Who doesn’t regard plastic as a necessity of modern living? It is hard to imagine a life without plastics. But what if we can’t live WITH plastics?
Plastics offer many benefits. From clean water delivery to food packaging to public health and medical devices, the development of plastics and their uses have been beneficial. But it isn’t all good news.
Humans and the environment are suffering from serious adverse health outcomes linked to plastics. Are the benefits worth the risks? It’s an important question as we face increasing plastic production alongside new evidence that we have reached a planetary health boundary.
Plastic: From cradle to grave
Plastic is a problem from cradle to grave — although plastics really don't die, decay or disappear. All the plastic ever made still exists on the planet. Calling it a life cycle may, in fact, be a misnomer.
Plastic is a petroleum-based product. Oil extraction for plastic products produces methane, CO2 emissions, smog, and sometimes oil and gas leaks. Oil is refined into powders, pellets and resins. During the manufacturing process, a wide range of chemicals are added to the plastic mixtures, many of which are harmful to the environment and human health.
Workers in plastic manufacturing facilities are exposed to high levels of carcinogens, endocrine-disrupting chemicals and other toxic substances. Women and racialized and Indigenous people disproportionately experience the adverse health outcomes of the manufacture of plastics. Sarnia, Ont., is home to one of the largest clusters of manufacturing facilities in this sector and workers and residents in nearby communities, including Aamjiwnaang First Nation, are suffering from exposure to toxic gases, chemical waste and air pollution.
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The consumption of plastic begins when the array of plastic products is shipped out to be sold. Environmental health writer Anna-Liza Badaloo reminds us that “plastics are really embedded, intertwined into all of our systems and our products.” Food packaging, clothing and furniture, car parts such as tires and lights, children’s toys and dishes, and even cosmetics we apply directly to our bodies all contain plastics.
Plastic waste is littered directly into the environment, causing damage to wildlife and ecosystems. Some waste is incinerated, creating greenhouse gas emissions and other toxic pollutants, including dioxins and furans. Western countries — including Canada — ship their plastic waste to other countries, exporting human health and environmental harm with it.
Plastic and health
At every stage of its life cycle, plastic threatens human health. People are exposed to plastics and their toxic components in many ways, with varying effects and outcomes at different stages of life, from infancy to adulthood. Microplastics enter the environment, waterways, and ultimately, food webs.
Hazardous chemical families — including heavy metals, flame retardants, phthalates, bisphenols and endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) —– are directly associated with plastics production. Some of these chemicals have been linked to breast cancer, endometriosis, ovarian cancer, polycystic ovarian syndrome, behavioural disorders, miscarriages, reproductive disorders, abnormal menstruation and more.
Plastic workers, such as retired Pebra Plastics plant worker and former UNIFOR Local 1987 president Rose Wickman, report miscarriages, hysterectomies, infertility and deaths among co-workers, outcomes they attribute to their sometimes invisible exposures. Wickman and others worry that “nobody wants to listen to the workers.”
Connecting the dots: Plastic and climate change
Plastic contributes significantly to the climate crisis. Because plastics are made from fossil fuels, their processing emits an enormous amount of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. When plastics break apart or are burned, they release carbon dioxide. Research suggests that if plastic was a country, it would be the fifth-biggest global greenhouse gas emitter.
Climate change is a human rights issue. Racialized people are disproportionately affected by climate impacts such as flooding, food shortages, access to energy, ecological destruction and climate-related illnesses and are marginalized in discussions about necessary changes. Young people are noting the impacts on their mental health, sharing that they feel scared, discouraged, hopeless and frustrated. Youth climate activist Clover Chen bemoans that these feelings stem from the problem being beyond the ability of an individual to tackle on their own.
Government action on the problem is required. From the expansion of plastics bans, to investments and support for systems of accessible and affordable reusable products, to reforming environmental protection laws, strategies and policies that recognize the human health and environmental impacts are imminently necessary.
It is time to shift our lens and bring into focus that our society’s plastic addiction has become a matter of life and death. We must face the consequences of plastics on our bodies and the way we live, acknowledging that we have led people and the planet into a death spiral. Governments must take action to end the ubiquitous exposure to chemicals throughout the cradle-to-grave “life cycle” of plastics.
Honour Stahl is a recent graduate of the ethics, society and law program at the University of Toronto and is currently a communications policy researcher with the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (CAPE). Her research and development of communications tools on the human and planetary health impacts of plastics have been integral to CAPE’s work.
Jane E. McArthur is toxics program director with the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (CAPE). Jane has a PhD in sociology and social Justice and her work over the last 30 years has been in communications, research, and advocacy on environmental and occupational health and justice issues.