Zero Hour on Plastic Pollution
….One Trillion Pounds a Year puts us Closer to a Crisis.
You may remember that we talked only a month ago about a United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) report on a study of 13,000 known chemicals associated with plastics and their production. Of those, at least 3,200 have one or more hazardous properties of concern, and ten groups of these chemicals are of major concern, such as PFAS and phthalates. Of particular toxicity are a wide range of chemicals in plastics with endocrine-disrupting properties, which short-circuit the hormone system even in very low doses, leading to obesity, cancer, and other diseases.
“There are these costs that are going to manifest in human health, in environmental destruction, in marine litter pollution,” says Steven Stone, deputy director of the Industry and Economy Division at the UNEP and a lead author of the report. “Those are costs that fall on everyone. But the consumer of plastic doesn’t pay for it, and neither does the producer. So that’s a massive market failure.”
That’s a lot of bad news to absorb. Probably not the best choice of words, too, when it comes to plastic and human absorption. Then last week, the UNEP dropped another urgent report on the extraordinary environmental and human costs of plastic pollution, along with a road map for the world to take action towards eliminating these dangerous chemicals altogether.
With several strategies working in tandem—like production cuts and more reuse of plastic products—the report suggests that the world might reduce plastic pollution 80 percent by 2040. The road map lands just weeks ahead of the second round of negotiations for an international treaty on plastics, which scientists and antipollution groups hope results in a significant cap on production.
Stone says the report emphasizes the devastating price of our addiction to plastic, “particularly when it comes to human health costs of plastics—so endocrine disruption, cognitive impairments, and cancers. Take those along with the cleanup costs of plastic pollution, you get in the range of $300 billion to $600 billion a year. This report is a message of hope—we are not doomed to incurring all of these costs.” In fact, Stone and the report notes, with action on plastic pollution, we might avoid $4.5 trillion in costs by 2040.
Plastic is, at the end of the day, a highly toxic material that’s become a necessity, we think, in our daily lives. The goal above all others should be to stop manufacturing so much of the stuff, so the new road map calls for eliminating unnecessary plastics, like the single-use variety we’ve talked about here frequently. The challenge is that plastic remains absurdly cheap to produce- its many external costs be damned.
“This road map is headed in the right direction but must go much further to curb new plastics production,” says Dianna Cohen, CEO and cofounder of Plastic Pollution Coalition. “We are glad to see an emphasis on reduction and reuse, which are key elements of solutions to plastic pollution, as these actions can most rapidly help us diminish plastic production. Missing in the report is requiring industrial/corporate entities that produce material items to stop making more toxic fossil-fuel plastic, full stop.”
We know the dangers, but have you ever wondered just how plastics get into our bodies in the first place? In a new study published in the journal Science of the Total Environment, researchers explore how microplastics enter our blood at the molecular level. For this research, scientists focused on polystyrene plastics, which are most often used in food packaging, and nanotubes used in sporting goods, coatings, and electronics.
They found that microplastics are likely to enter the human body via diet and inhalation before being engulfed by (deep breath for the technical stuff here) macrophages, a white blood cell that surrounds and kills foreign materials as part of your body's immune response. A receptor found on macrophages known as TIM4 binds to microplastics in an effort to break them down.
This is the first time we've looked at this process at a molecular level. But we already know that nanoplastics (micros even smaller brother) may be able to penetrate cell membranes in the gut and make their way to other organs, says Michael Kleinman, a professor of environmental toxicology at the University of California Irvine. Both micro- and nanoplastics are hard to remove from both air and water simply because of their diminutive size.
"There is evidence from animal and cell culture studies that NP (nanoplastics) exposures are pro-inflammatory and can induce oxidative stress," says Kleinman. "When they occur in humans, these changes could be associated with lung and heart diseases, but definitive human studies are just lacking at this time."
Kleinman says that we still don't know enough about how many nanoplastics are distributed in our environment and how much they build up in our bodies. If they are already broken down in our air, water or soil, avoiding them becomes next to impossible. If you’ve read our previous discussions here, you already know you can reduce plastic exposure by buying produce and foods not wrapped in plastics, choosing glass containers instead of plastic, bringing your own bags, steer clear of single-use plastic water bottles- but the bad news is it's hard to know our full exposure. Sadly, what this new emergency report drives home is that microplastics are a societal and global problem- one that can't just be solved at home for now.