down plastic. It is possible to produce the enzyme or bacteria to secrete the given enzyme at industrial scales.
Can Bacteria Break Down Plastic?
Particular strains of bacteria are also useful in breaking down plastic waste. The Japanese researchers found Ideonella sakaiensis /201 F6, a bacteria which could digest PET or single-use plastic bottles. By secreting enzyme PETase, the bacteria accelerate reactions splitting PET chemical bonds. Further, the bacteria absorb the small molecules left behind, which can be used as fuel or food.
Thus, plastic can be detrimental to health. How we use plastic determines the future of the human race. Plastic can be a real menace for environmental and human health reasons. Although it is a necessary evil, the overuse of plastic bags and other items should be avoided. Plastic remains a big question mark as humanity confronts the implications for health. While most countries are thinking of banning or discouraging single-use plastic, a concentrated effort also needs to be made to improve recycling technologies for saving marine and human life.