Exposure to plastic adversely affects our health, but in ways that often go unnoticed until it is too late.
Unbeknownst to many of us, plastic occupies a fair share of our diets. To put its impact into perspective, data published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology quantifies that the average person consumes between 74,000 to 121,000 particles of microplastic each year — the equivalent of one credit card’s worth per week (Cox et al., 2019; Knapton, 2019).
But, how does this plastic get into our bodies in the first place, and what does it do once it gets there?
Places of Origin
Plastic has convenient access to our body through our daily routines — via medicine, food, and water. For example, many pharmaceutical drugs are coated in plastic additives, such as phthalates, to promote slow release and therefore maximize drug absorption. But although the drugs themselves can help to alleviate medical symptoms, the side effects are devastating. This is primarily because the phthalates in synthetic plastic behave much like estrogen, interfering with reproductive functions, causing infertility and endocrine disruption, and stunting fetal development (Meeker et al., 2009).
Another way we digest plastic is through seafood, an upsetting but unsurprising reality given warnings that there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050 (MacArthur, 2016). Plastic enters the ocean through many different channels, the two most prominent being poor waste management, and textiles particles from our synthetic clothes.
In many countries (including developed ones), waste disposal practices and infrastructure are woefully mismanaged. Because of this, many private and federal organizations have been irresponsibly dumping plastic trash into waterways and uncontained landfills for years. The climate crisis has caused increased flooding and coastal erosion that sweeps landfill deposits into nearby water sources and the greater oceans (Bazley, 2019).
The majority of our clothes are now made of synthetic fabric (acrylic and polyester). Their rise to popularity began in the 50s as they were seen as chic and modern: now, it is their versatility and low cost that is so attractive.
However, when these garments are thrown into the laundry to be washed, each load can shed as much as 12 million microfibers (Hobson, 2019). Due to their small size, laundry machines and water treatment plants are incapable of filtering them out, allowing them to flow freely into the marine environment. As a result, plastic debris and fibres are widely present in fish and other seafood that is sold for human consumption. In the USA alone, researchers from UC Davis and the University of Hasanuddin found that 67% of all sampled species (that were bought directly from commercial seafood markets) contained textile fibres in their guts (Rochman et al., 2015), which led to inflammation and premature cell death.
What is even more alarming is that plastic attracts and absorbs other pollutants, including pesticides. Researchers found that when ingested, these pollutants leach out, causing liver and organ damage in the animals that ate them (Thompson, 2018). Plastic can absorb harmful water-borne toxins from industrial residuals, such as a flame retardant commonly known as PBDE (Stromberg, 2013). Thus, when plastic is ingested by marine life and finds its way into the food chain, the cycle of pollution is complete as we eat the waste and chemicals that were carelessly discarded.
In the human body, the water repellent finishings that coat our clothes are linked closely to kidney and testicular cancers, thyroid and hormone disorders, ulcerative colitis, and elevated cholesterol. They also give rise to reduced vaccination efficacy in children and reproductive fertility in both men and women (Blum, et al., 2015). Similarly, flame retardants that are meant to increase fire safety cause endocrine disruption and reproductive cancers. The harms are even more pronounced in children as neurologic dysfunction and stunted development come into play (National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, 2016).
In these ways, your sashimi ultimately ends up with a side you never intended to order.
Fortunately, consumers are waking up, and researchers worldwide are actively finding novel alternatives for plastic at the intersection of functionality, sustainability, and public health. In recent years, scientists have started to revisit the realm of bioplastics, which are derived entirely from renewable sources, rather than petroleum.
At the Institute of Chemical Research in Catalonia, chemists looked into replacing BPA in polycarbonate plastics with a limonene-based polymer, a natural product derived from citrus lemons and oranges. They have even found that this novel plastic has enhanced thermal properties due to a high melting temperature, thus making it more resistant to heat and safer for everyday use (Moore, 2017).
On the opposite end of the globe in New Zealand, Humble Bee is inspired by the Hylaeus bee, which produces a material to line its nests that is self-extinguishing when exposed to flames, resists strong, acids, high temperatures, and a range of other solvents, including paint stripper. Proving it to be a competitive alternative to its synthetic counterparts that are causing such a vast array of health complications. The team is currently studying this material in the hopes of mimicking it and developing a product that can be brought to the market in the near future.
