“Despite being one of the most pervasive materials on the planet, plastic and its impact on human health is poorly understood,” says the recent Plastic & Health: The Hidden Costs of a Plastic Planet report. Plastic is a global health crisis that is hiding in plain sight.
The Plastic Crisis
“Exposure to plastic is expanding into new areas of the environment and food chain as existing plastic products fragment into smaller particles and concentrate toxic chemicals. As plastic production increases, this exposure will only grow.”
Our world is in plastic production overload. As we continue to make, use, and discard plastic, we will also continue to experience the negative health impacts which “occur at every stage of the plastic lifecycle: from wellhead to refinery, from store shelves to human bodies, and from waste management to ongoing impacts as air, water, and soil pollution.”
The findings of the report are crystal clear. Plastic is a threat to human life and the life of thousands of species. To date, attempts and measures—a piecemeal approach—to control the plastic crisis have failed.
1. Plastic requires a lifecycle approach.
Understanding and responding to plastic risks, and making informed decisions in the face of those risks, demands a full lifecycle approach to assessing the full scope of the impacts of plastic on human health.
2. At every stage of its lifecycle, plastic poses distinct risks to human health.
While the economic interests of the plastic industry are indeed enormous, the financial costs to society are even more so.
The majority of people worldwide are exposed at multiple stages of this lifecycle:
- Extraction and transport of fossil feedstocks;
- Refining and manufacturing;
- Products and packaging;
- Waste management;
- In the environment.
3. Uncertainties and knowledge gaps undermine the full evaluation of both acute and long-term health risks at all stages of the plastic lifecycle.
- Hidden risks – lack of transparency of chemicals in plastics;
- Intersecting exposures and synergistic effects are poorly understood;
- Plastic in the food chain;
- Plastic in people.
4. Reducing toxic exposure to plastic will require a variety of solutions and options
- Putting human rights and human health at the center of solutions;
- Recognizing the suite of interacting exposures;
- Making the invisible visible;
- Building solutions on transparency, participation and the right to remedy;
- Think globally, acting everywhere.
Solutions (from the CIEL two-pager – The Hidden Cost of a Plastic Planet)
- Focus on preventing harm wherever it could occur in the plastic life cycle;
- Account for plastics as end-products and the thousands of additives used to make them;
- Strive to eliminate exposure to all hazardous materials along plastic’s whole life cycle;
- Ensure access to information regarding the chemical substances in products and processes;
- Increase independent research to fill existing and future knowledge gaps on the health harms from the full life cycle of plastic;
- Build on transparency across the supply chain especially regarding exposure to hazardous materials;
- Assess possible health and environmental impacts of technologies touted as “solutions,” such as incineration and plastic-to-fuel technologies;
- Integrate the right to meaningful participation in decision- making about plastic-related risks;
- Guarantee access to justice when and where harm occurs.
Actions to Take
- Start from the beginning: Many people (even policymakers) don’t know about the health impacts of plastics, so we often have to educate first.
- Share information and raise awareness on toxics and their impact across the whole life cycle of plastic.
- Build capacity for individual and collective action among all people in a given community.
- Embolden and empower people.
- Place blame where it belongs: on manufacturers. Avoid blaming consumers for their individual behavior.
- Focus instead on collective action for systemic solutions and change. For instance: advocate for reusable and refillable systems rather than alternative kinds of single-use plastic. Speak out about the need for health information disclosures about products and their packaging.
“By 2050 there will be more plastic than fish in the oceans. It’s an environmental crisis that’s been in the making for nearly 70 years. Plastic pollution is now considered one of the largest environmental threats facing humans and animals globally.” — The Plastic Problem, PBS News Hour Documentary
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