Plastics are a threat to the planet and to almost all forms of life on it. We already know that plastic waste is a problem and that chemicals in plastics threaten our health. The recent Minderoo report shows the full impact of the threats of harmful plastics.
The Minderoo-Monaco Commission on Plastics and Human Health has published an extensive report on the size, impact, and dangers of the global plastics cycle.
It finds that plastics have benefits, but present a stealth threat to human and planetary health too. The current linear patterns of plastic production, use, and disposal pay little attention to sustainable design or safe materials, the report notes.
According to the report, more than 10,000 synthetic chemicals, including phthalates, bisphenols, per-and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), brominated flame retardants and organophosphate flame retardants are integral components of plastics. These components leach out during daily use, and toxicological and epidemiological evidence shows increasingly that many of them have neurotoxic, carcinogenic, immune and endocrine-disrupting impacts on human health.
Since recovery, reuse, and recycling of harmful plastics are virtually absent, or at best vastly insufficient, they cause grave harm to health, create environmental damage, come at great economic costs, and are responsible for deep societal injustices. And those harms increase rapidly.
This Commission has four major findings:
1 Harm to health and environment
Current practices for the production, use, and disposal of plastics cause great harm to human health and the global environment, and they are not sustainable.
These harms arise at every stage across the plastic life cycle. They include human health impacts such as developmental neurotoxicity, endocrine disruption, and carcinogenesis.
In the oceans, plastics cause beach litter, contaminate ocean gyres, cause physical injury to marine species, and include extensive injury to marine ecosystems.
Plastic production results in GHG emissions equivalent to nearly 1.96 Gt of CO2e annually that contribute to climate change.
The main driver of plastics’ worsening harms is an almost exponential and still accelerating increase in global plastic production. More than half of all plastics ever produced have been manufactured since 2002.
Plastics’ harms are further magnified by low rates of recovery and recycling—less than 10% globally—and by the long persistence of plastic waste in the environment. The result has been the accumulation since 1950 of nearly 6 Gt of plastic waste that now pollutes every corner of the planet.
2 Abundant use of harmful chemicals
The thousands of chemicals in plastics are responsible for many harms to human and planetary health. These chemicals leach out of plastics, enter the environment, cause pollution, and result in human exposure.
In the environment and in the bodies of living organisms, many plastic-associated chemicals can undergo chemical transformation to form breakdown products and metabolites, some of which are highly toxic.
Plastic manufacturers disclose little information on the identity, chemical composition, or potential toxicity of plastic chemicals.
3 Economic costs resulting from plastics
We estimate that in 2015 the health-related costs of plastic production exceeded $250 billion (2015 Int$) globally and that in the US alone the health costs of disease, disability, and premature death caused by just three plastic-associated chemicals (PBDE, BPA, and DEHP) exceeded $920 billion (2015 Int$).
GHG emissions from plastic cause economic harm that we value at $341 billion (2015 Int$) annually. These costs underestimate the full costs of plastics’ impacts on human health and the environment.
All of these costs are externalized by the petrochemical and plastic manufacturing industries, and they are borne by individual citizens, taxpayers, and their governments without compensation.
“In 2015, 4 percent of fossil fuel was used to make plastic and, by 2050, this is predicted to increase to 20 percent. Even worse, as fossil fuel production continues to soar, so will the profound impacts we already see increase even more.”
Professor Sarah Dunlop, co-author and Head of Plastics and Human Health at Minderoo Foundation
4 Disproportionate effects on vulnerable populations
The health, environmental, and economic harms caused by plastics disproportionately affect vulnerable and at-risk populations. These disparate harms are seen in countries at every level of income, including high-income countries.
SEJ principles require the reversal of these inequitable burdens to ensure that no group bears a disproportionate share of plastics’ harms and that those who benefit economically from plastics bear their fair share of its currently externalized costs.
Increasing impacts from harmful plastics
The evidence of the report demonstrates unequivocally that the impacts of plastics and their waste are great and that they will increase in severity if no urgent and effective intervention at a global scale will be realized.
Further reckless increases in plastic production, and especially of unnecessary single-use plastic products, need to be curbed. Global intervention against the plastic crisis is needed now because the costs of failure to act will be immense.
Minderoo Foundation is one of Australasia’s largest philanthropies, with AUD$2.6 billion funds invested in philanthropic causes. These causes range from eliminating childhood cancer to improving early childhood education, ending modern slavery and driving accountability in and responsibility for global overfishing, plastic pollution, global warming and the tech ecosystem.