The Problem with Plastics
For the first time, microparticles of plastic have been detected in human blood. Such was the disturbing result of a recent scientific study in the Netherlands. It was the latest in a series of studies that show plastics have been accumulating in human tissues and organs such as the lungs, liver and kidneys. These microparticles, which come from degraded or ground up plastic products, are today found everywhere in our food, water, soil and air. According to one recent article, people now eat the equivalent of one credit card (i.e., five grams) worth of microparticles a week. The American Chemical Society has estimated that, by the age of 70, the average adult could have more than 50,000 microparticles lodged in their tissues.
Even more disturbing are other studies that show babies have at least fifteen times as much plastic particles in their fecal material as adults,  and that these particles can even make their way into the placenta of pregnant women, possibly impacting the fetus. One explanation for the high rate for babies is that they often chew on plastic toys and soothers, as well as crawl around on carpets that contain microplastics.
For both adults and children, there is the added dinner table problem of particles embedded in the flesh of fish products. Other recent research has shown that even fruits and vegetables are not immune, and that produce such as carrots, lettuce, broccoli, potatoes, apples and pears have microplastics in them sucked up through their roots.
So, what is this versatile substance that has spread just about everywhere on earth? Plastics are compounds made up of long chains of atoms and molecules called polymers which are mainly derived from petroleum and other fossil fuels, although they are also found in nature. It is these long chains and the patterns they form that make polymers strong, light, cheap and easily shaped.
The invention of plastics was an important development in the scientific revolution of the last few centuries. For thousands of years, human beings were limited to the materials at hand that nature supplied, such as wood, metal, stone, bone, tusk and horn. In the space of a few decades that all changed with plastics having the capacity to be molded, pressed and shaped into an endless range of products that could easily be mass produced.
Alexander Parkes, an English inventor, is credited with developing the first human-made plastic in 1855, called Parkesine. He did so in order to provide an alternative to ivory as many elephants were being slaughtered for their tusks to make billiard balls for the English upper crust. In 1907, Leo Baekeland invented Bakelite which was the first fully synthetic plastic. Other major scientific advances in plastic production followed. Utilizing these advances, giant corporations and conglomerates, such as I.G. Farben in Germany and Union Carbide in the U.S., expanded to dominate the industry, commandeering hundreds of thousands of scientists, technicians and workers.
The Second World War proved to be a great windfall for the oligarchs of the plastics industry in the U.S., Europe and elsewhere. Nylon was used for parachutes and ropes; plexiglass for aircraft windows; synthetic rubber for tires, tank treads and soldiers’ boots. And there was much more as plastic gave rise to a bewildering array of products. Especially after the war, in market after market, “plastics challenged traditional materials and won, taking the place of steel in cars, paper and glass in packaging, and wood in furniture.”
Today, we live in a society where the many varieties of plastic have become an essential part of modern life and industry. This substance plays a key role in medical equipment, communication technology (computers, televisions and cell phones), construction materials, manufacturing machinery, and vehicles. Plastics are literally everywhere in our homes, including microbeads in our toothpaste and cosmetics, disposable bottles and cups, grocery bags, wrapping materials, linings of food cans, synthetic clothing, rugs, furniture, tiles, pens, and hundreds of other products.
But there are downsides to plastics, the proliferation of microparticles in the environment being just one. For many critics, the world is drowning in all sorts of disposable plastic waste. About 400 million tons of this waste are created every year with the U.S. generating the most of all countries in the world. Between 1950 and 2017, 9.2 billion tons of waste was accumulated, with most of it dumped into the oceans, shoved into landfills or left exposed on the land.
Today, plastic waste can be found everywhere from the heights of Mount Everest to the deepest depths of the ocean. Even the pristine Arctic is accumulating all sorts of waste which has been transported from elsewhere by ocean currents, wind and shipping . “Garbage patches” of waste have formed into giant swirling gyres in the oceans with the Pacific patch thought by some to be twice the size of Texas. The situation has gotten so bad that in a resolution passed on March 2, 2022, the United Nations Environment Assembly has called for a legally binding instrument on plastic pollution, including in the marine environment.
The problem is that plastic “lives forever” or at least for a very long time. For example, a foam cup will exist for 50 years, a beverage holder for 400 years, and a disposable diaper for 450 years (Wikipedia). Other plastic products can last for literally thousands of years. Furthermore, most plastic products do not degrade but rather disintegrate into microparticles which can then persist indefinitely in water, soil and air. In regards to the overall environment, plastics are one of the “novel entities” that some scientists believe are exceeding the planetary boundaries and “are threatening the integrity of Earth system processes” and the safety of human beings.
Pure plastics are thought to be biochemically inert with a low toxicity, although some experts suspect that they could have an effect to that of asbestos in causing disease. In addition, there are 10,000 additives and chemicals used to create the different varieties of plastics and these can leach into the environment from from the plastic objects over time. A number of these additives are highly toxic to humans, animals and other life forms. In that regard, health problems associated with microplastics include cancer, endocrine and metabolic disorders, obesity, diabetes, liver disease, chronic inflammation, asthma, and a host of other conditions. Not only is the general public endangered by overexposure to plastics and associated chemicals but also the millions of workers, technicians and scientists who work in the industry.
