It’s no secret that our dependence on cheaply made and readily discarded plastics is causing myriad problems for marine life — and that the chemicals used in plastic production are also creating human health risks.
Less clear is the story of how we got here and, more important, what we can do to help mitigate the global plastic crisis.
The steps can be simple and direct, like reducing our own single-use plastic consumption. Or they can be broader, such as joining the growing low-waste and minimalist movements that challenge our convenience-based, disposable society and inspire us to be more intentional about what and how we consume — or don’t consume.
But consumers aren’t the only potential actors. Shifting toward healthier, more sustainable lifestyles and more just, circular economies also requires those sitting in positions of power, as well as businesses and manufacturers, to heed the urgent calls to action.
A Brief History of Plastics
From chewing gum to construction materials, plastic is a ubiquitous presence in our lives.
The plastic age began in the 1860s, when John Wesley Hyatt invented the first breakthrough synthetic polymer as a substitute for ivory, which was used in everything from combs to piano keys. In 1907, Belgian chemist Leo Hendrik Baekeland created the first fully synthetic, commercially successful plastic to replace shellac (which is a moldable resin made from insects with waxy shells).
The need to preserve natural resources during World War II sparked the first major expansion of the industry, but the biggest plastic boom began two decades later — a twentyfold increase in production between 1964 and 2014. In 2014, manufacturers produced 311 million tons, a number projected to double by 2034 and almost quadruple by 2050.
About 6 percent of global oil supplies are used to make plastics, a number that is expected to grow to 20 percent within 30 years. By some estimates, the oil and gas industry has invested more than $180 billion in new facilities since 2010 to produce the raw materials for plastic packaging.
Burning fossil fuels emits excess amounts of carbon dioxide, disturbing the delicate balance of Earth’s natural carbon cycle. The cycle depends on animals (including humans) exhaling carbon dioxide, which plants absorb and use to produce oxygen.
But the production of plastics tips the scale toward carbon dioxide. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that producing 1 ounce of polyethylene (PET) — commonly used to create beverage bottles — creates approximately 1 ounce of carbon dioxide. Other sources suggest that the ratio of plastic production to carbon emissions may be as much as 1:5.
In 2017, the industry generated 35.4 million tons of plastic in the United States alone. Estimates of worldwide consumption range as high as 100 million tons annually — meaning global plastic production may account for between 100 million and 500 million tons of carbon dioxide every year.
To reshape the industry, some researchers are returning to its roots. Before Baekeland’s successful petro-plastic, manufacturers preferred plant cellulose. In the 1940s, for instance, Henry Ford even experimented with producing car parts from soybeans.
Some manufacturers are using cellulose from corn stalks, which naturally decompose, to produce cellophane for wrapping food or rayon fibers for textiles. Penn State and Harvard researchers are even trying to make bioplastics from shrimp and other animal sources.
Polylactic acid (PLA), derived from corn starch or chains of sugars fused together and designed to decompose over months or years, has shown promise as an alternative to PET-based products. (You’ve likely encountered it if you’ve used compostable plastic bags, bottles, or utensils.) It’s also used in manufacturing clothing fiber.
These fresh takes on old technology may not be a panacea, though. University of Sheffield researchers found that such bioplastics did not break down as easily as expected. Further, they questioned the costs and carbon emissions involved in fertilizing, harvesting, and transporting the bio-based materials.
Mixing PLA plastics with conventional PET may create a weaker product, making the whole batch unfit for use and possibly increasing the cost of recycled materials. Still, these are worthwhile research efforts and the technology is likely to improve.
While researchers continue to experiment with making plastic from plant and animal sources, Ted Sargent, PhD, and his team of chemists at the University of Toronto are exploring ways to turn carbon dioxide itself into plastic.
“CO2 has low economic value, which reduces the incentive to capture it before it enters the atmosphere,” says Sargent. “Converting it into ethylene, one of the most widely used industrial chemicals in the world, transforms the economics. Renewable ethylene provides a route to displacing the fossil fuels that are currently the primary feedstock for this chemical.”
A Lasting Problem
Industries of all kinds use plastics because they’re cheap, lightweight, moldable, noncorrosive, and durable. But their durability has become a costly global problem. Nearly every piece of plastic ever made still exists.
