In Part 1 of this story we discussed the enormity of the global scourge of plastic proliferation and some of the dangers it poses. We sketched out some local and regional attempts to abate it, and we hope made it clear that such measures are so woefully inadequate as to be almost laughable were they also not so necessary as part of an overall strategy to halt this new pandemic. In this second of three parts, we’ll talk about some of the known and suspected human health harms of plastic exposure, the setbacks brought about during the ongoing Covid crisis, and the intricate relationship between fossil fuels and their byproducts: plastics. In the last part we’ll share some bigger-scale ideas for coping with this gargantuan problem.
New research shows that as well as harming sea animals from the smallest fish to the largest whales to entire coral reefs, plastics and microplastics are dangerous to human health.
One industrial chemical that’s been used in plastics manufacturing since the 1950s is Bisphenol A (BPA). Exposure to this toxin comes from, among other uses, the inner linings of metal cans and jar lids, flooring, adhesives, paints, electronics, dental fillings and crown materials, health care equipment, paper production, and toys and other articles for children and infants. Although it was little studied as a risk to human health until the last decade, BPA has been shown to play a role in the pathogenesis of several endocrine disorders including female and male infertility, early-onset puberty, hormone-dependent tumors such as breast and prostate cancer, and several metabolic disorders including polycystic ovary syndrome. These endocrine disruptors might also be involved in cancers, obesity, diabetes, and other diseases.
Research has revealed that BPA concentrations are 11 times higher in infants, whose livers can’t metabolize it as well as adults’ can, increasing the risk to babies. BPA can also cause asthma in newborns and babies.
Probably aware of this, many manufacturers market their products as “BPA-free,” but there is no governmental regulation of BPA or its replacements despite the mounting evidence of harm. Indeed, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), responsible for regulation of food packaging in the United States, continues to maintain the material’s safety. The European Union has restricted its use in a variety of ways, listing it as a “substance of very high concern (SVHCs) due to its toxic for reproduction and endocrine-disrupting properties that may cause adverse effects to people’s health and to the environment,” but not banned it altogether.
BPA is not the only chemical that gets trapped and transmitted through plastic; it has simply had the most media attention. Taking it off the market has allowed the plastics industry to claim it’s offering something safer, yet scientific research is showing that this is not so.
Nancy L. Wayne, a reproductive endocrinologist and professor of physiology at the David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles, and fellow scientists published findings in Endocrinology in 2016 showing that BPA’s common replacement, Bisphenol-S (BPS), similarly disrupts pathways involving thyroid hormone receptors, which regulate metabolism, and aromatase, an enzyme that helps produce estrogen. Wayne told a reporter for Yale Scientific at the time of its publication, “This is an important message to get out: BPA-free is a marketing scheme, or scam. Industries are swapping one endocrine-disrupting chemical for another, and they’re calling it BPA-free because BPA has gotten a lot of media attention.”
Another study, undertaken by a team of German and Chinese researchers and published in the peer-reviewed journal Environment International in October 2020, showed that most plastics leach chemicals that act as estrogens and endocrine disruptors in the environment.
Marine biologist Christine Figgener believes that this study and others cited in Shanna Swan and Stacey Colino’s 2021 book Count Down: How Our Modern World Is Threatening Sperm Counts, Altering Male and Female Reproductive Development, and Imperiling the Future of the Human Race are clear examples of the adverse health effects that plastics have on humans.
“If we are talking about endocrine disruptors,” says Figgener, “we can already see that certain [animal] populations are having either problems with feminization — for example, because certain toxins act as a type of estrogen. This feminizes the population, which can lead to infertility, [miscarriages] — or in males, for example, their reproductive organs do not develop as they should. Those are things we are already seeing in humans as well.”
Cornell University Civic Ecology Lab researcher Bethany Jorgensen teaches a course about plastic impacts on life on Earth and various ways of solving these issues. Each semester Jorgensen makes sure to talk with her students about the effect plastics have on students’ own endocrine system, which regulates their hormones. She says this topic seems to inspire her students towards change.
“We just don’t quite care enough about [other species], unfortunately,” Jorgensen says, “but when it comes to ‘Wait a minute, humans may not be able to reproduce by 2045?’ it starts to get a little more attention, almost on the border of being sensational.”
Jorgensen points out that plastics can also serve as vectors for disease and “life rafts” for organisms. “[Plastics] serve as habitats in new and novel ways,” she says. “They provide little floats in the ocean or in rivers and lakes and provide habitat that wouldn’t necessarily have been there [before]. These transportation systems could introduce invasive species such as algae into new environments and help spread diseases that previously never would have gotten close to human communities.”