And from Tel Aviv University in Israel, Goldberg and a team of researchers are developing plastic polymers from seaweed and microorganisms’ waste in the marine environment. (Gujjarlapudi, 2019). At the federal level, progress is being made as countries such as Taiwan, Australia, and Canada who have passed laws to eradicate single-use plastic (Calderwood, 2019).
Overall, these efforts, among many others, prove that the possibilities of safe and sustainable plastic are out there — we just need to look deeper, think bigger, and act locally.
As scientists, entrepreneurs, and several socially responsible businesses play their part in combating the global plastic pandemic, it is also our responsibility as consumers to ask governments to hold producers accountable for the life cycle of their products, to call attention to corporate misbehaviour, and if we can, choose the best options for our health and the environment.
References — because we believe in the power of citation!
19, S. M. (2017, July 19). Spanish group invents process to produce polycarbonate from lemon and carbon dioxide. Retrieved from https://www.plasticstoday.com/sustainability/spanish-group-invents-process-produce-polycarbonate-lemon-and-carbon-dioxide
Bazley, Tarek. “Climate Change Erosion Feeding Deep Ocean Trash Dump.” News | Al Jazeera, Al Jazeera, 15 Apr. 2019, www.aljazeera.com/news/2019/04/climate-change-erosion-feeding-deep-ocean-trash-dump-190415112233494.html.
Blum, A., Balan, S. A., Scheringer, M., Trier, X., Goldenman, G., Cousins, I. T., . . . Weber, R. (2015, May). The Madrid Statement on Poly- and Perfluoroalkyl Substances (PFASs). Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4421777/
Calderwood, Imogen. “16 Times Countries and Cities Have Banned Single-Use Plastics.” Global Citizen, Global Citizen, 25 Apr. 2018, www.globalcitizen.org/en/content/plastic-bans-around-the-world/.
Cox, K., Garth, A., Covernton, H., Dower, J., Juanes, F., Dudas, S. (2019). Human Consumption of Microplastics. Retrieved from https://pubs.acs.org/doi/full/10.1021/acs.est.9b01517
D., M. J., John D. Meeker John D. Meeker Department of Environmental Health Sciences, Meeker, J. D., John D. Meeker Department of Environmental Health Sciences, Sathyanarayana, S., Sheela Sathyanarayana Department of Pediatrics, . . . Al., E. (2009, July 27). Phthalates and other additives in plastics: Human exposure and associated health outcomes. Retrieved from https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/10.1098/rstb.2008.0268
Gujjarlapudi, S. (2019, January 03). Researchers develop bioplastic from seaweed-eating microorganisms. Retrieved from https://www.packaging-gateway.com/news/researchers-develop-bioplastic-seaweed/
Hobson, J. (2019, August 28). Every Time You Wash Clothes, Millions Of Microfibers Are Released Into The Water. Retrieved from https://www.wbur.org/hereandnow/2019/08/28/microfiber-pollution-ocean
Knapton, S. (2019, June 12). Average person swallows plastic equivalent to a credit card every week, report finds. Retrieved from https://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/2019/06/11/average-person-swallows-plastic-equivalent-credit-card-every/#:~:text=
More plastic than fish in the sea by 2050, says Ellen MacArthur. (2016, January 19). Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/business/2016/jan/19/more-plastic-than-fish-in-the-sea-by-2050-warns-ellen-macarthur
National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (2016, July). Flame Retardants Fact Sheet. Retrieved from https://www.niehs.nih.gov/health/materials/flame_retardants_508.pdf
Rochman, C. M., Tahir, A., Williams, S. L., Baxa, D. V., Lam, R., Miller, J. T., . . . Teh, S. J. (2015, September 24). Anthropogenic debris in seafood: Plastic debris and fibers from textiles in fish and bivalves sold for human consumption. Retrieved from https://www.nature.com/articles/srep14340
Stromberg, J. (2013, November 21). How Plastic Pollution Can Carry Flame Retardants Into Your Sushi. Retrieved from https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/how-plastic-pollution-can-carry-flame-retardants-into-your-sushi-180947797/
Thompson, A. (2018, September 04). From Fish to Humans, A Microplastic Invasion May Be Taking a Toll. Retrieved from https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/from-fish-to-humans-a-microplastic-invasion-may-be-taking-a-toll/