Plastic is all around us. It forms much of the packaging for our food and drink. For many of us, it is throughout our home, our workplace, our car, the bus we take to and from work. It can be in our clothing, eyeglasses, teeth, toothbrush, computers, phones, dishes, utensils, toys. The list goes on, especially when you look around and begin to notice the plastic in your life.
Plastic is versatile, lightweight, flexible, moisture resistant, durable, strong and relatively inexpensive. It can be chemical resistant, clear or opaque, and practically unbreakable. These are wonderful useful qualities, and plastic plays many important roles in life on Earth, but the widespread use of plastic is also causing unprecedented environmental problems, and harbours serious health risks – especially for children. Plastic should be used wisely, with caution and only when suitable alternatives do not exist or are not available.
What is Plastic and Where did it Come From?
The term "plastic" derives from the Greek "plastikos," meaning fit for molding, and "plastos," meaning molded. In line with this root etymology, and in the broadest sense, a plastic is a material that at some stage in its manufacture is able to be shaped by flow such that it can be extruded, molded, cast, spun, or applied as a coating.
Plastics are polymers (meaning "many parts" in Greek), which are basically substances or molecules made up of many repeating molecular units, known as monomers (meaning "one part" in Greek). Monomers of hydrogen and carbon - hydrocarbons - are linked together in long chains to form plastic polymers. The raw hydrocarbon material for most synthetic plastics is derived from petroleum, natural gas or coal.
The length and structural arrangement of the polymer chains in part determines the properties of the plastic. Densely packed polymers can create a rigid plastic, whereas loosely spaced ones can lead to a softer more pliable plastic. However, the polymers alone rarely have the physical qualities to be of practical value, so most plastics contain various chemical additives to facilitate the manufacturing process or produce a particular desirable property, such as flexibility or toughness. As we discuss below, these chemical additives can be very problematic from a health perspective.
The first documented plastic was created in 1855 by the British inventor and metallurgist Alexander Parkes who used natural cellulose in combination with nitric acid and chemical solvents to create a plastic he patented as "Parkesine." The first totally human-made, completely synthetic plastic came about in 1907 when Belgian-born, New York-based Leo Baekeland used hydrocarbon chemicals he derived from coal to create Bakelite, which came to be used in radio and television casings, kitchenware and even toys.
And thus emerged the plastic era, especially taking off following World War II when all kinds of day to day household items began to be made of plastics.
Environmentally, plastic is a growing disaster. Most plastics are made from petroleum or natural gas, non-renewable resources extracted and processed using energy-intensive techniques that destroy fragile ecosystems.
The manufacture of plastic, as well as its destruction by incineration, pollutes air, land and water and exposes workers to toxic chemicals, including carcinogens.
Plastic packaging – especially the ubiquitous plastic bag – is a significant source of landfill waste and is regularly eaten by numerous marine and land animals, to fatal consequences. Synthetic plastic does not biodegrade. It just sits and accumulates in landfills or pollutes the environment. Plastics have become a municipal waste nightmare, prompting local governments all over the world to implement plastic bag, and increasingly polystyrene (styrofoam), bans.
Plastic pollution may not even be visible to the naked eye as research is showing that microscopic plastic particles are present in the air at various locations throughout the world and in all major oceans. Plastic is now ubiquitous in our terrestrial, aquatic and airborne environments - that is, it's everywhere.
For more information and references on the environmental issues related to plastics, see the Plastic Types, Plastics & the Environment, and Resources sections in our INFO menu.
In terms of health risks, the evidence is growing that chemicals leached from plastics used in cooking and food/drink storage are harmful to human health. Some of the most disturbing of these are hormone-mimicking, endocrine disruptors, such as bisphenol A (BPA) and phthalates.
The plastic polycarbonate - used for water bottles and various other items requiring a hard, clear plastic - is composed primarily of BPA. Peer-reviewed scientific studies have linked BPA to health problems that include chromosomal and reproductive system abnormalities, impaired brain and neurological functions, cancer, cardiovascular system damage, adult-onset diabetes, early puberty, obesity and resistance to chemotherapy. Exposure to BPA at a young age can cause genetic damage, and BPA has been linked to recurrent miscarriage in women.
The health risks of plastic are significantly amplified in children, whose immune and organ systems are developing and are more vulnerable. The evidence of health risks from certain plastics is increasingly appearing in established, peer-reviewed scientific journals.
Of the thousands of chemical additives added to plastics - and which manufacturers are not required to disclose - one type commonly added to plastics are "plasticizers," which are softening agents making it easier for the polymer chains to move and be flexible.
For example, the commonly used and extremely toxic plastic polyvinyl chloride (PVC) can contain up to 55% plasticizing additives by weight. These are generally phthalate chemicals. Phthalates are known to disrupt the endocrine system as well, and have been linked to numerous health conditions including cancers. Certain phthalates have been banned in Europe and the U.S. for use in certain products, such as toys.
For details and references on numerous types of plastics, please see the Plastic Types section.
For more information and references on the health issues related to plastics, see our Plastic Types, Plastics & Health, and Resources sections in our INFO menu.