Side Effects of Covid . . . and Capitalism
Covid-19 has had a massive impact on all aspects of society including, as Bloom and McCann noted, plastic proliferation. As everything shifted away from face-to-face, the plastic industry swooped in to “save the day,” presenting single-use plastics as “covid safe.” In response to the pandemic, New York delayed its plastic bag ban and California paused its tax on plastic bags.
Additionally, the world saw an increase in takeout and delivery services, which typically package their food in plastic containers and bags. This increase was necessitated by stay-at-home orders from governments and citywide or regional shutdowns around the planet. The switch to contactless delivery kept people slightly safer and helped limit the spread of the virus, but it led to massive increases in waste production.
The pandemic precipitated a surge in takeout and delivery, with the accompanying waste including hard- or impossible-to-recycle plastics.
Despite these setbacks, says SBAG’s Tom Shelley, speaking from his own experience working on legislation, plastic bans and strict regulations will find their footing again. However, he points out, there is a big difference between passing legislation and enforcing it.
Covid-19 has also managed to expose the fragility of capitalism, notes David Klein, a mathematical physicist and professor of mathematics at California State University Northridge, where he teaches courses in the Climate Science Program. He is a member of System Change Not Climate Change and author of the downloadable ebook Capitalism and Climate Change: The Science and Politics of Global Warming. Klein says the pandemic has underscored how ineffective capitalism is at dealing with public health crises as companies have unapologetically prioritized profits over human life.
“Vaccine patents are being withheld because of the profit motive of companies like Pfizer and Moderna,” says Klein. “These companies would just as soon see tens of thousands more people die than give up the method for production of these vaccines.”
The virus also highlights other inadequacies of capitalism.
“The covid pandemic has revealed how brittle capitalism is, that a health crisis could threaten to shut down the entire economy,” Klein says. “Whereas if we had a different system, like an ecosocialist system in which profit doesn’t drive every activity, where the wellbeing of society and the biosphere are highly valued, this could have been dealt with in a much simpler way — and a much more effective way.”
An ecosocialist approach would have put global health above profit.
A Brief History
Plastics have taken many forms since they were invented. That they are now an environmental scourge is ironic in that they were initially intended to do nature a service. In 1869 the first plastic compound was designed to replace ivory in balls for billiards, a sport that had exploded in popularity among the elites of the United States and Britain, in the hopes of saving elephants from extinction. Called celluloid, it would soon dominate the market, being used in such things as combs and film, as outlined in journalist Susan Freinkel’s 2011 book Plastic: A Toxic Love Story. Celluloid would soon be replaced by the formaldehyde-phenol-based Bakelite (polyoxybenzylmethylenglycolanhydride) and other plastic ancestors until the modern concept of a plastic was invented: polystyrene. A petroleum-based compound, polystyrene took the world by storm with Styrofoam, its highly popular foamed form.
See our related story on types of plastics
and their recyclability — or lack thereof.
Styrofoam takes hundreds of years to biodegrade and cannot be reused or recycled. It sits in landfills and breaks into pieces and microplastics over time. Eventually these microplastics along with larger plastics end up in the ocean, getting caught in the current and forming enormous masses like the ultimate symbol of plastic waste, the Great Pacific Trash Vortex, aka the great Pacific garbage patch.
Science Advances published a landmark 2017 study by Roland Geyer of the University of California, Santa Barbara, and colleagues. The researchers estimated that from its inception through 2015, 8,300,000,000 metric tons of plastics had been manufactured (44% of it since 2000), generating 6,300,000,000 Mt waste, only about 9% of which had been recycled.
One source of non-recyclable plastics entering the market comes from the pharmaceutical industry. After the unsolved Chicago Tylenol murders of 1982, where capsules of Tylenol were laced with potassium cyanide, manufacturer Johnson & Johnson changed the packaging of various medicines, adding blister packs and induction seals to the existing packaging. Other companies followed suit, and in response to subsequent copycat crimes tampering with foodstuffs, so did food suppliers.
The panic engendered by the poisonings surely contributed to the public’s willingness (even eagerness) to purchase heavily plastic-packaged goods.
Fear is a great seller, and companies like Nestlē, PepsiCo, and Coca-Cola have capitalized on people’s suspicions (mostly groundless in rich countries) about contaminated drinking water. These fears have grown, especially since the early 2000s.
