Imagine every single piece of plastic that you’ve ever discarded mounded up in front of you. How large do you think the pile would be?
We often assume our plastic pile will be relatively small. After all, many of us dutifully place our plastic in blue bins and harbor blissful fantasies that the waste is recycled rather than tossed in a landfill.
The reality is that 95% of plastic never gets recycled, including plastic put into blue bins.1 This unrecycled plastic significantly impacts human and planetary health, with a disproportionate impact on BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) and low-income communities. We need to take steps now to hold manufacturers responsible for recycling the plastic they produce.
Many manufacturers suggest that solving the plastic problem is about increasing consumer diligence and buy-in around recycling. Recycling is more complex than tossing a bottle into a bin. Plastic must be sorted into groups with similar chemical compositions before heading to the recycling center. Unfortunately, thousands of types of plastic might be used in a single fast-food meal.
A secondary concern is that plastic can absorb the materials it contains.
So, plastic bottles that hold toxic chemicals – or even bottles that are near toxic chemicals – can’t safely be repurposed as food containers. 2 Because of this, recycled plastic actually becomes more expensive for a company to use than it is just to manufacture new plastic.2 It’s difficult to imagine a municipality that could handle these recycling challenges.
Instead, governments can hold manufacturers responsible in a system called “extended producer responsibility” or EPR.3
EPR systems – already voted into law in Oregon and Maine in 2021 – dictate that manufacturers pay into “producer responsibility organizations” that handle the collection and recycling of the plastic they create.3 Manufacturers who create easy-to-recycle types of plastic end up with a lower overhead cost, which provides an excellent incentive for packaging innovation.
The impact of plastic on the planet and its inhabitants can be detrimental in a variety of ways:
- Plastic and the associated toxic waste products from its breakdown can enter the human body via inhalation, skin exposure, or ingestion of micro and nanoplastics.4 This includes plastic compounds that may leach into foods from the containers in which they come or are heated. While it is difficult to quantify the dangers to human health, evidence links ingestion/inhalation of microplastics and nanoplastics to a multitude of problems, including inflammation, dysfunctional metabolic function, a compromised immune system, and endocrine disruption.4,5 However, not all humans bear the brunt of toxic plastic waste evenly. Landfills and incinerators that dispose of plastic waste are often located in low-income, BIPOC and historically oppressed communities. In fact, 79% of incinerators are in communities of Color, exposing these neighborhoods to a disproportionate amount of harmful pollution and toxic waste.6
- From an environmental standpoint, the issues are also significant. The production of plastics produces alarming quantities of greenhouse gases. In 2019, the Center for International Environmental Law estimated that plastic production created the greenhouse gas equivalent of 189 coal-fired power plants.7 Plastic is also a threat to ocean health and marine life, with 14 million tons of it ending up in the ocean each year.8 When this plastic is exposed to UV radiation, it breaks down into micro and nano plastics that are destructive to human health and toxic to fish and marine mammals.8 Plastic pollution also reaches soil ecosystems through sewage and agricultural routes, disrupting the soil ecosystem and fertility.9 The World Wildlife Foundation puts the actual cost of all plastic created in 2019 at 3.7 trillion dollars.10 This cost considers both waste management costs and costs to the environment.
There is also the perspective that plastic may actually be good for the environment.
Among the benefits frequently mentioned are improved food safety, reduced food waste, and energy savings through reduced transportation and manufacturing costs.11 Pointing out the benefits of plastic is useful as it helps material scientists understand what challenges they face when coming up with ecologically friendly alternatives. For example, green chemists have recently harnessed the power of silkworms by developing silk-based biodegradable alternatives to the plastic time-released capsules found in agricultural sprays and cosmetics.12 While not likely the solution, this non-toxic and biodegradable alternative may help keep microplastics out of the soil, water, air, and bodies.
If you are interested in reducing the impact of plastic waste, here are four ways you can act now:
- Refuse to buy, or use, single-use plastic beverage containers, like water bottles or soda bottles. Let your grocer, coffee shop, or market know why you aren’t buying them. Or bring your own glass containers to take home leftovers.
- Give the plastic you buy a second, third, fourth, or 20th use before disposing of it. See above! I’ve been storing the same yogurt container for storing things for a year. (Do, however, recycle it if you’ve washed it in the dishwasher or are seeing it begin to degrade)
- Volunteer or donate to local organizations seeking environmental justice for people of color, such as Got Green or Sea Potential.
- Contact your congressional representatives and ask them to support The Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act of 2021. Provisions in this bill hold manufacturers responsible for the disposal of plastic, eliminate some single-use plastics, put a pause on building new plastic manufacturing plants, and more.
In 2021, global plastic production reached 390 million metric tons, a value of 593 billion US dollars.13 By 2030, that number is expected to increase to 810 billion dollars.13
While individuals and families can continue to recycle at a household level unless plastic manufacturers are held responsible for the waste they produce, plastic will continue to pollute our bodies, communities, waterways, and soil.
- Recycling plastic is practically impossible- and the problem is getting worse. NPR website. https://www.npr.org/2022/10/24/1131131088/recycling-plastic-is-practically-impossible-and-the-problem-is-getting-worse#:~:text=While%2052%25%20of%20recycling%20facilities,is%20put%20into%20a%20landfill. Accessed December 4, 2022.
- Plastic recycling doesn’t work and will never work. The Atlantic website. https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2022/05/single-use-plastic-chemical-recycling-disposal/661141/ Accessed December 5, 2022
- How to make manufacturers more responsible for plastics recycling. Crosscut website. https://crosscut.com/environment/2022/04/how-make-manufacturers-more-responsible-plastics-recycling. Accessed December 5, 2022
- Prata, JD, da Costa J, Lopes I, et al. Environmental exposure to microplastics: An overview on possible human health effects, Science of The Total Environment, 2020; (702) 134455, ISSN 0048-9697
- Kumar R, Manna C, Padha S, et al. Micro(nano)plastics pollution and human health: how plastics can induce carcinogenesis to humans? Chemosphere 2022(298) 134267
- Moon D, Fukichi A, Arkin C, et al U.S. Municipal Solid Waste: An Industry in Decline. Tishman Environment and Design Center: The New School 2019; (3) 33-44
- We know plastic pollution is bad- but how exactly is it linked to climate change. World Economic Forum. https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2022/01/plastic-pollution-climate-change-solution/#:~:text=In%202019%2C%20the%20CIEL%20estimated,or%20615%20coal%20plants'%20worth. Accessed March 5, 2023.