Climate Corner: The real cost of plastics
Mar 27, 2021
Plastic manufacturers want us to believe that our lives would not be complete without plastics. While there are beneficial applications for plastics, our reliance on single-use plastics, which make up 40 percent of all plastics produced, has created a global crisis. Our planet is drowning in plastic waste and our health is being affected by exposures to the toxic compounds used to make plastics.
Studies show plastics and microplastics are now found in our oceans, rivers, tap water, beer, foods, air, soils, and even our bodies. In one week, it is estimated that we ingest 2,000 tiny plastic particles, or the equivalent to a credit card’s weight worth of plastic. Plastics have permeated every aspect of our lives so it is not surprising that the U.S. throws out enough plastic every 16 hours to fill the Dallas Cowboys’ stadium. Every year we generate over 35 million tons of plastic waste. Of that waste, less than 9 percent is recycled. The remaining 90 percent is landfilled, incinerated, or discarded into our ecosystems.
Companies that make and sell disposable plastic products push the responsibility for these wastes onto consumers, claiming recycling is the answer. However, fifty years after the industry-backed “Keep America Beautiful” anti-litter campaign, the USA’s recycling rate is an abysmal 8.7 percent. Even if recycling worked, plastics can only be recycled one or two times before the quality degrades. Glass and metals can be recycled over and over with the same quality integrity.
Citizens pay the increased costs for municipal solid waste landfills as the amount of plastic waste has increased from 390,000 tons in 1960 to over 27 million tons in 2018. Additionally, incineration of plastic wastes produces toxic air emissions like dioxin and furans, which rain down on the communities where these facilities are located.
People all over the world are paying the cleanup costs to pick up discarded drink bottles, Styrofoam trays, plastic bags, and other single-use plastics. According to ODOT, Ohio’s residents pay $4 million dollars a year for litter clean-up and about fifty percent of that litter is single-use wastes from fast-food establishments.
Because plastics have become so prevalent in our lives, we are constantly being exposed to plastic polymers, plasticizers, and heavy metals used in their production. Countless studies show that plasticizers such as bis-phenol A and S, phthalates, and flame retardants in plastic polymers leach into foods stored and cooked in plastic containers. Microplastics that are found in our tap water and food webs can absorb man-made chemical toxins from the environment. They act as tiny sponges and when we drink or eat foods such as fish, we also eat these toxin-laced particles.
Along with contributing to diabetes, obesity, cancer, and impaired immunity, plastic compounds are affecting our fertility in profound ways. “Like dissolves like” and because a majority of plastics and petrochemicals are carbon based, exposures to such compounds results in them being stored in our body fats. The molecular structure of many of these compounds mimics the structures of estrogen and testosterone.
The body is unable to distinguish between a plasticizer and a hormone. When this happens, the endocrine system receives incorrect messages. A plethora of scientific studies show a drastic decline in fertility rates, an increase in miscarriages, and countless other reproductive problems that can be directly attributed to increased exposures to man-made chemicals used in plastics.
Is the convenience of single-use plastics worth the price we truly pay for them? The $20 billion subsidy fossil fuels are given each year would be better used developing bioplastics using hemp, seaweed, corn, and other plant fibers.
Randi Pokladnik, Ph.D., of Uhrichsville, is a retired research chemist who volunteers with Mid Ohio Valley Climate Action. She has a doctorate degree in Environmental Studies and is certified in Hazardous Materials Regulations.