It is well known that plastic has helped humanity by creating a wide variety of plastic products at an incredible low cost. They go from medical usage to daily food and beverage packaging.
But, why has it been so hard to stop using plastic? The answer is related to the great property material that the plastic has, which is resistant to water and electricity, is flexible to mold in different shapes, can support different weather conditions, it lasts forever and is very cheap!
So…when does the plastic problem start and why?
Where does plastic begin?
The history of plastic begins near the 1600 b.c when humans started shaping natural rubber and polymerized into prehistoric objects. After this historical revelation, in 1839 humans discovered vulcanized rubber and polystyrene. It was until 1907, when the first synthetic polymer was found in Belgium and the true history of mass production jump-started in 1940 where it has continued to expand until today (Halden R., 2010).
Nowadays, we can find more than 20 types of synthetic plastic and the total amount of plastic that has been produced from 1950 to 2018 is 359 million metric tons (Wang T., 2020) which all of them still exist in the world.
Here is when the real problem began. Although plastic is a great product because it is highly resistant, its durability makes it never disappear. We can call it “the paradox of plastic”.
So the great question is, what we can do with all that waste and how we can replace such an amazing product with a sustainable one?
Here is the problem...
The yearly increment in the mass production of extremely durable plastic, the single-use and disposable usage of the products by consumers, the limited places/technologies to recycle all the different types of plastics, and the animals and human health risks that came from plastic waste is just unsustainable.
Our society is used to using unnecessary packaging which can have only minutes or only hours of useful life span. For example, how many minutes do we use a takeaway coffee cup? Or plastic cutlery? Or a simple plastic bag to carry groceries from the store to the house? More importantly, how many times a day, a week do we repeat this conduct? If we multiply that routine for everybody in the world, we realize that we are facing a huge problem.
This problem includes not only the plastic production, but to find investments in new recycling technologies, new sustainable products, and big changes in human habits.
Does plastic harm our health?
While all types of plastic are extremely useful for our society, it is an urgent matter to start developing new materials that can replace it. Not only the environment is being affected by plastic but animals and human life is in danger as well.
Some studies have shown how different kinds of plastic components have damaging effects in human health directly. For example, in the decade of 90’ the industry used DEHP in food containers or medical equipment that can affect negatively to our DNA like presenting infertility, hormone alterations and others. Same story with polycarbonate in food containers and bottles that now experts have revealed that these components can release the chemical bisphenol A (BPA) which can cause important health problems such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and others (Halden R., 2010).
Also, human health can be harmed with plastic waste in a non-direct way. This situation has now been studied in modern research and is about microplastic and nano plastic. Plastic particles that we are not able to see. These particles are now representing a high risk for humanity and the environment. Studies have been demonstrated that small planktonic organisms, which are the base of the food chain, have potentially ingested microplastic (Shim and Thomposon, 2015). Moreover, studies have found that humans are ingesting nano plastic particles in food that came from the ocean, and by breathing strands from every furniture/ carpet/ clothes that we have in our houses.
This is why it is important to understand the urgency to create new materials that replace the plastic in non-petroleum-based materials which are harmless to humans and the environment. We need to understand the damaging effects that plastic is having on our health in the long-term.
We live surrounded by plastic and we are continuously exposed to plasticizers or other polymers additives. We have contact with these products in our houses, in the street, and even in the food or drink we take, but we are not completely sure about the problems that these components are causing us. It is very common to understand the plastic problem only about the environment but the catastrophic issue is what we are doing to ourselves.
We still do not know much about all the diseases that plastic can trigger in the long-term but we do know that plastic is affecting our endocrine system right now so it is the time to be more than conscient about the world we are living in and try to drive the change. This a call to action for people as consumers and as companies that need to urgently change materials and be more responsible.