The Inconvenient Truth About Plastics
In the year 2020 alone, mankind produced 367 million metric tons of plastics. Since 1950, we have produced over 9 billion metric tons! Most of that is still here... only 12% is believed to have been incinerated. Our scientists estimate there is now enough plastic in the world to cover all of its land mass one meter thick!
Plastic production rates have increased exponentially since their advent. It is hard to finding anything today that doesn't contain some sort of plastic. The word "plastic" is actually a misnomer but has been used to describe any man-made polymeric material formed from chains of carbon atoms. It is quite inexpensive to produce, very durable, and usually made from petroleum/oil.
The useful life of plastics is typically very short compared to its environmental lifetime. They can be found almost everywhere and are creating a plethora of problems that even the best environmentalists don't have tenable solutions to. Bottles, food containers, packaging materials, films, piping, insulation, and textiles are just some examples of the plastics that are littering the environment and accumulating in landfills and waste facilities at unsustainable rates. The physical polymer itself slowly breaks down into smaller pieces, microplastics, and nanoplastics affecting all forms of life.
However, the greater and more serious danger of plastics are the many different chemical additives or plasticizers that they contain. These are added to protect them from sunlight, oxidation, heat, wear, and make them harder or softer. Thousands of these chemicals have been developed and over 50 are currently used in huge quantities. Most of them are causing a host of biological and environmental problems, from endocrine disruption and metabolic disorders to behavioral changes and cancer.
We now have more female fish in our lakes and streams than males. Sexual orientation within children is becoming the norm and acceptable to many of us. Attention deficit/hyperactivity, obesity, autism, diabetes, and insulin resistance are also finding strong links to the biological activity of these additives and many other chemicals in use today.
These plasticizers are easily extracted into our beverages, foods, skin, and the environment from the plastic bottles, packaging, clothing, and waste that we use and discard. They can be found in our drinking water supplies, body fluids, and tissues of many different forms of life. Known as xenobiotics, they are foreign to all living systems and have a fast growing reputation as the cause of many health and environmental problems we have today.
BPA is one well-known example that has seen some reduction in usage due to its profound effects on health. However, there are at least 15 other BP (bisphenol) additives replacing it (some with even greater endocrine disrupting properties). Many different phthalates are added to PVC for things like cable insulation, imitation leather, inflatable products, and shower curtains. This huge class of compounds all have endocrine disrupting and/or anti-androgenic properties. Their odor is responsible for that common "new car smell".
Some plastics are considered to be "food-grade" or food contact safe by the FDA and other authorities but are they healthy? The scientific evidence proving their wide-ranging health effects is growing at a rate similar to plastic production itself.
There was a time when our environment was not saturated with plastics. We thrived with other materials like butcher paper, tin soldiers, wooden crates, glass bottles, and metal parts. Today, most people can't imagine living without plastics. They have certainly made the lives of humans more convenient. However, the inconvenient truth is that plastics have created a plethora of problems in the environment and health of all forms of life on earth.