How many times today have you and your children used plastic? Don’t forget the device you are currently reading this on, the lid on that to-go coffee, or the single-use snack bag. Chances are the number is high. Plastic is ubiquitous, even for those of us who try to avoid it, and it’s bad news. A new report just out from The Minderoo-Monaco Commission on Plastics and Human Health tells us just how bad.
The report by a group of researchers from the Australian foundation Minderoo, the Scientific Center of Monaco, and Boston College comprehensively demonstrates plastics’ risks for humans, the environment, and the economy. The commission concludes that “to protect human and planetary health, especially the health of vulnerable and at-risk populations” the world’s nations need to urgently adopt a strong and comprehensive Global Plastics Treaty, which was initiated at the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA) in March 2022.
The commission specifically recommends a cap on global production, bans on certain plastics, including single-use, and regulation of the toxic chemicals used to manufacture plastics. Many of these chemical additives are considered a risk, the report says, though not all have been tested for safety.
The next Global Plastics Treaty meeting will take place in May in Paris. The commission warns that while manufacture and use of essential plastics may continue, failing to act now on “reckless increases in plastic production” will have immense costs.
Plastics have arguably benefitted society—think about fields like medicine and aerospace—but they’re also incredibly harmful at every stage of their life cycle, from extraction of the fossil fuels used to create them to their disposal. Until now the extents of these harms have not been “systematically assessed, their magnitude not fully quantified, and their economic costs not comprehensively counted,” says the report.
The commission examines impacts across three phases of plastics’ life cycle (production, use, and disposal) on:
- human health and well-being
- the global environment, especially the ocean (where plastic contaminates aquatic life and enters the human food chain)
- the economy
- vulnerable populations—the poor, minorities, and the world’s children
Where did all this plastic come from?
Plastic hasn’t always been this omnipresent. Global production has increased exponentially since World War II. More than half of all plastic ever made has been produced since 2002. Annual production had a 230-fold increase from 1950 to 2019 and is on track to triple by 2060. The commission says the Earth and humans can’t handle such an onslaught of hazardous materials. Single-use plastics are of specific concern; they account for 35 to 40% of current production and are the most rapidly growing segment of manufacture.
Over 98% of plastics are produced from coal, oil, and gas. It’s an energy-intensive endeavor and contributes significantly to climate change. Among the thousands of highly toxic chemicals used to make plastics flexible, colorful, and flame retardant, among other marketable characteristics, are known carcinogens, neurotoxicants, and endocrine disruptors.
The commission’s findings may give you pause about your plastic water bottle, but plastic is particularly bad for the workers who produce and dispose of it: coal miners, oil and gas field workers, plastic textile makers, and recycling workers. The report details a wide range of health concerns that touch all of them in various ways, including a variety of cancers, lung and cardiovascular diseases, premature birth, and even death.
Plastic is an environmental justice issue.
Adverse effects of plastic production are not evenly distributed. “They disproportionately affect poor, disempowered, and marginalized populations such as workers, racial and ethnic minorities, ‘fenceline’ communities, Indigenous groups, women, and children, all of whom had little to do with creating the current plastics crisis,” notes the report.
Disposal of plastic is dismally inefficient; recovery and recycling rates are below 10% globally. Instead, a ridiculous amount of plastic waste, much of it single-use, enters the environment yearly, adding to plastic waste that has been accumulating for decades, creating widespread environmental damage. Mostly it goes to landfills, gets burned, or is exported, typically from high-income to low-income countries, where it accumulates in their landfills and pollutes their air and water—environmental injustice on a global scale. E-waste is particularly problematic, the report notes.
The cost of plastic.
The economics of plastic’s health and environmental impacts are staggering. “The bottom line is that plastic is not nearly as cheap as we thought it was, it’s just that the costs have been invisible,” Dr. Philip Landrigan, a pediatrician, director at the Boston College Global Observatory on Planetary Health, and lead author of the report, told Environmental Health News (EHN).
Health-related costs resulting from plastic production were more than $250 billion in 2015, the report found. The commission’s recommendations, including a global cap on plastic production, could help mitigate those costs to environmental health and the economy, but only if enacted.
Surrounded by so much plastic in daily life, it feels impossible to enact this level of change, but Dr. Landrigan told EHN that there are historical examples of policy changing the environment for the better, such as the Clean Air Act, which reduced US air pollution by 77% from 1970 to 2019. He should know; Dr. Landrigan’s research was instrumental to bans on lead-based paint and leaded gasoline back when they were both the norm.
Still, Dr. Landrigan added, “if we don’t act courageously and just let the plastic crisis continue to escalate, it’ll spin out of control.”