Tue, Mar 12, 2019 - Page 9 News List

Reducing harm from plastics requires addressing the source

By Lili Fuhr and Jane Patton

We have long known that the accumulation of plastic in the world’s landfills and oceans represents a growing environmental risk. More recently, we have come to understand that plastic also poses an urgent — even deadly — threat to public health. And yet global efforts to address the plastic crisis remain consistently focused on the wrong end of the life cycle: waste management.

The debate that is to resume this month at the UN Environment Assembly is a case in point, because it is to focus on “marine litter and microplastics.” These are important issues, but they constitute just one small part of a much larger problem.

To be sure, plastic has played an essential role in global economic growth for decades. Its seemingly countless applications include life-saving medical devices, clothes, toys, and various industrial and agricultural uses.

Some have even touted plastic as part of the solution to climate change, arguing incorrectly that it has a smaller carbon footprint than other materials.

However, plastic releases significant greenhouse gases like methane and ethylene as it decomposes in the land and marine environments, and 99 percent of plastics are made from fossil fuels such as coal, oil and gas.

New research shows that plastic is harmful to our bodies at every stage of its life cycle, from its extraction as a fossil fuel to its widespread use as a packaging for food and on through the waste management process, which includes landfills, recycling centers and incinerators.

One way or another, almost every organism on the planet is affected by the production, use or disposal of plastic, the toxic effects of which linger and accumulate endlessly in the air we breathe, the water we drink and the soil under our feet.

Some of the leading effects of plastic production include harm to the immune and reproductive systems, liver and kidney damage, and even cancer; as we move through the life cycle of plastic products, the threats to reproductive systems and from cancer continue, with added harm to neurological development and other systems.

Making matters worse, plastic production is increasing and is to continue to do so. The US plastics industry alone plans to boost production by 30 percent over the next few years.

Although the public associates plastic with life-saving wonder materials, an estimated 40 percent of global plastic production is for single-use packaging. By design, it is used temporarily for transport and storage, and then simply thrown away.

As a result, nearly 80 percent of all the plastic ever produced has ended up either in landfills or loose in the natural environment, despite years of industry messaging to encourage recycling. Not only do we lack the recycling capacity to manage the plastic already in circulation; recent innovations in recycling appear to be causing further damage to the environment and public health, through air pollution, toxic ash and other externalities.

A debate that focuses solely on waste suits the plastics industry just fine. For years, producers have been investing in marketing and advertising campaigns to convince consumers that they themselves bear responsibility for the plastics crisis. They and their lobbyists have also been busy persuading governments — including those participating in the UN meeting — that waste management should be their primary focus.

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