Plastics in Our Lives: Balancing Convenience and Consequences for Human Health and the Planet

Introduction

Plastics are everywhere in this world: land, air and the sea. People eat using plastic products, sleep on one, drive in one, sit on one, fly in vessels partly made of plastic and sail in boats made of plastics. Plastics have become part and parcel of every human’s life, it is inescapable. Supermarkets and stores use plastic bags because they are thin, cheap, takes less space, easy to transport, durable, recyclable, versatile, they can be used to display information, preserves food longer and prevents wastage (Alabi, Ologbonjaye, Awosolu and Alalade, 2019). The British Plastics Federation associates itself with the above reasons for the use of plastics in its quest to promote a successful UK plastics sector. However, plastics are dangerous to human and animal health including the sustainability of this planet. In as much as the invention of plastics was revolutionary and heralded a new era in the manufacturing industry and consumer sector, they have become increasingly difficult to be used well at the end of their life (Proshad et al., 2018). At first recycling was a good idea and many scientists thought that in would change the plastic pollution problem but it has had very little effect and recycling has been found not to be ecologically effective. In fact, a number of countries including Italy, China, Rwanda, Bangladesh, Kenya and South Africa have banned single-use plastic bags.

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Micro-plastics’ life cycle

Plastics are one of the most pervasive materials on this earth, making it very difficult to eradicate or reduce its negative impacts on the environment, human and animal health. People and animals are increasingly being exposed to plastics through the air they breathe and the food they eat (Smith Love and Rochman, 2018). When existing plastic products fragment into small bits and particles they are called micro-plastics. These tiny pieces of broken-down plastics accumulate in food chains, ultimately making their way into animals that feed on ocean creatures. Plastic is harmful to human health throughout its life cycle, that is, from refinery, store shelves, to waste management (Galloway, 2015). In all these stages of the life of plastics, it ends up in human bodies, pollutes the soil, water and air. The Centre for International Environmental Law is particularly concerned that the life cycle impacts of plastics on human health is troubling and requires a unified effort to reduce and reverse the effects of plastic on the environment. A number of health complications including diabetes, several organ malfunctions, birth defects, numerous forms of cancer, and impact on eyes, skin and other sensory organs (Carbery, O’Connor and Palanisami, 2012). Notably, the above effects only touch on human health and do not take into account the impact on fisheries or farmland productivity and climate.

In 2015, plastic production increased from 2 million metric tons in 1950 to 380 million. Further, 42 per cent of plastic manufactures accounts for packaging which are majorly single use bags (CIEL, 2019). According to the Centre for International Environmental Law Report published in 2019, there are tiny bits of plastics in our food, water, air and us. The authors of the report are concerned that the passing of plastic through the human body could pose serious health problems but suggest that more research should be undertaken to discover the effects of micro-plastics to human health. All over the world people are exposed to plastic even before it is manufactured and used by the consumer. In the initial stages of extraction and transportation of fossil feedstocks for the production of plastic, toxic substances are released into the water and air thus causing immune system impairment, cancer, neurotoxicity, and reproductive and developmental toxicity. During the refinery and production stage, plastic resins and additives are released into the air and water in the form of carcinogenic that cause leukaemia, cancer, impairment of the nervous system and other health complications (Kumar, 2018). When production is complete, consumer products are released into the market majority of it going into packaging, these contribute to ingestion and inhalation of micro plastics and other toxic substances into the human body.

The next cycle after production ad release into the market is the waste management process. This process entails incineration and other waste-to-energy methods that release toxic substances such as acid gases, particulate matter and lead and mercury which have negative health consequences on workers and neighbouring communities (Kumar, 2018). When plastics fragment into tiny bits of micro-plastic over time, they enter directly into the human body through ingestion and inhalation thus causing genotoxicity, inflammation, necrosis and other health impacts. There are different types of plastic commonly used in everyday life and they have adverse health effects both on human and animal life. Polyvinylchloride is majorly found in cosmetics, toys, water pipes, floor tiles and food packaging, all of which are commonly used by people around the world. Unfortunately, polyvinylchloride has been associated with birth defects, chronic bronchitis, cancer, deafness, liver dysfunction, skin diseases, ulcers and other health complications (Wright and Kelly, 2017). Phthalates is a type of plastic found in footwear, food wrap, printing ink, vinyl flooring, surgical gloves, blood bags, breathing tubes and other medical devices. Since this kind of plastic is majorly associated with medical devices, their incineration has been known to cause public health effects from the release of mercury and dioxins which result in hormonal changes, birth defects, endometriosis, cancer, and immune system impairment.

