According to the World Economic Forum, the production of plastic is expected to double over the next 20 years. Half of the plastics in our world now have been made over the past two decades. The accumulated amount of plastic materials manufactured since 1950 is over 9 billion tons, which some researchers describe as over a ton of plastic for every person inhabiting the earth. Over 10,000 chemical additives, mainly unknown to consumers, make up 7% of the plastic products’ weight and are released over time. We have inundated our lives and natural ecosystems with these chemically infused materials, about 40% are manufactured for single use, and most last for hundreds or thousands of years.
In a recent article in The Journal of Pediatrics and Child Health, Dr. Christos Symeonides, a physician at Murdoch Children’s Research Institute, explains that the health implications of plastic materials are of concern on a few different levels. “In each application, including food packaging, we are exposed to a complex mixture of chemicals. With use, degradation products are also formed. The plastic itself fragments to micro- and nano plastics, which are small enough to pass through biological barriers, causing direct effects within tissues.” The authors indicate more concern for young children since they experience “additional exposure to plastics through oral exploratory behavior and/or non-nutritional ingestion, including their toys and accumulated chemicals in household dust and soil.”
The scientific community’s understanding of plastic waste is increasing daily, with growing concerns for environmental and human health. Not many articles on plastic waste are written by medical doctors; the final thoughts of these authors are worth communicating. “Consumers can value the full cost of the plastic we use daily, ‘choose to refuse’, and reduce use. We can be curious and ask questions about where the plastic comes from, what is in it, and where it goes. As medical professionals, we have the expertise to share the science and the respected voice to advocate for future generations’ health and the planet they depend on.”
Our massive plastic waste problem is unhealthy for humans and our earth; however, every person can play a role in fixing it. This can start with the refusal of a plastic bag, utensil, straw, bottle, packaging, or other single-use plastic today and every day.
Julie Peller, Ph.D., is an environmental chemist (Professor of Chemistry at Valparaiso University ). Julie has been writing a weekly column for the past ~6 years called the Green Junction and is helping to move the call of Laudato Si to action forward. Her Research Interests are advanced oxidation for aqueous solutions, water quality analyses, emerging contaminants, air quality analyses, Lake Michigan shoreline challenges (Cladophora, water, and sediment contaminants), and student and citizen participation in environmental work.