Earth Matters: Plastic pollution threatens our health

Earth Matters: Plastic pollution threatens our health

By Dr. Hildur Palsdottir

I’m a big fan of recycling. For years I was “wish-cycling” plastic, or wishing my plastic garbage was recyclable. I carefully washed the containers and threw everything marked with the recycling symbol into the recycling bin. Then one day I received a mailer from my town and my entire world was upended with the realization that only #1 and #2 plastics are actually processed by our town’s recycling facility.

As an aspirational environmentalist, all of my consumer habits were quickly put in question. Devastated, I started researching plastic. Immobilized by the pandemic, I audited an online course on Plastic Pollution offered at Bennington College by Judith Enck, a former EPA regional administrator and founder of Beyond Plastics, which is dedicated to the overwhelming task of fighting plastic pollution. In this class, I discovered more than I ever wanted to know about plastic. 

Please know that just because the barely visible chasing arrow is marked on your container, that doesn’t mean the product is recyclable. The only types of post-consumer plastic for which there are markets are marked #1 and #2 and these products are typically downcycled into fibers for fleece jackets and carpets. A plastic bottle is rarely recycled into another bottle. It’s cheaper to make virgin plastic. Contrary to the industry’s claims, plastic simply is not recyclable. In fact, less than 6% of plastics in the U.S. are repurposed by recycling facilities. Keep in mind that paper, aluminum and glass have excellent recyclability rates.

The main problem with plastic is that we are using a non-recyclable, synthetic product that lasts forever for single use only. Plastics are piling up in the biosphere and pose an unregulated health hazard for all of life. Thousands of chemical additives give plastics the many magical properties designers and engineers have enjoyed for decades. Many of these additives are unfortunately well-known carcinogens, neurotoxins and endocrine disruptors. Still, all plastics are presumed innocent until otherwise proven. This is very different from the pharmaceutical industry that must prove the safety of drugs and vaccines prior to sale. 

Each year new products are released without any testing for toxicity and 40% of plastics are for single-use packaging, many of them for food. Some 500 billion plastic bottles are sold each year. And now the industry is proposing “chemical recycling” as a solution to the plastic crisis; that’s a fancy term for burning plastics in a process that creates pollution.

Plastic manufacturing, use and disposal introduce potential threats to human health at every stage of the product’s life cycle. Plastics don’t break down, but rather break up into tiny pieces. These microplastics are now being internalized by us. Conservative estimates suggest that every year we’re eating, drinking and inhaling between 74,000 to 121,000 microplastic particles per year.

Plastic water bottles contain an especially high number of particulates. And please don’t microwave food in plastic containers. You’ll never know the harmful chemicals you digest with your dinner. It’s especially concerning that in 2021 a team of Italian scientists discovered that plastics are crossing into human placenta and are present in the fetus at birth. Infant neurodevelopmental pathways are particularly sensitive.

The Minderoo-Monaco Commission on Plastics and Human Health warns in a sobering report published in March 2023 that plastics are a threat to human and planetary health. They estimate “that in 2015 the health-related costs of plastic production exceeded $250 billion globally, and that in the U.S. alone the health costs of disease, disability and premature death caused by three plastic chemicals alone exceeded $920 billion.”

Since the 1950s, over 8 billion tons of plastics have been produced, that’s equal to one ton per person alive today. More than half of plastics ever made were manufactured in the last 15 years. Fossil fuel industries are pivoting toward even more plastic production now that climate-conscious consumers are transitioning away from natural gas, coal and oil and toward renewables.

And the 230-fold increase in global plastic production since 1950 is projected to triple by 2050. Oceana, the global ocean conservation group, reported that generated 709 million pounds of plastic packaging waste in 2021, an 18% increase over the 2020’s estimate of 599 million pounds of plastic waste. We must stop this trend. The plastic pollution problem is recent and there’s no doubt we caused it. And, yes, it’s up to us to curb this crisis.

The market’s failure to scale up recycling to meet production rates demands stronger regulation on the manufacturing side. We can all participate in the personal, behavioral, societal and legislative changes needed to reduce unnecessary plastic pollution. Visit to learn how you can help end plastic pollution.

We need to pause non-essential plastic production until we understand the impact these synthetics are having on human health. We need bans on certain single-use plastics, reduction in the complexity and toxicity of plastics, better Bottle Bills & improved Extended Producer Responsibility and for the Break Free From Plastics Bill to be approved. 

Join Beyond Plastics and learn how you can be part of the nationwide movement to curb the plastic pollution crisis.


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