What we do to the world, we do to ourselves. Since the 1950s plastic has proliferated everywhere. Eight billion tonnes has been thrown away. Nine percent of that has been recycled, and twelve percent has been incinerated. 1.9 million fragments of microplastic were recently found in one square metre of ocean bed.
Plastic is so convenient that humans and every other species are constantly exposed to the stuff. Unfortunately, it’s fundamentally toxic.
What’s wrong with it?
Plastic has been blamed for contributing to skyrocketing rates of prostate and breast cancer, dropping fertility rates in men, increased heart disease, allergies, ADHD, asthma and diabetes.
While the jury is still out on exactly how much plastic is to blame for these illnesses (it’s impossible to find a control group who haven’t been exposed to plastic already), the basic mechanisms of harm are understood.
The problem is that plastics are made from a long list of different chemicals which help these products deal with light, humidity, and temperature; to make them less flammable or more flexible.
Many of these substances are imperfectly chemically bound, which means that under certain circumstances (particularly heat) they can evaporate into air, absorb into skin, or leach into food and drink. This is why plastic comes in different grades, but it’s an inexact science.
For example, BPA (bisphenol A) is an industrial chemical which is found in numerous plastics and resins, including water bottles. It’s used to coat the insides of metal cans and bottles, and on thermal paper, like receipts.
In most countries BPA is still allowed at low concentrations, despite the fact that it’s been linked to health effects on the brains and prostate glands of fetuses, infants and children. Worryingly, BPA-free plastics have also been found to show estrogenic activity.
User pays, and everyone else too
Apart from the direct risks to people handling plastic products as end-users, the greater risk is to the biosphere.
Plastic manufacture leads to large amounts of toxic chemicals being released, many of which are carcinogenic or neurotoxic. These include vinyl chloride from PVC, dioxins and benzene from polystyrene, and formaldehyde from polycarbonates.
Many of these toxins are known as POPs (persistent organic pollutants), which means they aren’t going anywhere in a hurry.
Beyond all this, plastic is a fossil fuel product, which means it’s contributing to the climate emergency. As the price of oil collapses, manufacturers are trying to find more uses for the stuff.
It’s even cheaper to make plastic from gas, which helps explain why half the plastic that has ever existed in the world was made in the last 16 years.
Just say no
It’s very hard to get plastic out of your life completely, but many people are trying.
A young inventor is hard at work cleaning up plastic rubbish in the ocean.
After consumer pressure, Lego are moving to make all their products from non-fossil fuel plastic. The idea that single use plastic bags would disappear from supermarkets seemed impossible a few years ago. The Nude Your Food movement takes that further.
For drinking water, reusable stainless steel products like Earth Bottles are a great alternative to plastic bottles, and you can also explore all the new packaging options made from hemp, sugar waste and corn starch.
Take your own non-plastic bag when you shop. Where possible, don’t buy products wrapped in plastic. If you see plastic rubbish somewhere it shouldn’t be, take a photo and #trashtag it on social media with the brand. Manufacturers will not take responsibility for their products unless they’re forced to.
If you must use plastic, try not to get it hot! Your body will thank you.