Plastics, Health & the Environment

Health Effects

Aside from the negative impacts linked to the manufacturing of plastics, there are a number of health concerns associated with being exposed to chemicals found in many plastics. Many of these chemicals have been identified as carcinogens and endocrine disruptors (endocrine disruptors can cause cancer, birth defects, immune system suppression, and developmental problems in children).

Because of the vast quantity of chemical compounds used in the production of plastics, it is difficult to get an exhaustive list of all the chemicals that cause harm to human health. To make things more difficult, there is often not enough research conducted to determine whether chemicals, some of which are used extensively by industry, are harmful or not. However, there are some prominent classes of chemicals found in plastics that have been highlighted as being particularly hazardous. These include Bisphenols (such as Bisphenol A (BPA) and more recently substitutes of BPA including Fluorene-9-bisphenol), Phthalates, and Vinyl Chlorides.

Environmental Degradation

The use of plastics has had a drastic and devastating impact on the environment at large. Environmental damage from the use of plastics primarily stems from the emissions produced during manufacturing, the waste resulting from mass global consumption, and the plastic contamination of many ecosystems including the ocean (Source).

Since the production of plastics was implemented on a broad scale in the 1950’s, humans have produced more than 8.3 billion metric tons of plastics. In 2016 alone over 335 million metric tons of plastics were produced. During the manufacturing of this massive quantity of synthetic material, environmentally toxic chemicals such as benzene, toluene, and styrene are emitted. These chemicals cause cancer, neurological damage, and birth defects. Additionally, due to the energy intensive processes involved in their manufacturing, the production of plastics results in the emission of a significant portion of greenhouse gasses such as carbon dioxide, methane, and hydroflourocarbons (HFCs).

While the production of plastics cause substantial pollution, perhaps more harmful is the environmental degradation that plastics cause after production. Because many plastic products are single use, the majority of them quickly find their way to waste treatment facilities, or end up in the environment as litter. According to researchers at the University of Georgia, in 2016 approximately 6.3 billion metric tons of plastics had already become waste. While there have been significant efforts to improve recycling, only about 9% of plastic waste is recycled. 12% of the remaining plastic is incinerated and 79% accumulates in landfills, or ends up littered in the natural environment (Source). Plastics that end up in landfills take up to 450 years to decompose and leach pollutants into soil and waterways through runoff. While this is where vast quantities of plastic go, the oceans and other natural environments also suffer from contamination. Scientists determined that in 2010 alone, an estimated 8 million metric tons of plastics entered marine environments. 

Relevant Reports and News

» Why Plans to Turn America’s Rust Belt into a New Plastics Belt Are Bad News for the Climate
By Sharon Kelly, DeSmog Blog
October 28, 2018

» Greenhouse Gas Emissions From Plastics Are Predicted to Rise
By Kendra Pierre-Louis, New York Times
October 4, 2018

» Giant Trap Is Deployed to Catch Plastic Littering the Pacific Ocean
By Christina Caron, New York Times
September 9, 2018

» Floating Trash Collector Set to Tackle Pacific Garbage Patch
The Ocean Cleanup’s nearly 2,000-foot boom will collect ocean plastics from the gigantic garbage gyre over the next year.
By Laura Parker, National Geographic
September 7, 2018

» As Industry Pushes Billion-Dollar Fracked Petrochemical Projects, State Regulators Struggle To Keep Up
By Sharon Kelly, DeSmog
July 1, 2018

» Using less plastic leads to fewer harmful chemicals in the body
By Katherine Martinko,
May 11, 2018

» Great Pacific Garbage Patch Growing Rapidly, Study Shows
New analysis reveals the region contains as much as sixteen times more plastic than previously estimated, with pollution levels increasing exponentially.
Press Release,
March 22, 2018

» Finally, the world is talking about plastic pollution
By Katherine Martinko, Tree Hugger
January 24, 2018

» The Ocean Cleanup Unveils First Prototype
Press Release,
June 22, 2016

» The Ocean Cleanup Prepares For 2020 Pacific Cleanup, Successfully Completes Mega Expedition Reconnaissance Mission
Press Release,
August 23, 2015