Plastic is toxic at every stage of its life cycle

plastic bottles floating in water
Public Domain MaxPixel

At no point does it ever stop harming us.

In case you had any doubts about how bad plastic really is, a new study out of the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL) has just revealed that plastic is toxic at every stage of its life cycle.

The 75-page document is a sobering read. It points out the shortsightedness of focusing on specific moments in the plastic life cycle, rather than the entire picture. We know that oil refining, microplastics, plastic packaging, and recycling are huge problems on their own, but put them all together and you have an even more dire situation on your hands.

The report reveals "numerous exposure routes through which human health is impacted at each stage". In other words, quitting single-use disposables and living zero-waste doesn't mean you're safe. Your health – and that of your family – continues to be affected by plastic in ways you might not even realize. These include:

  • Extraction and Transportation of fossil feedstocks for plastic, which releases toxic chemicals like benzene, VOCs, and 170+ fracking fluid chemicals into the air. These are inhaled or ingested, leading to immune dysfunction, cancer, and neuro-, reproductive, and developmental toxicity, among other things.
  • Refining and Manufacturing of plastic resins and feedstocks is linked to "impairment of the nervous system, reproductive and developmental problems, cancer, leukemia, and genetic impacts like low birth weight."
  • Consumer use of plastic products exposes users to countless unnamed chemicals (which are not listed as ingredients), heavy metals, carcinogens, and microplastics. People ingest, inhale, and touch these to their skin.
  • Plastic waste management, especially "waste to energy" incineration, releases toxic chemicals into the air, which are absorbed by soil, air, and water, causing indirect harm to people and communities nearby (and sometimes far away).
  • Fragmenting of plastic results in microplastic pieces entering the environment and human body, leading to "an array of health impacts, including inflammation, genotoxicity, oxidative stress, apoptosis, and necrosis."
  • Degradation of plastic results in more chemical leaching. "As plastic particles degrade, new surface areas are exposed, allowing continued leaching of additives from the core to the surface of the particle in the environment and the human body."

Where does one even begin with this information?

In a way, it shouldn't come as a surprise. We know plastic is an environmental scourge with real health implications, but to see it analyzed so comprehensively makes the issue more urgent than ever.

The study authors call for plastic exposure to be treated as a human rights issue, saying we need laws that require accurate information about what goes into plastic products at all stages of manufacture and transparency in the development of solutions.

Von Hernandez, global coordinator for the Break Free From Plastic movement, is quoted in the report's executive summary:

"It is shocking how the existing regulatory regime continues to give the whole plastic industrial complex the license to play Russian roulette with our lives and our health. Plastic is lethal, and this report shows us why."

Dire as it may be, we cannot let it overwhelm or discourage us. Knowledge is power, as the saying goes, and this report offers precisely that. Individuals, communities, health care providers, and policy makers can use it as an effective negotiating tool when it comes to confronting the companies and corporations that continue to churn out plastic at high rates. And confront them we must – especially now that we know what's at stake.

Read the full study here.

Plastic is toxic at every stage of its life cycle
At no point does it ever stop harming us.

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