Some 6.3 billion tons of plastic waste has been produced to date, and only about 9 percent has been recycled. The European Union boasts the highest rates, while the developing world recycles almost none.
Unlike wood, plant matter, food scraps, and other organic materials, petroleum-based plastics are unrecognizable to detritivores — beetles, earthworms, fungi, and certain bacteria essential to decomposition. They instead rely on sunlight to break them down into smaller and smaller pieces. Some, known as microplastics, are about the size of a sesame seed.
That means the plastic buried in landfills doesn’t degrade in the way organic materials do. And stray plastics and microplastics that happen to avoid the landfill end up in our air, soil, and waterways. Nearly 9 million tons of plastic garbage land in our oceans annually, and some experts estimate that discarded plastic will outnumber fish by 2050.
But I put my Aquafina bottle in the recycling bin! you may be thinking. That’s great! But what happens afterward isn’t.
As recently as 2016, China imported two-thirds of the world’s plastic waste to aid its manufacturing boom. But pollution issues in 2018 forced the country to ban these imports.
While the decision leaves recycling programs around the world pondering where to stash their trash, experts suggest the move could result in an estimated 122 million tons of plastic waste by 2030.
“We’re adding plastic waste from single-use sources that don’t have much value,” explains ocean advocate and explorer Emily Penn. And much of this plastic ends up going to developing countries with poor waste-management systems — so much of it ends up in the ocean.
Those discarded single-use water bottles and shopping bags mix with shoes, fishing nets, and even computer monitors. They’re then drawn into the center of calm gyres (massive circular currents), where they congregate.
Researchers found one notorious enclave — the Great Pacific Garbage Patch — to be 16 times larger than expected, occupying about 618,000 square miles, roughly three times the size of France. It contains an estimated 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic.
Not known for their spectacular sunset views, these soup-like islands of plastic pose a persistent threat to at least 267 different species of marine life, according to a Greenpeace report. Seabirds, turtles, seals, sea lions, whales, and fish ingest plastic pieces (which can cause digestive problems, liver stress, and starvation) or get tangled in fishing nets and plastic bottle rings.
The Human Health Risk
Living in a plasticized environment poses risks for humans, too. A recent study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine reported that scientists had found microplastics in human stool for the first time. (Read more at “One Word: Plastics”.)
An earlier review of research tracking the prevalence of microplastic particles in fish, shellfish, sugar, salt, beer, and water, as well as in the air of various cities, suggested that the average person may ingest between 74,000 and 121,000 microplastic particles annually. The findings, published in Environmental Science and Technology, also noted that routinely drinking from single-use plastic bottles increased the presence of microplastics in the body by up to 90,000 particles.
Though further research on microplastics and human health is needed, these studies already have the potential to draw attention to the global plastic crisis. “If you tell people more facts surrounding microplastics in the ocean, they don’t seem perturbed by it,” says lead author Kieran Cox, a marine biology PhD candidate at Canada’s University of Victoria. “But if you tell them there’s a small piece of plastic in their food, they’re really connected to that.”
Avoiding food wrapped in plastic can reduce your exposure to microplastics. Also, try to limit your consumption of food and beverages packaged in cans. Many are lined with a plastic-based epoxy resin — including many listed as bisphenol A (BPA) free. And don’t microwave food in plastic containers, particularly if it will be fed to children.
A mountain of evidence indicates that the hormone-mimicking chemicals in plasticizers such as BPA and di(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate (DEHP) can harm human health.
“The problem is these chemicals, aptly called obesogens, have the potential to make us sick and fat,” explains Sara Gottfried, MD. “They stimulate hormones that can increase appetite and reduce metabolism — a dangerous one-two punch when it comes to weight gain.”
“Moreover, these chemicals can also increase the number and size of fat cells,” she adds. “They can predispose you to weight gain and present a serious barrier when it comes to weight loss.”
Chemical additives disrupt the endocrine system in several ways: They mimic reproductive hormones like estrogen and androgen, as well as those produced in the thyroid, potentially leading to overstimulation. They can bind to receptors within cells, blocking normal signal channels; and they can interfere with the body’s production and regulation of natural hormones.