Today, the use of water bottles is a common phenomenon as people strive to stay dehydrated whenever they go. However, water bottles contain polycarbonate, a plastic component that has been linked by scientists to cancers, early onset of puberty, diabetes, obesity, hyperactivity and other problems. Polystyrene is a plastic component majorly found in food containers for yoghurt, fish, meat and clear clamshell containers, clear bakery containers, foam packaging, disposable cutlery, paints, wall insulation and toys (Kumar, 2018). The above type of plastic can irritate eyes, throat and nose and can also instigate unconsciousness and dizziness in humans. Further, scientists suspect that human carcinogen which is caused by polyethylene can be traced in water and soda bottles, drinking glasses, food containers, kitchenware, coffee stirrers, chewing gum and heat-sealed plastic packaging. Additionally, beddings, tampons, disposable diapers, clothing and upholstery have been associate with a plastic component called polyester which is known to cause eye and respiratory-tract infection and skin rashes. The cushions, pillows and mattresses that people commonly use have been associated with polyurethane foam which causes skin and eye problems, coughing, bronchitis and other lung problems. The upshot of the above is that almost everything that is made of plastic poses a health risk and complications. The mixture of plastic and chemicals is harmful to human health and the environment generally and there is immediate need to rethink the production and waste management techniques for plastics.

The United Kingdom consumes about 5 million tons of plastic in a year with only one-quarter being recycled while the rest is landfilled (Alabi, Ologbonjaye, Awosolu and Alalade, 2019). It is further suggested that there will be more plastics than fish in the oceans by 2050. In the management of plastic wastes, land filling is one of the most favoured methods because it is cheap and simple to accomplish. However, the scarcity of land to bury municipal wastes has reduced the amount of wastes going into landfills, and instead incineration and recycling has been used. The European Union Directive No 1999/31/EC concerning the use of landfills has further contributed to the reduction of the quantity of waste going into landfills in the UK and other European countries. Be it as it may, the plastic waste that finds its way in landfills release toxic chemicals that contaminate the air and possibly contaminate soil and groundwater. Incineration of plastics as an alternative to landfills has raised concerns among scientists and environmentalists about the potential atmospheric release of hazardous and toxic chemicals.

When plastics are burnt, they produce halogenated additives, furans, dioxins and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and these are harmful to both humans and the environment. Compound like propylene, phosgene, vinyl chloride, xylene and toluene are released during the incineration of Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC) have adverse health effects (Alabi, Ologbonjaye, Awosolu and Alalade, 2019). As a result of the health implications of incinerating plastics, countries like Hungary have enacted EU Directive 29/2014 which bans the use of incinerators. Incinerators are still used in the UK but not as much as landfills are used as waste management methods for plastics. Recycling of plastic products is another way of managing plastic waste sustainably with reduced health and environmental implications. However, recycling has been a challenge evidence by the fact that out of 6.3 billion tons of plastic waste produced, only 9 per cent was recycled, 12 percent incinerated and 79 per cent landfilled. However, the percentage of plastic waste recycled has increased since 2015 thanks to countries like Japan that have increased their recycled plastic waste capacity from 39 per cent in 1996 to 83 per cent in 2014 (Plastic Europe, 2015). There are inconsistencies in the manner in which European countries are controlling pollution through waste management processes. Countries like Germany, Hungary and France have adopted measures that are more efficient compared to the UK.

As discussed earlier on, different additives are used in the production of plastics which have detrimental effects on human health. In particular, Bisphenol A (BPA) in baby bottles, water bottles and food cans can, due to repeated usage, leach into drinks and food thus causing recurrent miscarriages, ovarian syndrome, sterility and obesity in women. Animals are exposed to micro-plastics and plastic additives which affect their health through contact and ingestion. Research shows that there were at least 165 million tons of plastic waste in the oceans of the world and around 8 million tons are released into the ocean every year (Hardesty, Good, and Wilcox, 2015). Ocean water is subsequently polluted by the release of toxic chemicals like BPA and polystyrene which affect the movement and health of marine life. When humans consume marine animals like fish that are contaminated with chemicals it can cause serious health complications. Scientist have found, in some pilot studies, that humans pass traces of micro plastics in their stool and have thus speculated that they may have been ingested through sea food, dust, plastic bottles or food wrappings (Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2016). It follows that micro plastics can be passed from animals like see food and from plastic products to humans (Soltenrich, 2015). Sadly, researchers are yet to find a reliable connection between nutritional behaviour and exposure to micro plastics.

