The impacts of plastic pollution on human health can be categorized into direct and indirect. Immediate risks result from direct exposure to plastic particles and associated chemicals. Exposure to plastic occurs throughout its life cycle, from production and disposal to ingestion and wastewater. To combat the threat of plastic pollution on human health, effective solutions must be found to reduce plastic production, use, and disposal.
Plastic wastes are harmful to our environment, and ingestion of these substances may contaminate fish and enter the food chain. Different plastics are distributed throughout the ocean. Styrofoam, for example, breaks into tiny parts that sink further into the water. These fragments are spread across the ocean’s water column, where they act as sponges that absorb external toxins. When animals consume these wastes, they are exposed to the chemicals in the wastes, and in turn, we ingest them.
Plastics can contain other harmful additives. Some of these are carcinogens, endocrine disrupters, and neurotoxins. These chemicals are persistent in the environment and can cause diseases and affect people’s reproductive systems. The global community must act to curb the effects of plastic pollution on our health.
Microplastics have numerous negative health impacts on many cosmetic and cleaning products. The study authors cite shocking statistics about the amount of plastic used worldwide, including the fact that the production of plastic has increased from 2 million metric tons in 1950 to 380 million metric tons in 2015. More importantly, nearly 40 percent of all plastic used today is created for single-use packaging. This means that the harmful effects of plastic pollution are not limited to microplastics.
In addition to its detrimental effects on the environment, plastic products are also present in large amounts on land. These plastics contribute to the degradation of aquatic ecosystems and affect human health, and they are toxic and must be monitored. Taking preventive action to minimize the risk of plastic pollution on human health is vital in the quest for a healthy society and a healthy planet. For this reason, the issue of plastic waste is a growing concern in every community.
While plastics have become ubiquitous in our society, their history can be traced back to 1600 B.C. Humans first made use of natural rubber to form valuable objects. The use of plastics grew dramatically after 1839 with the discovery of polystyrene and vulcanized rubber. By the 1930s, bakelite, the first synthetic polymer, was everywhere. Moreover, mass production of plastics began ten years later, and plastics have continued to expand.
Impacts of plastic production and incineration on climate change
The production and incineration of plastics are two significant sources of greenhouse gas emissions with high global warming potential. In 2015, the U.S. plastics industry emitted 5.9 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (TCO2e). This figure does not include the estimated 32 percent of plastic packaging waste left unmanaged and incinerated without energy recovery. There are also several other environmental factors associated with plastic production and incineration.
The plastic industry’s plans will likely worsen these effects, making it nearly impossible to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Existing policies cannot curb plastic’s global warming potential. Current plans could increase global emissions to 2.8 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide annually by 2050, equivalent to the output of more than six hundred coal-fired power plants.
In 2008, the decomposition of plastic wastes released around 20 million metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Despite the benefits of incineration and using plastic waste in power plants, the energy required to produce single-use plastics trumps the benefits of incineration. Moreover, modern incinerators are expensive, and few are available, so most countries use less-efficient methods of burning plastic waste. This results in increased emissions and higher carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere.
While some plastics are disposed of in landfills, most of them do not undergo incineration. This process converts the plastic to raw petrochemicals for fuel or new plastic. In the United States, the plastic waste incineration process is responsible for about fifteen million tons of greenhouse gases every year. Further, the process of advanced recycling could have even more significant impacts on climate change.
The rapid expansion of the plastics industry has been spurred by the fracking industry, which also facilitates the industry’s growth. The production of plastics also relies on cracker plants, which are significant sources of greenhouse gas emissions and danger to surrounding communities. Cracker plants are strategically located in low-income and marginalized regions, which increases the risks of air pollution. Then, once plastic products are manufactured, they are sent to landfills, incinerated, and recycled, adding greenhouse gas emissions.
Fortunately, the impacts of plastics on climate change are lower than those of landfilling and recycling. However, incineration is still a significant source of waste, with the United States accounting for 60 percent of all plastic waste. Incineration of plastics also releases hazardous chemicals, heavy metals, and potentially carcinogenic particulate matter into the atmosphere. Compared to landfilling and recycling, plastic incineration has the lowest environmental impact of all the waste management methods.
Options for managing plastic waste
While there is no single solution to the plastic waste problem, several options have been proposed to manage this growing issue. Plastic emits heat-trapping gases at every stage of its life cycle. The “skip the straw” campaign has made reducing our use of plastics a global priority. Like the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives, other organizations have made it their mission to end waste incineration and reduce pollution.
Companies should strive to minimize waste during manufacturing regardless of the method chosen. The use of government-mandated programs, like the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES), can reduce the amount of plastic waste in landfills. Furthermore, corporations should be held responsible for the destruction their products generate, which means imposing a fee on raw plastics or implementing a deposit scheme.
Strategies for managing plastics include regulation of production and consumption, education and waste management, and improved recycling systems. These initiatives can reduce the amount of plastic waste entering the oceans and contribute to a circular economy. Further, they can enhance waste collection systems. Increasing the use of bio-based and biodegradable plastics, recycling plastic waste, and improving the recycling process’s efficiency are among the recommended strategies.