A medical doctor and epidemiologist with decades of experience in pollution’s impact on the health of people, animals, and nature reminded a national audience recently that “disease, disability, and death occur across the whole life cycle of plastic,” from production through use and disposal.
The increasingly destructive nature of plastic has become a familiar story in recent years, but the speaker, Philip J. Landrigan, director of Boston College’s Global Public Health Program, tried to soften the dour information with reminders of public actions that have reversed the harms of pollution in the past. Among them: the Clean Air Act of 1970, the banning of DDT, and the removal of lead from gasoline and paint, all from the ’70s.
Further, Landrigan said, some states and communities are now taking up arms against the public health dangers and environmental assaults of plastic with policies like bottle deposit-and-return systems, bans on plastic shopping bags — which the Rhode Island General Assembly passed last year and which takes effect in 2024 — and policies that require manufacturers to help pay for disposal of plastic waste from their products.
Landrigan’s online talk was hosted by Beyond Plastics¸ a Vermont-based advocacy group that disseminates information on harms of and alternatives to plastics.
Production, use, and disposal of plastics for broad consumer use got underway around 1950. At the time, single-use plastics such as tableware were promoted and praised for their throw-away convenience. Plastic production has skyrocketed in recent years as the oil and gas industry see their profits from fossil fuels endangered by more renewable sun and wind energy and the increasing electrification of buildings and transportation.
Landrigan showed a graph illustrating the growth of global plastic production. In 1955, 1.7 million tons of plastic was produced globally; that annual figure rose to more than 400 million tons in 2015.
Plastic is made primarily with fossil fuels, along with thousands of chemical additives, all produced by the fossil fuel and petrochemical industries. On the consumer level, the worst offender is single-use plastics such as soda bottles and shopping bags. The use-once-and-discard ethic of single-use plastics like food and consumer goods packaging is “turning our oceans into a watery landfill,” said Judith Enck, president of Beyond Plastics.
Experts have said that even with the best intentions, plastic recycling — never higher than 8% in the United States — cannot work because plastic products are so full of chemical additives that can’t be removed from plastic material, making recycled plastic unsafe for later uses. In fact, Landrigan said, most plastic that is collected for recycling ultimately gets burned or buried.
Landrigan laid the groundwork for his talk by explaining that plastic is wholly synthetic and made with a carbon-based, polymer backbone to which “thousands” of other chemicals and additives are attached.
Additives can be carcinogens, neurotoxins, and endocrine disruptors. Since the 1950s, Landrigan said, 350,000 chemicals and chemical mixtures have been created and inserted into millions of products and disseminated throughout the environment.
He said more than 8,300 million tons of plastic have been manufactured since 1950, and production is expected to double by 2040 and triple by 2060. Single-use plastics account for about 40% of plastics being produced.
Alarmingly, there is almost no oversight over the health effect of new petrochemicals created to go into plastics.
“New chemicals are introduced with enthusiasm and little due diligence,” he said. “Manufacturers have no obligation to report new chemicals to the government. Then, belatedly, [some chemicals] are found to cause harm to the environment and to children’s health.”
Plastics, including microplastics, the tiny bits that break down and scatter from the depths of the oceans to the Arctic, are found everywhere on Earth.
A few groups can stand in as representatives for the worst harmed. At the production end, enormous petrochemical plants are located in this country near communities that tend to be poorer, non-white, and politically powerless. Landrigan illustrated this glaring streak of environmental injustice with pictures of huge ethane cracker plants in modest communities near Pittsburgh, Pa., and Port Comfort, Texas. Ethane cracker plants perform the first step in transforming ethane — an element of natural gas — into plastic products. These communities are susceptible to fires, release of dangerous gases, leaks and spills during production and transit of fuels and chemicals. Workers at the plants face these types of risks daily.
A group heavily harmed by use of plastics are fetuses and newborns, who absorb microplastics through the mother’s body and breast milk, and young children, who are especially sensitive to plastic chemicals that leach into our food and beverages because their bodies and systems are developing so fast. Landrigan, who is co-author of the book “Children and Environmental Toxins. What Everyone Needs to Know,” said, “Toxic chemicals can damage babies and children at the lowest detectable levels.”
“Brain damage caused by plastic chemicals can contribute to autism, ADHD and IQ loss,” Landrigan said. “The only treatment is prevention of exposure.”
And, disposal of waste plastic hammers oceans and sea creatures in the form of large objects like plastic fishing gear entangling whales and turtles to microplastics getting absorbed into the bodies of fish, and from there sometimes into human consumers. Landrigan said 8-12 million tons of plastic is estimated to go into the oceans every year.
Production of plastics — led by single-use plastics — is ramping up rapidly, Landrigan said, because the “fossil fuel and carbon industry is pivoting away from producing fuel” as a result of the global transition to green energy.
He said operation like ExxonMobil, Gulf, and Chevron are vertically integrated and control their entire supply chain, so they are well positioned to redirect their investments into plastics and petrochemicals. Also, there has been “an enormous expansion of oil and gas due to fracking,” making the United States now the “world’s largest gas and oil producer.”
And all of that carbon-based fuel needs to be used somewhere.
Landrigan said some scientists are now “concerned that, like climate change and biodiversity loss, plastic and chemical pollution may be nearing a tipping point, where it could cause irreversible damage.”
Possibly to forestall a tsunami of despair in his audience, Landrigan shifted to areas of hope. He said high- and some moderate-income countries are now enacting law and policy to curb the creation, use, and disposal of plastics.
In the United States, the Clean Air Act has led to a 75% reduction in air pollution. Boston Harbor and Chesapeake Bay, to cite two examples, have largely been cleaned of pollutants. Bans on lead in gasoline and paint from the late 1970s have led to a 95% percent reduction of brain-damaging lead in American children. The ban of the pesticide DDT has allowed endangered species like eagles and osprey to rebound. The Food Quality Protection Act of 1996 orders the federal government to track data on pesticide residue commodities most frequently consumed by infants and children.
In the arena of plastics, communities have banned single-use plastics; one of the most effective methods to control plastic and thus litter is bottle bills that require and refund a deposit for drink bottles. A system called extended producer responsibility (EPR), of which a bottle bill is a variation, requires manufacturers to pay for disposal of their packaging. (An EPR bill was introduced into the General Assembly last year, but failed to move out of committee.)
Landrigan said he recommends laws and policies to: require that petrochemicals be proven safe before they enter the market; eliminate unnecessary uses for single-use plastics; require plastic manufacturers to contribute money to remediation of plastic waste; design safer and more-sustainable materials; establish wide-scale human biomonitoring; and strengthen international agencies working on this problem.