the mantra of “plastic is fantastic” shaped our environment to the extent that today plastic really is all around us. We have plastic cups, cutlery, floors, shoes – not to mention more obvious items like packaging and casings of our favourite electric and electronic equipment. Plastic comes in many forms but there is general consensus that while a useful material, there are serious concerns about its effects on human health. These concerns stem primarily from two sources:
a) the additives contained in plastic materials with which we come directly into contact
b) the effects of plastics on the environment which in turn may compromise human health
Additives used in plastics can have different health effects for people. Numerous additives are used depending on the kind of plastic, the primary use of the product where the plastic is used or even the brand! For instance, the group of chemicals called “plasticisers” is one family of additives used to provide PVC with flexibility. Plasticisers are in fact numerous substances and the kind of plasticiser added in the manufacturing process depends on where the PVC is used and what it is needed for, for example in children’s toys or in fake leather car seats¹. This complicates matters for both policy-makers seeking to limit our exposure to harmful chemicals but it also makes it impossible for consumers to know what everyday products are really made from. This is particularly worrying as a lot of these additives have been linked to serious health effects ranging from reproductive abnormalities and wider disruption of our delicate endocrine system, impaired brain and neurological functions, and cancer to adult-onset diabetes, early puberty and even obesity²,³. The three most commonly cited plastic additives that have been linked to such diseases are:
- BPA or Bisphenol A, often used in food and beverages containers, such as water bottles. The EU has taken steps to ban the use of BPA in baby bottles and some EU member states have taken restrictions further.
- Plasticisers or Phthalates, primarily used in PVC to make it flexible, these additives can be used in children’s toys, flooring, clothes and a myriad of other everyday items.
- Flame retardants, used in electric and electronic equipment, upholstery and other items to provide fire safety benefits. Some of these substances have been banned by the UN due to the detrimental effects they had to the environment and human health.
The second way in which plastics impact human health is linked to the fact that plastic items are rarely disposed of in the right way. Given that plastic takes decade to start decaying, plastic pollution is a very big concern, particularly for our seas and oceans. Today, about 60–80 % of all marine debris, and 90 % of floating debris is plastic⁴. Plastic, including biodegradable plastic, not only takes years to decompose in our environment but it in fact rarely fully disappears, and as a result fish and other wildlife are exposed to plastics and their toxins which leach out into the water. Plastics and harmful chemicals contaminate fish and other animals entering the food chain and potentially posing a danger to human health. So, plastics do not only pollute our environment, compromising its biodiversity, but they can also go up the food chain and impact our own health.
This is painting a very bleak picture of plastics – but the reality is that plastic pollution is a problem. It is a problem for our health, with scientific evidence pointing to increasing correlations between exposure to plastic additives and diseases, and it is a problem for our environment given the mountains of plastic litter that can be found in our seas and land. No matter how inconvenient a truth, it is important that as citizens we take action and change our consumption patterns in favour of alternatives to plastics so that we can minimise our exposure to harmful additives and also help our environment.