Few industries are based on anything as fabricated, absurd, and wasteful as the disposable plastic water bottle market, skewered by Annie Leonard in her acclaimed 2010 short film The Story of Bottled Water. More than two trillion disposable plastic bottles of water had by then been sold in the United States, including what the industry touts as “flavored,” “functional,” and “physician-engineered” water. Since then the numbers have continued to rise, and bottled water has successfully been sold as a “healthy alternative to soft drinks.” The Guardian reported in 2017 that a million plastic bottles were purchased worldwide every minute and the number would grow 20 percent by 2021. Most of them end up in landfills, or the seas.
Forbes and too-few other media outlets reported that Coca-Cola’s senior vice president and communications and sustainability officer, Bea Perez, declared at the 2020 World Economic Forum that the company would continue selling single-use bottles because “customers preferred them.” But in a survey undertaken by Piplsay of more than 32,000 U.S. residents at the time, only 8% of respondents said they “didn’t care what brands did about the environment,” indicating that Coca-Cola executives are both out of touch with their customers and also — no surprise —committed to following their corporate mission of profit above all.
Shockingly, what also failed to make mainstream media reports — or galvanize a radical public shift away from buying bottled water — were scientists’ warnings that the world’s addiction to plastic is as great a threat to life on earth as climate change.
Bedfellows: Big Plastic and Big Oil
A 2019 Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL) report, titled Plastic & Climate: The Hidden Costs of a Plastic Planet, notes that most modern plastics like polystyrene are made from byproducts of the oil and gas industries. As such, big fossil fuel, plastics, and the climate crisis are intricately linked. The paper explains:
“Nearly every piece of plastic begins as a fossil fuel, and greenhouse gases are emitted at each of each stage of the plastic lifecycle:
- fossil fuel extraction and transport,
- plastic refining and manufacture,
- managing plastic waste, and
- plastic’s ongoing impact once it reaches our oceans, waterways, and landscape.”
Through the refining process for gasoline and gas, byproducts are left over and turned into plastics. Continued production of gas and oil would necessitate continued production of plastics, as the byproducts would end up in landfills regardless.
Thus the world is left with a compound dilemma: Not many people want a dirtied sea and destroyed planet, but many places around the world are still reliant on the fossil fuel industry.
So much plastic is used, as with bottled water, for a few minutes or even seconds before being discarded. And yet to make that plastic took enormous amounts of energy.
From cradle to grave — that is, from its production through its waste process — plastic releases immeasurable millions of tons of pollutants and greenhouse gases. Remember that plastics are byproducts of coal, methane (“natural” gas), and crude oil, thus their entire lifecycle is one big polluting enterprise, from the cracking process that turns the base elements into plastic, through the refining process, the transportation and distribution of its components, their manufacture into goods, and finally plastic waste management or recycling and eventual long-term decomposition.
Sarah-Jeanne Royer, a researcher at University of Hawai’i at Manoa, published research showing that low-density polyethylene (LDPE) and other types of plastics release greenhouse gases like methane and ethylene when exposed to solar radiation for extended periods of time.
When Iris Marie Bloom was out protesting fracking for methane in Pennsylvania, she told everyone she could about the link between fracking and the plastic industry. “When people are using their single-use cups and straws and everything else, they are not thinking about fracking,” Bloom says. It has taken time for that understanding to become widespread among antifracking activists.
“[The Mariner East Pipeline] is going to be used mostly to export [fracking byproduct ethane] across the ocean to Norway [and Scotland] to be used for plastic,” Bloom says. “When we were first resisting the Mariner East Pipeline, nobody really understood that connection, and now everyone resisting [it] totally understands its connection to plastic.”
Cal State Northridge professor Klein feels that as public sentiment turns against fossil fuels, to maintain their profits oil and gas companies will push for even further integration of plastic into daily life. However, Klein reminds us, less than 100 years ago plastic was a foreign substance: The world does not need plastic.
“If we think back a few decades to World War II and before, people somehow survived with no plastic,” Klein points out. “They were able to go and buy food with no plastic, go to restaurants, eat food there, and bring [leftovers] home … and not use plastic.”
Alex Hartzog was the summer 2021 SCNCC writing and reporting intern through the Park Center for Independent Media, during which time he was deeply immersed in research on plastic pollution. He will receive his degree in journalism from Ithaca College in Ithaca, New York, USA, in December 2021. Maura Stephens is a longtime independent journalist and member of System Change Not Climate Change’s coordinating committee and editorial board. Read the third part of this three-part series here and the related story about what can and can’t be recycled here.