Plastic manufacturing is big business – it has relatively cheap production costs, durability, and incredible versatility. The UK plastics industry is worth £25bn per year, and its 5,880 companies produce an estimated 1.6 million tonnes of plastic raw materials annually. Furthermore plastic is big business for the fossil fuel industry. With increasing electrification of transport, investing in the plastic industry and its manufacturing is strategic for the oil industry – the raw material of plastic is oil based.
Our lives are steeped in plastic. TVs, phones, computers, cameras, binoculars, food packaging, household and kitchen goods, clothes, carpets, wallpaper, flooring, gardening paraphernalia, building materials, flooring, hospital PPE, IV drips and equipment, 3D printing, the marine industry, car and aviation parts, wind turbine blades, underground pipes and cables etc. are all, to a large extent, made from plastics.
This is the first of two articles on the problems of plastic and plastic waste in the marine environment that East Anglia Bylines is publishing for tomorrow’s World Environment Day.
The health problems from plastic
Research has revealed that it’s not just at the end of an item’s usefulness that problems begin.
Fabrics that contain polyester, nylon, acrylic and polyamide are made of plastic. Washing sheds millions of plastic microfibres, which drain away, pass through wastewater treatment plants and enter the sea. Once in the ocean, they can absorb toxic chemicals and, like microplastics, be eaten by marine life and enter the human food chain.
Food is also being contaminated by micro- and nanoplastics with plastic additives from food processing machinery, polyethylene cutting boards, polystyrene containers and trays, plastic wrapping etc. “Fresh food, for example, can be plastic-free when it’s picked or caught but contains plastics by the time it’s been handled, packaged and makes its way to us,” said Joost Nelis, lead author of the study that identified the danger.
Microplastics have been found in the placentas of unborn children. Nanoplastics, formed when larger pieces break down, have been shown to adversely affect growth, cause larval malformations and subcellular changes in marine life. They have also been found in ice samples taken from the polar regions, suggesting that they are spreading via air currents. This begs the question – are we inhaling nanoplastics, and at what cost to our health?
What about Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC), used in pipework and, of course, those cost efficient and energy efficient, convenient, never paint windows and doors?
Due to the strength, longevity, light weight and smooth surface of PVC pipes, they are touted as a environmentally sustainable for water pipes. uPVC windows are rigid, strong and do not lose tensile strength in sunlight. However PVC contains chemical additives, including phthalates, lead, cadmium, organotins and Vinyl chloride monomer (VCM) – a colourless, gaseous, sweet-smelling organochloride which before the 1970s was also used as an aerosol propellant and refrigerant. The question remains: if foods are being contaminated from exposure to fragments of micro- and nanoplastics from surfaces and packaging, what about the water flowing through the pipes or the air circulating around the windows?
The symptoms and signs associated with mild to severe acute VCM exposure include shortness of breath, cough, dizziness, headaches, respiratory depression amongst other. For many these are considered everyday ailments. But are they caused from PVC degradation? The question has yet to be answered.
The health problems from plastic waste
Then there is the problem of plastic waste and plastic litter. More than two million pieces of litter are dropped in the UK every day and most litter contains plastic: fast-food packaging, sweet wrappers, plastic bottles, cigarette butts, vaping packaging. It can take years to degrade, causing harm to farm animals, wildlife and habitats. The cost to taxpayers for street cleaning is over £1 billion a year. The results for animals and wildlife can be fatal.
Discarded plastic dog poo bags are one of many hazards. Grazing animals such as horses, cattle and deer are amongst the creatures attracted to the contents. They can choke on the plastic, or the ingested plastic can lodge in the stomach, blocking digestion and causing slow starvation. Smaller creatures can become trapped inside the bag or, if entangled in the handles, strangled or maimed.
The plastics industry has championed recycling as the solution to plastic waste. Waste management and recycling is also big business – with an estimated revenue of £24.9billion in 2022. But, worldwide, 91 % of plastic waste is not recycled.
As the UK has insufficient capacity to deal with its plastic waste, it exports about 60% – a cheaper, more convenient option with less financial volatility rather than investing in doubling the domestic recycling processing capacity. Unfortunately this can lead to mismanaged plastic waste, one of the main causes of plastic pollution in nature. Illegal dumping and unregulated burning of plastics has been linked to health problems including cancer, liver disease, skin lesions and abnormal foetus development.
But even when recycling does occur, the problems don’t go away. Greenpeace has identified that recycling is producing massive amounts of microplastics and increasing the toxicity of resulting plastic. Recycled plastic often contains higher levels of chemicals, such as toxic flame retardants, benzene and other carcinogens, environmental pollutants including brominated and chlorinated dioxins, and numerous endocrine disruptors that can cause changes to the body’s natural hormone levels.
“The toxicity of plastic actually increases with recycling. Plastics have no place in a circular economy and it’s clear that the only real solution to ending plastic pollution is to massively reduce plastic production.” said Graham Forbes, who leads Greenpeace USA’s global plastics campaign.
So while we have an increasing level of understanding about the problems of plastic, we still need more research on the effects on human health and food safety.