Why Are Single Use Plastics Bad?


Plastic has a pretty bad reputation for being toxic.  I am not a plastics expert but here is a brief rundown.

What is Plastic?

Plastics are chains of like molecules linked together (polymers).  Different polymer chains are used to make different plastics.  There are 7 different types of plastics which can be identified by a number on the bottom of the container.  For more information on the different types of plastics, their uses and health risks have a look here.

Why is Plastic a Risk to Human Health

There are two classes of chemicals used in the synthesis of plastics that are of critical concern for human health.  These are BPA and phthalates.

BPA is a recognised endocrine disruptor.  Since the 1940s it has been known to interfere with normal hormonal function.  BPA is also the basic building block for polycarbonate plastics such as those used for bottled water and food packaging.  The bonds in the polymer chain break down over time, when the plastics are washed repeatedly or exposed to sunlight and other stressors.  This causes the leaching of toxins.

Phthalates are used as plasticisers.  They are substances added to plastics to increase their flexibility, transparency, durability, and longevity.  The CDC suggested the effects of phthalates on human health be explored and as a result a stack of studies were undertaken and there is A LOT of information "out there" documenting a link between exposure to phthalates and asthma, ADHD and other behaviour issues, Autism spectrum disorders, breast cancer, obesity, type II diabetes, low IQ, neurodevelopment issues, altered reproductive development and male fertility issues.

There is momentum in regulating both BPA and phthalates.

So, using these items is a heath risk, and re-using them is more so.

But throwing them away is also a health risk.

Plastic was designed to be long lasting and durable.  It doesn't break down.  

AND, I'M SORRY TO SAY, RECYCLING IS NOT THE ANSWER.

National Geographic published an article last year citing a study undertaken at the University of Georgia that estimated 91% of plastic isn't recycled.  

NINETY ONE PERCENT.

This is a particularly staggering figure when you put it next to the amount of plastics we have produced in the past 60 years: 8.3 billion metric tons.

The article is worth a read and you can find it here.  But if you don't have time, I've collated the basics.

*In the last 60 years we have created 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic - most of which is disposable and ends up in the rubbish.

*Plastics take more than 400 years to decompose.

*Only 12% of plastics ever produced has been incinerated - the rest still exists in some form.

*Plastic production is estimated to have doubled every 15 years outpacing nearly every other man-made material.

*This extreme rate of acceleration in production has caused unprepared systems to break resulting in the leakage from global waste systems into the ocean that we are seeing.

*Half of all plastic produced is rubbish in its first year (compared to half of all steel produced, for example, which is used in construction with a decades long lifespan).

*40 percent of non fibre plastic is used in packaging.

*It is estimated that 8 million metric tons of plastic ends up in the oceans every year. (NatGeo gives a nice visual for this - 5 grocery bags of plastic trash for every foot of coastline around the globe)

"Of the 8.3 billion metric tons that has been produced, 6.3 billion metric tons has become plastic waste.  Of that, only nine percent has been recycled.  The vast majority - 79 percent - is accumulating in landfills or sloughing off in the natural environment as litter.  Meaning: at some point, much of it ends up in the ocean, the final sink."

So what are the repercussions of having all this plastic waste in landfil and the sea?

Plastic in Landfill

Plastic is an extremely valuable resource.  It is made from fossil fuels - natural resources such as oil, gas and coal that are non-renewable. As well as using valuable non-renewable resources to make plastic, we also use a lot of fuel, electricity and water to make products from plastic, package said products, and transport them to your friendly, local retailer.  So to have it sitting in landfill is an incredible waste.

But it's also a health risk.

Remember the toxins that were leaching from your plastic water bottle into the water?  Now it's leaching into the soil and ground water and making its way to our rivers and lakes.

Plastic in the Ocean

The ocean is what makes earth habitable... and we are killing it.

Plastics are killing our marine life at an alarming rate.  It has been estimated that 100,000 marine creatures die every year from marine entanglement.  And these are just the ones found.  Marine life is also mistaking marine plastics for food which, when ingested, can block airways or result in the animal becoming malnourished.

Here's a piece of trivia for you.  I only learned this last weekend and found it both fascinating and terrifying.  Plastic, which we know is a pollutant in itself, also attracts other pollutants.  Those phthalates (and other chemical additives) repel water and stick to other petroleum based objects (like plastic debris).  So the chemicals that leach out of plastic can accumulate on other plastics!

This is bad news for marine life that are mistaking the estimated 8 million tons of plastics that ends up in the ocean as food. Not only are the fishies in the sea gobbling up microplastics for their dinner, they are also ingesting leached toxins which have attached themselves to these microplastics!


Oh, and if you're a seafood eater, the plastics these fish are eating (and the toxins that have hitched a ride on these plastics) are making their way onto your plate.  A study undertaken by Ghent University in Belgium estimated that seafood eaters ingest up to 11,000 tiny pieces of plastic every year.  This is a figure that will only get worse as the problem of marine debris gets worse, and the long term health effects of accumulating microplastics in the body is yet unknown.

* * * * *

The short story is this - we are producing plastics - 50% of which is is rubbish in less than 12 months - at a staggering rate, and despite they myriad curbside collection programs only 9% of disposable plastics are being recycled.

It is a waste of a resource and a healthrisk.

And it's unnecessary.

WE CAN MAKE BETTER CHOICES

Saying no to single use items such as straws, water bottles, coffee cups and shopping bags is a great place to start.


If you want to share your tips and tricks on cutting down plastic consumption I'd love to hear from you!


Cath
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