Just One Word: Plastics

In the March online issue of Nature, a group of scientists argued plastic should be treated as hazardous waste. They specifically urge the biggest producers—USA, Europe and Japan—to take measures to modify the current production and consumption trends. In the US, the EPA estimates 45 percent of plastics are used as containers and packaging, and that only 12 percent of these are recycled. In 2012, 280 million metric tons of plastic were produced worldwide. These scientists project that a total of 33 billion metric tons will have been produced by 2050. Less than half of the discarded plastic ends up in the landfill; the rest ends up in the wind and sea. Currently, it is classified as solid waste, such as food or glass.

Food packaging is an important part of plastic production Flickr/Creative Commons by James Offer

Food packaging is an important part of plastic production
Flickr/Creative Commons by James Offer

The scientists argue that “the physical dangers of plastic debris are well enough established, and the suggestions of chemical dangers sufficiently worrying” to take important actions. Indeed, plastic debris threatens wildlife directly—as choking and entanglement hazards—but also indirectly by being toxic or by absorbing other pollutants. According to a hazard-ranking model based on the United Nations’ Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals, chemical ingredients of more than 50 percent of plastics are hazardous1. For instance, PVC can be carcinogenic. Some other plastics such as polyethylene—used to make plastic bags—are less dangerous, but can be dangerous when absorbing other pollutants such as pesticides. Scientists quote an unpublished study to argue that at least 78 percent of priority pollutants listed by the EPA and 61 percent by the European Union are “associated with plastic debris”, which means they are ingredients of plastic or absorbed.

Public institutions have tried to grapple with plastic pollution for decades. For instance, the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL) was signed in 1973 to minimize pollution from dumping and exhaust pollution with a complete ban on the disposal of plastics at sea in 1988. Since then, problems such as the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” have gotten worse. In the European Union, the REACH law to regulate hazardous chemicals is described as the most complex sets of rules in the EU’s history and could have a significant impact, though will take years to demonstrate its effects. Even stronger suggestions exist though, such as the Center for Biological Diversity petitioning the EPA to develop rules on plastic pollution under the Clean Water Act. Still, the situation is getting worse and governments seem unable or at least unwilling to tackle the issue.

Debris, Old Toys | Flickr/Creative Commons by Orin Zebest

Debris, Old Toys | Flickr/Creative Commons by Orin Zebest

The authors suggest using the example of one of the most successful international environmental agreements: the Montreal Protocol of 1989 that classifies CFCs as hazardous. Production of these refrigerants stopped within 7 years with 200 countries replacing 30 dangerous chemical groups with safer ones. A treaty focusing on just four plastics—PVC (construction, especially pipes), polystyrene (food packaging), polyurethane (furniture) and polycarbonate (electronics)—would be a “realistic first step.” These plastics represent about 30% of production, are difficult to recycle and are made of potentially toxic materials. The new classification would allow quick action using already existing legislation. They give the example of the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980 that would allow the EPA to clean the accumulation of plastic in land, freshwater and sea under US jurisdiction. They calculated that the new classification would reduce the 33 billion metric tons of additional plastic produced by 2050 to 4 billion.

They also condemn the preferential treatment offered to the plastic industry. While food or pharmaceutical industries have to prove that their products are safe, plastic producers ask governments to prove that plastic is not safe. The authors recognize the lack of research to make definitive statements on the risks of plastic toxicity, but there is enough to invoke the precautionary principle. Regulations need to be changed to head towards a closed-loop system where plastics are re-used and recycled, starting with the most dangerous one. To those arguing the plastic industry is an important sector during an economic crisis, the authors remind readers of the costs of dealing with plastic debris. For instance, the Division of Maintenance in the California Department of Transportation reports spending approximately $41 million a year just on litter removal. Some plastic manufacturers are already working on closed-loop systems and safer materials to boost innovation. Scientists call the biggest producers to “act now,” as plastic pollution is getting worse every day and the window to deal with it effectively is closing.

Mr. Macguire in The Graduate was right, “there is a great future in plastics.” Not in unregulated production of 280 million tons a year, but in changing policies to ban the worst of them; finding ways to limit consumption of them; redesigning plastics to be environmentally benign; and in developing a closed-loop production, consumption and recycling system to avoid a catastrophic accumulation of plastic in our environment.

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