Plastics pollute, both during production and as waste

The production of plastic, and its dispersion in the environment as waste, is a real problem because of its persistence and potential negative impacts on ecosystems and organisms themselves.

Production and environmental implications

Most commonly used plastics do not biodegrade (read here) and their accumulation in natural environments is of increasing concern. Research estimates that 2% of North American end-of-life plastics ended up in the natural environment in 2017.[1]

In addition, the vast majority of plastics derive from fossil fuels: global plastics production currently accounts for about 8% of global annual oil and gas consumption.

Plastics in the environment

The massive production of plastic products has led to an accumulation of debris in landfills and natural environments (read here). This waste of resources leads to disruption of wildlife and ecosystem functions, affecting people (read here).

Plastics in human tissues

A recent research[2], presented at the meeting of the American Chemical Society, found plastic contamination on 47 human tissue samples. The samples were taken from the lungs, liver, spleen and kidneys (four organs that may filter or accumulate microplastics).

The research team, using a spectrometry method, was able to detect dozens of types of plastic components within human tissue, including polycarbonate (PC), polyethylene terephthalate (PET) and polyethylene (PE).

The study also detected bisphenol A (BPA), a plastic material used in many food containers despite health concerns, in all 47 human samples.

Health effects?

Unfortunately, it is not yet known what health implications these plastics have, but it is certainly an important signal, and one to be monitored, that these ubiquitous non-biodegradable materials can enter and accumulate in human tissue.

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More studies are certainly needed, but in the meantime, it is the duty of all of us to reduce the production of conventional plastics in favor of biodegradable polymers. In addition, an improvement in the reuse and disposal of this precious material is necessary in order not to aggravate the already precarious situation of ecosystems.

[1] Martin C Heller, Michael H Mazor, Gregory A Keoleian. Plastics in the US: toward a material flow characterization of production, markets and end of life. Environmental Research Letters, 2020; 15 (9): 094034 DOI: 10.1088/1748-9326/ab9e1e

[2] American Chemical Society: Methods for microplastics, nanoplastics and plastic monomer detection and reporting in human tissues

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