So it is that a product which has so much actual and potential benefit for human beings has become a kind of curse. It is an example of how the productive forces of the economy have been skewed, distorted and commandeered to serve the private interests of the small number of the billionaire global oligarchs who dominate the industry. A telling example of this distortion of private over public interest has been the rise of the disposable waste side of the industry which began in the 1950s and has ramped up ever since to enormous quantities.
In the 1950s and 60s, the billionaire oligarchs of the industry came to realize that there was much more profit in disposable plastic products. Using manipulative advertising techniques and other means, they elbowed reusable and recyclable products like paper and glass out of the way. As one industry insider trumpeted in a speech to a plastic industry conference in the U.S. in 1963, “the future of plastics is the trash can.” By this he meant that it was time for the industry to stop thinking about reusable packages and concentrate instead on single use packages that would have to be purchased over and over again, thus increasing sales and profits. He even acknowledged that this would result in the industry “filling the trash cans, the rubbish dumps and the incinerators with literally billions of plastics bottles, plastic jugs, plastics bags and even plastic cans.” But to him, this was a “happy day” when people would no longer consider reusable packaging and instead opt for the disposable.
Since then, billions of tons of plastic have been discarded all over the earth with some developing countries becoming huge dumping grounds for plastic waste from Europe and North America. This goes on despite the fact that the technology and science exist to significantly alleviate the plastic problem in the richer countries.
Over the years, the plastic industry oligarchs have fought tooth and nail against any taxes, regulations or restrictions limiting their profits or their levels and types of production, resulting in an ever-increasing proliferation of plastic waste. In an attempt at “greenwashing,” the industry has championed the recycling of bottles and other plastic waste, putting the onus on individuals and communities to deal with the problem. This “solution” has been spectacularly unsuccessful given that, by one count, only about eight per cent of plastic waste is recycled in the world, with much of this so-called recycling eventually ending up in landfills or incinerators. In addition, despite all sorts of subsidies, the industry refuses to take any responsibility for the toxic legacy of billions of tons of waste that have built up over the years in landfills and oceans.
The overwhelming heaps of plastic waste in the world are an example of out of control productive forces where private interest trumps public interest. One solution being put forward by some environmentalists, scientists, politicians and even big corporations is the “circular economy” concept. A circular economy is one in which the economy operates within a closed loop which involves “sharing, leasing, reusing, repairing, refurbishing and recycling” of existing materials and products as long as possible.  This is opposed to the existing “linear economy” model where products move in one direction and are engineered to eventually end up as waste in landfills.
The circular economy concept is attractive to many who believe it could solve the problem of plastic waste as well as other environmental challenges. But is it feasible within the existing political and economic structure which puts maximum profit and the private interests of billionaire oligarchs first? Or is it the case that to achieve a real circular economy where plastics could be utilized in a rational way we need new mechanisms and systems where public interest comes first and the people are empowered to make decisions about the environment and other issues facing them?
These are all timely topics for discussion on Earth Day.
1. “Scientists Find Microplastics in Blood for First Time,” Phys.Org, March 25, 2022.
2. Dennis Thompson, “Autopsies Show Microplastics in Major Human Organs,” Healthday, August 17, 2020.
3. Doloresz Katanich, “How Much Plastic Do You Eat? It Could Be as Much as a Credit Card a Week,” Euronews.green, April 11, 2022.
4. American Chemical Society, “Estimating Lifetime Microplastic Exposure,” Science Daily, March 31, 2021.
5. Jonny Walfisz, “Babies Are Full of Microplastics, New Research Shows.” Euronews.green, October 1, 2021.
6. Lottie Limb, “Foetuses Can Be Affected by Microplastics, Scientists Find,” Euronews.green, October 27, 2021.
7. Kristin Toussaint, “Our Fruits and Veggies Are Sucking Up Microplastics Through Their Roots,” Fast Company, June 25, 2020
8. Science History Institute, “The History and Future of Plastics,” accessed March 27, 2022.
9. Rebecca Altman, “How Bad Are Plastics, Really?” The Atlantic, January 3, 2022.
10. Susan Freinkel, Plastic: A Toxic Love Story (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011).
11. “Plastic,” Wikipedia, Accessed March 27, 2022.
12. Jill Ettinger, “A Plastic Garbage Patch Is Likely Forming in the Arctic, Researchers Say,” Green Queen, April 15, 2022.
13. Linn Persson et al, “Outside the Safe Operating Space of the Planetary Boundary for Novel Entities,” Environmental Science and Technology, January 18, 2022.
14. Helene Wiesinger et al, “Deep Dive into Plastic Monomers, Additives, and Processing Aids,” Environmental Science and Technology, June 21, 2021.
15. Lloyd Stouffer, “Plastics Packaging: Today and Tomorrow,” presented to the Annual National Plastics Conference of The Society of the Plastics Industry, Inc., November 19-21, 1963.
16. Marissa Hefferman, “Google Identifies ‘Interventions’ to Boost Plastics Circularity,” Resource Recycling, March 22, 2022.
17. “Circular Economy,” Wikipedia. accessed April 17, 2022.