Wrapped in plastic

The amount of plastic manufactured in the first 10 years of this century nearly equals the amount produced in the entire last century, according to a new report. More than 60 scientists worldwide contributed to the report, which was published this month in the scientific journal Philosophical Transactions of The Royal Society B.

The report said that the chemicals that make plastic so appealing—it’s durability, light weight and pliability—are also causing a host of problems for human, wildlife and environmental health.

“Plastics are very long-lived products that could potentially have service over decades, and yet our main use of these lightweight, inexpensive materials are as single-use items that will go to the garbage dump within a year, where they’ll persist for centuries,” Richard Thompson, lead editor of the report, told Environmental Health News.

The report found that humans absorb chemicals added to plastics, which has been found to alter hormones. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control says 93 percent of people have bisphenol A (BPA) in their urine. BPA is often found in the linings of food and drink containers. And eight out of 10 babies and nearly all adults carry measurable levels of phthalates—plasticizers used in things like vinyl floors and shower curtains—in their bodies. Plastic debris is often ingested by marine animals and other wildlife, plastic in landfills can leach chemicals into groundwater, and 8 percent of world oil production goes toward making plastics.

Most of what is known about plastics is based on animal tests and observational studies of humans. The report says more human studies are needed. One such study, The National Children’s Study, plans to do that by examining the environmental influences on over 100,000 children from before birth until age 21.

The report says plastics should be treated as a reusable product rather than disposable commodity, given that they can last a thousand years in a landfill. It also encourages the production of biodegradable plastic, which currently accounts for only 0.2 percent of petroleum-based plastics, and recommends that safer alternatives to plastics be developed. A label system on products, such as a green dot indicating a high level of recycled materials and a red dot for the reverse, could also help consumers choose better packaging options for themselves, the report suggests.