The first synthetic plastic – Bakelite – was produced in 1907, marking the beginning of the global plastics industry. However, rapid growth in global plastic production was not realized until the 1950’s. Over the next 65 years or so, a true catastrophe happened.
Facts about the pollution
Vast majority of plastics is not biodegradable and is made out of crude oil. The use of plastics has been pushed or even forced to become pervasive in our everyday life. In 2017 the worldwide production of plastics reached around 348 million metric tons (Mt) and in 2018 it is estimated at 380 million Mt. Expressed in kilograms, that is 380.000.000.000 kg. Can you imagine a pile that big? I can’t. But then think further about this: according to a paper published in Science Advances, humans have made 8.3 billion Mt of new plastics since 1950 in total. And thanks in large part to the global popularity of single-use plastic packaging, half of that total was made in just the last decade.
By the end of 2015, all plastic waste ever generated from primary plastics had reached 5.8 billion Mt, 700 Mt of which were acrylic (PP&A) fibers.
There are essentially three different fates for plastic waste:
1) It can be recycled or reprocessed into a secondary material. Recycling delays, rather than avoids, final disposal. It reduces future plastic waste generation only if it displaces primary plastic production. However, because of its counterfactual nature, this displacement is extremely difficult to establish . Furthermore, contamination and the mixing of polymer types generate secondary plastics of limited or low technical and economic value.
2) Plastics can be destroyed thermally. Although there are emerging technologies, such as pyrolysis, which extracts fuel from plastic waste, to date, virtually all thermal destruction has been by incineration, with or without energy recovery. The environmental and health impacts of waste incinerators strongly depend on emission control technology, as well as incinerator design and operation.
3) Plastics can be discarded and either contained in a managed system, such as sanitary landfills, or left uncontained in open dumps or in the natural environment.
Plastic debris has been found in all major ocean basins, with an estimated 4 to 12 million metric tons (Mt) of plastic waste generated on land entering the marine environment in 2010 alone. Contamination of freshwater systems and terrestrial habitats is also increasingly reported,,, as is environmental contamination with synthetic fibers.
Today, there are more than 50 trillion microplastic particles already present in the world‘s oceans. That is approximately 500x more particles than stars in our galaxy, mind you. Some researchers expect that this volume of particles will significantly increase by 2050 and will then surpass the weight of all fish in the ocean. However, ocean regions already exist that contain 6x more plastic than plankton in their water.
Marine organisms ingest plastic through their diet and this leads to the large-scale contamination of fish and seafood stocks with microplastic. The plastic can eventually end up back on our plates via the food chain.
Where is the danger for humans and wild-life?
Plastic can contain numerous toxic and hormonally active chemicals. These are released into the immediate environment and can harm humans, animals and ecosystems. We take in these toxic substances through respiration, skin contact and the food chain and thereby endanger our health.
Because raw plastics are brittle and hard, chemicals are added during the manufacturing process to give specific properties:
- UV-protection agents
- Stabilisers and hardeners (bisphenol A; BPA)
- Plasticisers (phthalates)
- Acid scavengers
- Nucleation agents and clarifying agents
- Dyes and colour stabilisers
- Optical brighteners
- Propellants and fillers
- Flame retardants
- Biocidal agents
These additives can have undesirable properties. They can disturb our endocrine system, impair our fertility or promote the development of cancer. So it is not only about the environmental damage we are talking about here. The biggest issue in the case of plastic is that it has entered our bodies as a poison.
I will quote here some facts I find extremely important for any of you to acknowledge:
»Chemicals can leak from plastic, which means that toxic substances and additives can transfer to food, living beings and the environment. This is because plastic has a sponge-like basic structure of linear or cross-linked molecular chains that are more or less interwoven. Additives are not firmly anchored within this structure.
Alongside additives, plastics often contain residues from the manufacturing process, including health- and environment-damaging components (such as styrene, melamine and vinyl chloride) or solvent residues (such as chlorinated hydrocarbons). Toxic and hormonally active substances can leak from plastics under certain chemical or physical conditions (heat, UV radiation, greasy/acidic environments) or over the course of the ageing process and accumulate in the environment.
Humans can take in the released pollutants through respiration, the skin and the consumption of contaminated food. Particularly alarming is this »migration« of chemicals when food comes into contact with plastic packaging«.