Alternatives to Plastic do Exist -- so does Empowered Action!
What you have just read may have depressed you to no end. No, no, no. Don't despair! Feel empowered and educated. And don't just take our word on the plastic problem; follow some of the links in our Resources section and do more of your own research on the issues. It is time for all of us to take action and do our part to decrease our use of plastics and help solve the problems of plastic pollution.
There is a huge and growing community of like-minded folks out there all over the world who are working with you to decrease plastic use and pollution and create tangible change at all levels - personal, local, regional, national, global...
Please take a look at our Action section for ways that you can make a difference through individual actions in your own life and by supporting organizations working for change.
And there are many alternatives to plastics now available. Our Plastic Alternatives section highlights and provides information on numerous alternatives ranging from glass, wood and stainless steel to wool, hemp and cotton.
A key aspect of our Vision and Quest is to help people find safe, high quality, ethically sourced, Earth-friendly alternatives to plastic products. That is why our Store exists, so please feel free to browse the Store at your leisure. And if you can't find what you are looking for, please let us know. We are always adding new alternatives to plastics to our product line.
Thank you for visiting, and all the best on your plastic-free journey!
Key references for the above text:
- Anthony L. Andrady, ed. Plastics and the Environment. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2003.
- E.S. Stevens. Green Plastics: An Introduction to the New Science of Biodegradeable Plastics. Princeton & Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2002.
- Richard C. Thompson, Shanna H. Swan, Charles J. Moore, Frederick S. vom Saal. "Our Plastic Age." Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B. Vol. 364, No. 1526, 27 July 2009, pp. 1973-1976.
IMPORTANT NOTES: While we strive to provide as accurate and balanced information as possible on our website, Life Without Plastic cannot guarantee its accuracy or completness because there is always more research to do, and more up-to-date research studies emerging -- and this is especially the case regarding research on the health and environmental effects of plastics. As indicated in our Terms & Conditions, none of the information presented on this website is intended to be professional advice or to constitute a professional service to the individual reader. All matters regarding health require medical supervision, and the information presented on this website is not intended as a substitute for consulting with your physician.
Throughout our website, some technical terminology is used. In the interest of making the articles accessible and not too long, dry, or complex, technical terms may be hyper-linked to more detailed explanations and relevant reference material provided in Wikipedia. Please keep in mind that Wikipedia articles are written collaboratively by volunteers from all over the world and thus may contain inaccuracies. Life Without Plastic makes no guarantee of the validity of the information presented in Wikipedia articles to which we provide links. We suggest you read the Wikipedia General Disclaimer before relying on any information presented in a Wikipedia article.
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Plastic pollution, accumulation in the environment of man-made plastic products to the point where they create problems for wildlife and their habitats as well as for human populations. In 1907 the invention of Bakelite brought about a revolution in materials by introducing truly synthetic plastic resins into world commerce. By the end of the 20th century, however, plastics were found to be persistent polluters of many environmental niches, from Mount Everest to the bottom of the sea. Whether being mistaken for food by animals, flooding low-lying areas by clogging drainage systems, or simply causing significant aestheticblight, plastics have attracted increasing attention as a large-scale pollutant.
The problem of plastics
Plastic is a polymeric material—that is, a material whose molecules are very large, often resembling long chains made up of a seemingly endless series of interconnected links. Natural polymers such as rubber and silk exist in abundance, but nature’s “plastics” have not been implicated in environmental pollution, because they do not persist in the environment. Today, however, the average consumer comes into daily contact with all kinds of man-made plastic materials that have been developed specifically to defeat natural decay processes—materials derived mainly from petroleum that can be molded, cast, spun, or applied as a coating. Since synthetic plastics are largely nonbiodegradable, they tend to persist in natural environments. Moreover, many lightweight, single-use plastic products and packaging materials, which account for approximately 50 percent of all plastics produced, are not deposited in containers for subsequent removal to landfills, recycling centres, or incinerators. Instead, they are improperly disposed of at or near the location where they end their usefulness to the consumer. Dropped on the ground, thrown out of a car window, heaped onto an already full rubbish bin, or inadvertently carried off by a gust of wind, they immediately begin to pollute the environment. Indeed, landscapes littered by plastic packaging have become common in many parts of the world. (Illegal dumping of plastic and overflowing of containment structures also play a role.) Studies from around the world have not shown any particular country or demographic group to be most responsible, though population centres generate the most litter. The causes and effects of plastic pollution are truly worldwide.
According to the trade association PlasticsEurope, world plastic production grew from some 1.5 million tons in 1950 to an estimated 275 million tons in 2010; some 4 million to 12 million tons is discarded into the oceans annually by countries with ocean coastlines. Compared with materials in common use in the first half of the 20th century, such as glass, paper, iron, and aluminum, plastics have a low recovery rate. That is, they are relatively inefficient to reuse as recycled scrap in the manufacturing process, due to significant processing difficulties such as a low melting point, which prevents contaminants from being driven off during heating and reprocessing. Most recycled plastics are subsidized below the cost of raw materials by various deposit schemes, or their recycling is simply mandated by government regulations. Recycling rates vary dramatically from country to country, with only northern European countries obtaining rates greater than 50 percent. In any case, recycling does not really address plastic pollution, since recycled plastic is “properly” disposed of, whereas plastic pollution comes from improper disposal.
