What is the impact on human health, society and the environment, of the use of plastic polymers in everyday life? Include long term health issues for humans and environmental risks. Where do plastics come from and why should we recycle them? Are all plastics the same? What methods should be used to safely dispose of plastics? What limitations are there to the disposal and/or recycling of plastic materials? What would be a realistic and reasonable personal course of action to reduce your use of plastics?
Especially during the 1960s, the use of plastics became enormously prevalent throughout industry and in the American home. Its application in all manner of product, from containers and electrical appliance components to medical syringes and bags and bottles, plastics rapidly became a staple of human existence – at least in the industrialized world. Unfortunately, the chemicals and processes used in the manufacture of plastics, including petroleum, which carries its own negative ramifications both environmentally and politically, polycarbonate, polystyrene, and polyvinyl chloride are all linked to environmental damage. Among the most well-known health concerns linked to plastics is Bisphenol A (BPA), which has historically been used in the manufacture of plastic bottles, including baby bottles, but which has been found to leach into foods, mainly liquids like baby formula, as a result of the molecular reactions involved in boiling such bottles for sanitary purposes – a routine practice of parents of infants.
The chemicals used in the manufacture of plastics are, by design, resilient, flexible and strong. Their light weight and flexibility were two of their most important characteristics for engineers seeking ways to lighten automobiles and containers, but those same characteristics make them harmful to the environment. Designed to be long-lasting, the chemical composition of many plastic items means they don’t break down or degrade in the environment and, consequently, are expected to be around for thousands of years. When they do degrade, either because of burning processes or natural decay, those chemicals seep into the ground and the water supplies of surrounding communities. These chemicals have been linked to the development of cancers and to the destruction of the human endocrine system, which has, in turn, been linked to breast cancer in women. In fact, the chemicals in plastics damage hormones, which leads to all kinds of health problems involving glands and tissue.
Because of the environmental harm – and resulting damage to human tissue – caused by the burning of plastics, and because of their enormously long “shelf-life” (i.e., they last a really long time), there is no good way to dispose of plastics, except through recycling. Manufacturing processes are being developed that will hopefully result in more environmentally-friendly substances, but for the foreseeable future the disposal of plastics will remain a serious challenge. The most productive system, then, is one that maximizes recycling and reduces the requirement for new manufacturing. Recycling is not a panacea, as the amount of plastic in the world greatly exceeds the ability of most societies to absorb or recycle their waste, but it is the only disposal option today.
The environmental problems associated with plastics is why individuals are urged to reduce their use of plastic bags and bottles, especially plastic grocery bags, and to substitute reusable items. The use of oil in the manufacturing process for plastics – a major market for the oil industry – not only ensures our continued dependence on fossil fuels that damage the environment, but also ensures that those manufacturing processes are inherently harmful to public health.