“When we say ‘endocrine disrupter,’ we’re talking about a disruption in the signaling pathways that are fundamental to life,” explains functional-medicine practitioner Robert Rountree, MD.
Particularly troubling is the ability of endocrine disruptors to change the genes of developing fetuses and newborns. They’ve been shown to turn precursor cells into fat cells, which can leave a lasting effect.
“There’s compelling data showing that the more bisphenol A in your system the more you’re prone to diabetes and obesity,” Rountree says. “And right now we’ve got an obesity and type 2 diabetes epidemic in young kids.”
Endocrine-disrupting chemicals have also been linked to an increased risk of insulin resistance, which in turn is linked to cancer and heart disease.
The FDA banned the use of BPA in baby bottles and sippy cups in 2012, and some manufacturers responded by shifting to bisphenol S (BPS) and other additives. Researchers have since found that these replacement bisphenols cause abnormalities in lab animals.
And a 2011 analysis of more than 450 commercially available plastic products found that almost all of them — including those advertised as BPA-free — leached chemicals when placed under stressors. In fact, they often released more chemicals than products using BPA.
“In my mind, simply substituting one slightly different chemical group for another doesn’t solve anything,” Rountree says. “If you’re concerned about your chemical exposure, you’re better off using glass or stainless-steel containers.”
Transitioning to other types of packaging may also minimize microplastic exposure. “Our research suggests microplastics will continue to be found in the majority — if not all — of items intended for human consumption,” Cox notes. “We need to reassess our reliance on synthetic materials and alter how we manage them to change our relationship with plastics.”
Avoiding plastic packaging has other benefits, says zero-waste advocate Lauren Singer, co-owner of the Package Free Shops in New York. “By eliminating foods wrapped in packaging, I found that most of what I had been eating were food products and not actual food,” she says. “Eating fresh vegetables and fruits has left me feeling much healthier.”
“Paper or plastic?” It’s a question so frequently asked that municipalities worldwide — along with several U.S. states — have banned, or enacted fees on, single-use plastic bags, which are typically used for only 12 minutes before they’re discarded.
Meanwhile, 10 states have passed laws prohibiting cities from regulating the use of plastic bags; some argue that bans and levies disproportionately harm the poor. (For more on this, visit “The Last Straw”.)
The results of plastic-bag regulations, however, explain why the industry fights them so aggressively. Ireland’s tax on single-use bags reduced usage by as much as 90 percent, while Portugal has seen a decline in excess of 85 percent. Meanwhile, Danes use, on average, only four bags per person annually, the lowest rate in Europe.
Stateside, the 2012 ban in San Jose, Calif., led to an 89 percent reduction in the number of plastic bags found in storm drains; 60 percent fewer showed up in creeks and rivers. Total residential plastic waste declined by 59 percent.
Aiming to boost its plastic recycling rate from 25 to 100 percent by 2025, France has prohibited businesses from using plastic plates and cups and requires manufacturers of disposable tableware to use 50 percent compostable material in their products. Parisian lawmakers have also called for a ban on single-use straws and other plastic goods.
Sydney, Australia, employs litter traps — netting systems placed on storm drains to capture floatable and solid waste so that it can be removed before it reaches rivers and streams.
Various marinas and ports are experimenting with the “seabin” — a trash skimmer designed to intercept floating debris, macro- and microplastics, microfibers, and petroleum-based oils and detergents.
Plenty of businesses are trying to help as well. To reduce consumer plastic use, Pela Case sells compostable phone cases and zero-waste screen protectors. They’ve also raised more than $125,000 for 1% for the Planet — a coalition of businesses that donate part of their earnings to environmental advocacy groups.
Patagonia, whose founder, Yvon Chouinard, cofounded the initiative, encourages its customers to reduce the number of clothing items they purchase and provides ways for them to repair or recycle their items through their Common Thread and Worn Wear initiatives. Patagonia’s first Worn Wear pop-up store opened last year in Boulder, Colo.
Taking one small step at a time, we can all reduce our plastic footprint and advocate for businesses and governments to do the same. We just might feel and eat better — and save money and the environment along the way