Plastic pollution in oceans and on land
Since the ocean is downstream from nearly every terrestrial location, it is the receiving body for much of the plastic waste generated on land. Between 4.8 million and 12.7 million tonnes (between 5.3 million and 14 million tons) of debris end up in the world’s oceans every year, and much of it is improperly discarded plastic litter. The first oceanographic study to examine the amount of near-surface plastic debris in the world’s oceans was published in 2014. It estimated that at least 5.25 trillion individual plastic particles weighing roughly 244,000 tonnes (269,000 tons) were floating on or near the surface. Plastic pollution was first noticed in the ocean by scientists carrying out plankton studies in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and oceans and beaches still receive most of the attention of those studying and working to abate plastic pollution. Floating plastic waste has been shown to accumulate in five subtropical gyres that cover 40 percent of the world’s oceans. Located at Earth’s midlatitudes, these gyres include the North and South Pacific Subtropical Gyres, whose eastern “garbage patches” (zones with high concentrations of plastic waste circulating near the ocean surface) have garnered the attention of scientists and the media. The other gyres are the North and South Atlantic Subtropical Gyres and the Indian Ocean Subtropical Gyre.
In the ocean, plastic pollution can kill marine mammals directly through entanglement in objects such as fishing gear, but it can also kill through ingestion, by being mistaken for food. Studies have found that all kinds of species, including small zooplankton, large cetaceans, most seabirds, and all marine turtles, readily ingest plastic bits and trash items such as cigarette lighters, plastic bags, and bottle caps. Sunlight and seawater embrittle plastic, and the eventual breakdown of larger objects makes it available to zooplankton and other small marine animals. In addition to being nonnutritive and indigestible, plastics have been shown to concentrate pollutants up to a million times their level in the surrounding seawater and then deliver them to the species that ingest them. In one study, levels of polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB), a lubricant and insulating material that is now widely banned, were shown to have increased significantly in the preen gland oil of streaked shearwaters (Calonectris leucomelas) after these seabirds had been fed plastic pellets culled from Tokyo Bay for only one week.
There are also terrestrial aspects to plastic pollution. Drainage systems become clogged with plastic bags, films, and other items, causing flooding. Land birds, such as the reintroduced Californiacondor, have been found with plastic in their stomachs, and animals that normally feed in waste dumps—for instance, the sacred cows of India—have had intestinal blockages from plastic packaging. The mass of plastic is not greater than that of other major components of waste, but it takes up a disproportionately large volume. As waste dumps expand in residential areas, the scavenging poor are often found living near or even on piles of residual plastics.
Pollution by plastics additives
Plastic also pollutes without being littered—specifically, through the release of compounds used in its manufacture. Indeed, pollution of the environment by chemicals leached from plastics into air and water is an emerging area of concern. As a result, some compounds used in plastics, such as phthalates, bisphenol A (BPA), and polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE), have come under close scrutiny and regulation. Phthalates are plasticizers—softeners used to make plastic products less brittle. They are found in medical devices, food packaging, automobile upholstery, flooring materials, and computers as well as in pharmaceuticals, perfumes, and cosmetics. BPA, used in the manufacture of clear, hard polycarbonate plastics and strong epoxy coatings and adhesives, is present in packaging, bottles, compact discs, medical devices, and the linings of food cans. PBDE is added to plastics as a flame retardant. All these compounds have been detected in humans and are known to disrupt the endocrine system. Phthalates act against male hormones and are therefore known as anti-androgens; BPA mimics the natural female hormoneestrogen; and PBDE has been shown to disrupt thyroid hormones in addition to being an anti-androgen. The people most vulnerable to such hormone-disrupting chemicals are children and women of reproductive age.
These compounds have also been implicated in hormone disruption of animals in terrestrial, aquatic, and marine habitats. Effects are seen in laboratory animals at blood levels lower than those found in the average resident of a developed country. Amphibians, mollusks, worms, insects, crustaceans, and fish show effects on their reproduction and development, including alterations in the number of offspring produced, disruption of larval development, and (in insects) delayed emergence—though studies investigating resulting declines in those populations have not been reported. Studies are needed to fill this knowledge gap, as are studies of the effects of exposure to mixtures of those compounds on animals and humans.
Solving the problem
Given the global scale of plastic pollution, the cost of removing plastics from the environment would be prohibitive. Most solutions to the problem of plastic pollution, therefore, focus on preventing improper disposal or even on limiting the use of certain plastic items in the first place. Fines for littering have proved difficult to enforce, but various fees or outright bans on foamed food containers and plastic shopping bags are now common, as are deposits redeemed by taking beverage bottles to recycling centres. So-called extended producer responsibility, or EPR, schemes make the manufacturers of some items responsible for creating an infrastructure to take back and recycle the products that they produce. Awareness of the serious consequences of plastic pollution is increasing, and new solutions, including the increasing use of biodegradable plastics and a “zero waste” philosophy, are being embraced by governments and the public.Charles Moore