Plastics are carbon-based polymers made mostly from petroleum. They're incredibly versatile—by definition, the word plastic means flexible. They are used mostly for disposable, low-value items such as food-wrap and product packaging, but, there's nothing particularly disposable about most plastics. Scientists estimate that most plastics take a minimum of 450 years (NOAA, n.d.) to photodegrade naturally in the environment, which means they stay in the environment, forever—they will not biodegrade.
Getting rid of plastics is extremely difficult. When burnt, plastics release toxic chemicals such as dioxins. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) (n.d.), “Dioxins are known to cause cancer in animals and likely in humans. They may also cause other reproductive or developmental effects. Dioxins from municipal solid waste (MSW) combustion facilities are not present in the waste itself, they are by-products generated from the combustion of chlorinated wastes.” Though there have been improvements in incineration facilities, shut-downs and lawsuits for non-compliance with emissions thresholds highlight that waste-to energy has issues. Further, as incineration relies on a continuous stream of waste, it arguably not a deterrent to waste creation. From this perspective, incineration does not provide an incentive to limit the creation of waste, rather, it potentially justifies it (Arnold, 2016).
Recycling is costly because plastic comes in many different varieties, requiring each plastic to be recycled by a different process. There are also serious environmental, human health, and monetary costs associated with shipping plastics to other countries for recycling. Further, recycling is a downstream consumer-oriented activity; since more waste occurs in the production process, recycling is not sufficient to mitigate overall plastic waste (Monroe, 2014). Interestingly, the plastics industry itself has promoted plastic recyclability, “while continuing to promote the consumption of single-use plastics” (The Berkley Ecology Center, 1996).
From a human health perspective, plastic has the potential to leach the chemicals that comprise it into the food and beverages it holds. The most well-known of these chemicals is bisphenol-A, which was first used as a synthetic estrogen in the 1930s. During the plastic manufacturing process, not all BPA gets locked into chemical bonds; as a result, non-bonded, residual BPA can work itself free, especially when the plastic is heated, “whether it’s a baby bottle in the dishwasher, a food container in the microwave, or a test tube being sterilized in an autoclave… In recent years dozens of scientists around the globe have linked BPA to myriad health effects in rodents: mammary and prostate cancer, genital defects in males, early onset of puberty in females, obesity and even behavior problems such as attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder” (Hinterthuer, 2008) Other chemicals in plastic, phthalates are often used as softeners for PVC plastic, to make plastic more flexible. But, phthalates have been found to be harmful to human health. Bis(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate (DEHP), Benzyl butyl phthalate (BBP), Dibutyl phthalate (DBP), and Diisobutyl phthalate (DIBP) are classified as endocrine disruptors that are toxic to reproduction, which means that they may damage fertility or the unborn child (ECHA, n.d.). Both BPAs and phthalates are found in plastic containers available on the market today.
Plastic pollution is a significant problem and single-use plastic products are a major component of plastic pollution. The largest study to date revealed that single-use plastic items specific to take-out containers and beverages dominate global litter (Morales-Caselles et al., 2021). Data on the amount of plastic produced and discarded is not exact given plastic production has not been actively monitored but estimates have been imputed. By 2050 there will be more plastic in the oceans than fish (Kaplan, 2016) and similarly, at present production levels the greenhouse gas footprint of plastic will exceed that of coal by 2030 (Yang, 2021). To combat single-use plastic impacts, there is an immediate need to halt their production.
Arnold, C. (2016). Is sustainable trash burning a load of rubbish? Smithsonian, Retrieved from https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/burning-trash-solution-our-garbage-woes-or-are-advocates-just-blowing-smoke-180959924/.
ECHA. (n.d.). Chemicals in plastic products. Retrieved from https://chemicalsinourlife.echa.europa.eu/chemicals-in-plastic-products
EPA. (n.d.). Learn about dioxin. Retrieved from https://www.epa.gov/dioxin/learn-about-dioxin.
Hinterthuer, A. (2008). Safety Dance over Plastic. Scientific American, 299(3), 108-111.
Kaplan, S. (2021 January 20). By 2050, there will be more plastic than fish in the world’s oceans, study says. The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2016/01/20/by-2050-there-will-be-more-plastic-than-fish-in-the-worlds-oceans-study-says/
Monroe, L. (2014). Tailoring Product Stewardship and Extended Producer Responsibility To Prevent Marine Plastic Pollution. Tulane Environmental Law Journal, 27(2), 219-236.
Morales-Caselles, C., Viejo, J., Martí, E. et al. (2021).An inshore–offshore sorting system revealed from global classification of ocean litter. Nature Sustainability, 4. 484–493. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41893-021-00720-8
NOAA. (n.d.). Marine debris is everyone’s problem. Retrieved from https://www.whoi.edu/fileserver.do?id=107364&pt=2&p=88817.
The Berkeley Ecology Center. (1996). The Seven Myths of "Recycled" Plastic. Earth Island Journal, 11(4), 26-26.
Yang, M. (2021 October 21). US plastics to outstrip coal’s greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, study finds. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/oct/21/plastics-greenhouse-gas-emissions-climate-crisis