Plastic is a major source of greenhouse gas emissions, and the additives used to enhance this deceptively versatile material are often hazardous to human health. All the while, the plastics industry makes sure the demand – that they invented in the first place – keeps growing. Calling plastic the super-villain of chemical products is no exaggeration. But how did we end up in this dystopian tale? And what heroic measures can get us out of it?
Plastics is a prime example of the creation of a market, rather than the fulfillment of a need. It’s genius, when you think about it: Using initially unwanted by-products from the fossil industry to build a market with made-up demand for single-use, disposable products, which are now completely intwined with society. A marketing dream come true!
Create the demand, grow the market – and dodge responsibility
The plastics industry has successfully fought regulation and opposed bans at every turn, exhibiting a complete disregard for the end-of-life phase of their products. When concerned voices were raised, the industry simply invented the (false) solution of “recycletopia”, incorrectly claiming that every piece of plastic can be recycled, and placed the responsibility of realizing this pipe dream on consumers.
In reality, only about 10 percent of all plastics is recycled. Due to – among other things – structural differences between different kinds of plastic, as well as the lack of infrastructure, that number is never going to come anywhere close to 100.
But by perpetuating the dream, the forces flooding the market with plastics are able to wash their hands of any responsibility, while locking society into the unabated, ever-growing use of plastics.
“The plastic industry snaps the fingers of its invisible hand and doubles the yearly amount of plastics produced – currently a whopping 400 million tons”
It’s impossible not to be impressed by the lack of scruples. We are talking about a Thanos-level of cunning here! Only, instead of snapping the Infinity Gauntlet to cut the populations of the universe in half, the plastic industry snaps the fingers of its invisible hand and doubles the yearly amount of plastics produced – currently a whopping 400 million tons.
We’ve previously written about plastics being a major – maybe one of the greatest – sources of greenhouse gas emissions, due to production, but especially because of the embedded carbon debt. There is no doubt that plastic plays, and will continue to play, an integral part in the climate crisis we are, very knowingly, still headed towards.
Not just a climate crisis, but one of human health too
As if the environmental issues weren’t enough, the super-villain we call plastic has yet another scheme – aimed at human health.
There’s a wide variety of polymers (the building blocks) in plastics, ranging from classic simple olefins, such as polypropylene and polyethylene, to extremely complex polymers with fluorinated sidechains. The different properties of these polymers are necessary to fulfill the different functional requirements.
“The one thing most of the additives have in common, though, is that they are hazardous”
However, to add further modifiability to the polymer, chemicals are added in the process of shaping the material. These chemicals – called additives – provide additional properties, or enhance existing ones, such as heat resistance, UV-stabilization, softness and flexibility.
Additives come in many different shapes and offer a variety of features. The one thing most of the additives have in common, though, is that they are hazardous. As in, impacting human health in a negative way.
Plastic is ubiquitous, produced in staggering amounts and present in virtually every product on the market. There are very few articles that can honestly wear the label “free from plastic” today. And most of these products are being used by us – human beings. So shouldn’t it be a given to make damned sure that plastic additives are safe?
One might think so, but we have seen many studies pointing to the hazardous properties of additives in all kinds of plastic material: packaging as well as plastic products in general. It’s safe to say that safety has not been top priority when adding chemicals to polymers.
This super-villain has countless minions and evasion tactics
The long list of hazardous chemicals used as plastic additives includes bisphenols and phthalates (endocrine disruptive), brominated flame retardants (bio-accumulative and carcinogenic) and perfluorinated chemicals (PFAS, also known as “forever chemicals”, due to their extreme persistence).
In addition, plastic additives have provided continuous examples of how to perform regrettable substitution – replacing a hazardous chemical with one that is equally bad, or even worse.
The move from Bisphenol A to Bisphenol F and S is one example, as well as the many variants of phthalates used as plasticizers, making the plastic soft and flexible.
“Functionality – not chemical safety – seems to be the overarching priority when it comes to plastic materials”
Slow-moving regulation and the strategy of banning one substance at a time has not been a successful recipe for keeping hazardous substances out of plastic products. Especially not when the industry fails to adhere to the precautionary principle of “better safe than sorry”.
So far, we have seen very little action and few viable solutions for how to move away from the use of hazardous substances as additives. Functionality – not chemical safety – seems to be the overarching priority when it comes to plastic materials.
So how do we beat this foe?
The climate impact of plastic production and use is huge, but the impact of hazardous additives on human health is equally large and concerning. Reducing the amount of plastics would solve both problems, but since these materials have become so intertwined with and integral to society, a general reduction might be difficult to achieve.
A more feasible path could be simplification – decreasing the vast variety of available plastics. Fewer kinds of plastics mean fewer additives, which would make it easier to achieve transparency and choose safe and sustainable solutions. Other remedies include increased use and development of alternative materials, as well as systems and infrastructure for rewarded recycling (“cash for trash”).
“It’s imperative that the upcoming legislation covers the toxicity of plastics and plastic additives as well”
But perhaps the most interesting “fix” is the concept of Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), where manufacturers and importers are at least partially responsible for the environmental impacts of their products throughout the product life-cycle.
Imagine plastic producers being responsible for plastic waste – wouldn’t that be something?
Just yesterday, 175 countries passed a historic resolution at the UN Environment Assembly in Nairobi to end plastic pollution and forge an international legally binding agreement by 2024. The resolution addresses the full lifecycle of plastic, including production, design and disposal.
While this is truly great news, and we welcome this huge leap forward, pollution is just one aspect of the plastics problem. It’s imperative that the upcoming legislation covers the toxicity of plastics and plastic additives as well. For the time being, it seems we’re pretty much stuck with these materials. The very least we can do is ensure that the plastics produced and used is safe – free from hazardous substances.