The Dangers of Plastics

Plastics are used for a huge range of products, from disposable cutlery and plates to cling film and food packaging. While these items are convenient for many of us, their ubiquity has created a serious environmental problem. It takes years for plastic to break down, so its chemicals persist in the environment. During this time they can contaminate water, harming plants and animals, including humans. It can also affect people’s health, with the toxins in plastics linked to cancer, birth defects and endocrine disturbance.

Because of their light weight, plastics easily travel long distances, making them a major source of pollution around the globe. Often it ends up in landfills or the ocean, with its harmful chemicals leaching into the surrounding habitat. When they are incinerated, the toxic fumes can poison local communities, causing everything from skin rashes to breathing problems and even cancer. This is especially true in marginalized communities, as in the case of the residents of Louisiana’s “Cancer Alley” whose air is filled with carcinogenic chemicals from nearby plastics plants.

While most of us don’t live close to landfills or oceans, the plastic we use is still a problem. It’s a common sight to see littered beaches or the sea floor strewn with plastic fragments. Many of these plastics are mistaken for food by marine animals and can cause illness or death. It’s estimated that plastic waste kills millions of animals each year, from whales beached with stomachs full of garbage to a sea turtle with its intestines blocked by a single balloon fragment it had swallowed.

Plastics can also entangle or block an animal, which can lead to suffocation and other life-threatening conditions. Even if they are not entangled, they can cause internal damage or blockages with chemicals that leach out of them. Marine animals are particularly vulnerable to plastic pollution, as a recent study found that nearly half of the world’s whales have ingested some kind of plastic waste in their lifetimes.

In addition to being dangerous for wildlife, plastics are dangerous to the humans that produce and use them. The processing of fossil fuels into plastic resins and additives releases carcinogenic and other toxic chemicals into the air, affecting the health of workers and nearby communities. The resulting gases are also a major contributor to global warming.

Fortunately, there are many things we can do to help reduce plastic pollution. Buy local or organic foods and avoid packaged goods whenever possible. Use reusable tupperware, glass or stainless steel water bottles and jars instead of disposable plastic. Shop at the farmers market, bulk bins and grocery stores to limit your exposure to plastic packaging. Microwaves or hot temperatures accelerate the chemical leaching from some types of plastic, so be sure to cool foods before putting them in containers made of this material. Fatty or acidic foods absorb chemicals more readily, so consider storing them in glass or metal containers. If you do use plastics, look for those with the resin code #2 HDPE or #4 LDPE and avoid using tupperware in the microwave or any plastic that is not labeled as “microwave safe.”