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Conclusion and Recommendations

Although there is an ever growing concern about the effect of plastic components and additives on human health there is a dearth of research on the evidence of effects on humans. Therefore there is need for more longitudinal research into the effects of plastics on human health. Plastics are important in our daily lives and have made work easier, carrying things efficient and some items cheaper (Thompson, 2015). It is in fact possible that the world would not be what it is today without plastics. Despite the benefits and usefulness of plastics, it has become a menace and a challenge to human health and the environment. There is need to find new ways of reducing the production plastics so that its use is limited to essential products. In order to control environmental pollution by plastic wastes, governments must utilise their policy making powers to come up realistic policies that can help in reduction of health impacts of plastics.

Waste management plays a major role in the reduction of toxic effects of plastic wastes on the environment and public health. Therefore, governments should move from landfills and incineration to recycling as the most efficient waste management method (Fleischman, 2018). More significantly, education and public awareness on the toxic effects of plastic waste on human health and the environment will help reduce the pollution rate and preserve the quality of the environment. Further, countries like the UK can expand the use of bioplastics to cover other areas as an alternative to plastics (Hamlet, Matte and Mehta, 2018). Bioplastics can replace petroleum-derived plastics thus making its production more sustainable and environmentally friendly compared to conventional plastics. In the end, government agencies, health authorities, international organisations and the world population must take and participate in initiatives to reduce the community’s exposure to toxic chemicals from plastic waste.

References

Alabi, O. A., Ologbonjaye, K. I., Awosolu, O., & Alalade, O. E. (2019). Public and Environmental Health Effects of Plastic Wastes Disposal: A Review. J Toxicol Risk Assess, 5, 021.

Carbery, M., O'Connor, W., & Palanisami, T. (2018). Trophic transfer of microplastics and mixed contaminants in the marine food web and implications for human health. Environment international, 115, 400-409.

Ellen MacArthur Foundation (2016) The new plastic economy rethinking the future of plastics. World Economic Forum

Fleischman T (2018) Polymer additive could revolutionize plastics recycling. Cornell. Edu. Cornell University

Galloway, T. S. (2015). Micro-and nano-plastics and human health. In Marine anthropogenic litter (pp. 343-366). Springer, Cham.

Hamlet C, Matte T, Mehta S (2018) Combating plastic air pollution on earth’s day. Vital strategies environmental health division.

Hardesty BD, Good TP, Wilcox C (2015) Novel methods, new results and science based solutions to tackle marine debris impacts on wildlife. Ocean & Coastal Management 115: 4-9.

Kumar, P. (2018). Role of plastics on human health. The Indian Journal of Pediatrics, 85(5), 384-389.

Plastics Europe (2016) Plastics-The Facts. An analysis of European plastics production, Demand and waste data. Brussels, Belg: Plast Eur.

Proshad, R., Kormoker, T., Islam, M. S., Haque, M. A., Rahman, M. M., & Mithu, M. M. R. (2018). Toxic effects of plastic on human health and environment: A consequences of health risk assessment in Bangladesh. International Journal of Health, 6(1), 1-5.

Seltenrich, N. (2015). New link in the food chain? Marine plastic pollution and seafood safety.

Singh, P., Saengerlaub, S., Wani, A. A., & Langowski, H. C. (2012). Role of plastics additives for food packaging. Pigment & Resin Technology.

Smith, M., Love, D. C., Rochman, C. M., & Neff, R. A. (2018). Microplastics in seafood and the implications for human health. Current environmental health reports, 5(3), 375-386.

Thompson RC (2015) Mircoplastics in the marine environment: Sources, consequences and solutions. In: Bergmann M, Gutow L, Klages M, Mar Anthro Litt. Springer Heidelberg, 185-200.

Wright, S. L., & Kelly, F. J. (2017). Plastic and human health: a micro issue? Environmental science & technology, 51(12), 6634-6647.


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