The article goes further to explain hormonally active substances or endocrine disruptors that are used in a wide range of products and are especially harmful to health and the environment. A variety of diseases and disorders including malformations of the sexual organs, infertility, allergies, obesity, type 2 diabetes, different types of cancer, immunodeficiency and learning and behavioral disorders are all associated with these artificial hormonally active substances. A short abstract of authors’ findings with names of chemicals to avoid at all costs:
- Brominated flame retardants – found in countless plastic items such as electronic devices, cuddly toys, upholstery and mattresses. During manufacturing, product use and disposal, flame retardants can evaporate and wash out from plastics. Brominated flame retardants can disrupt functions of the hormonal system and have neurotoxic effects. Bioaccumulates in animal and human tissues, which means that no safe level of exposure can be determined.
- Plasticisers (phthalates): Phthalates (phthalic acid esters) are used in numerous products such as flip-flops, shower curtains, baby changing mats, floor coverings, children‘s toys, and synthetic leather. They’re not chemically bound to the plastic matrix, can easily escape from products or dissolve out from products upon contact with liquids or fats. They can damage the hormonal system and be toxic to human reproduction (reprotoxic). Bioaccumulates in living organisms, which means that no safe level of exposure can be determined.
- Organotin compounds: found in inflatable water toys and as bactericides in plastic shoes (flip-flops) as well as sports and functional clothing (football jerseys, cycling shorts and waterproof trousers). They have different toxicological properties depending on the compound. Some organotin compounds damage the immune system, the liver and the nervous system. They can also disrupt the hormonal system and impair fertility. Bioaccumulates in living organisms, which means that no safe level of exposure can be determined.
- Per- and polyfluorinated chemicals (PFC): found in waterproof textiles, non-stick coating on cookware, and grease-repellent food packaging) and cause numerous health problems such as high cholesterol levels, chronic inflammatory bowel diseases, testicular and renal cancer, and pregnancyinduced hypertension. In the European Union, PFOA is legally classified as carcinogenic and reprotoxic. Bioaccumulates in living organisms, which means that no safe level of exposure can be determined.
- Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAK): Black plastics are frequently contaminated with PAHs because untreated carbon black, which has a high concentration of these chemicals, is used for colouration (such as the rubberised handles of tools and handlebars). These can be absorbed through the skin and can damage our health because they are carcinogenic, harmful to development and reprotoxic.
- Nonylphenol (NP) and nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPE): NPE are used for the manufacture of plastics that come into contact with food items. The compound, which is toxic to mammals and highly toxic to aquatic organisms, can remain in the environment for months, trigger allergies and impair the hormonal system. NP has previously been documented in mineral water as a contaminant from plastic screw caps, as well as in imported textiles from non-EU countries.
How to help yourself and save Earth at the same time
I mentioned above 3 different fates for plastic waste, but all of those listed are actually bad for the environment, including recycling. From an economic point of view recycling has no advantages. The expensive, time-consuming sorting, cleaning and recycling processes cannot keep pace with the low oil prices for new products. Long transportation chains result in high emissions and recycled plastic fabrics can release a large quantity of micro- and nano-plastic into washing water during the washing process that ultimately ends up in our environment. Adding to this serious health issues caused by plastic compounds on humans and wild-life species, it all starts to resemble a global catastrophe nobody wants to see or realize. Just how did we end up accepting plastic as normal, when it is clearly poisoning us and polluting the world beyond recognition?
Considering this all, the only smart, responsible and conscious solution is not to produce plastics in any quantity at all. Since you and I can’t force such a decision to be made, there is only one thing we can do to help ourselves and mother Earth before it gets completely devastated: immediately stop buying any products containing plastics. If we all do it globally as consumers, the producers will find themselves with no other option, but to re-think their utterly stupid and irresponsible business model and find an acceptable replacement for poisons they have been pushing for many decades. I couldn’t care less about their losses involved with such project. It is an absolute mandatory! I was never asked in the first place and neither was anyone I know of. On a personal note, I would request even more: the environmental pollution has to be cleaned up by all those companies ever involved in the production of plastics ad it has to be completed within 10 years. Only that would make a noticeable difference. And after that, we can talk about the court damages for inflicting global health issues if they already haven’t gone bankrupt.
 “Production, use, and fate of all plastics ever made”, Roland Geyer, Jenna R. Jambeck and Kara Lavender Law, 2017, Science Advances, Vol 3 / No. 7, https://qz.com/1033477/the-worlds-plastic-problem-in-two-charts/