Plastics and Its Impact on Environment and the Human body

Plastics are (mostly) synthetic (human-made) materials, made from polymers, which are long molecules built around chains of carbon atoms, typically with hydrogen, oxygen, sulfur, and nitrogen filling in the spaces. Plastics are utilized for various purposes, but at the same time, prolonged use can cause more harm than good. Some of the uses as well as harms have been explained below:

Polyethylene terephthalate (PET or PETE or polyester)

Description:PET is the most well known member of the polyester family of plastic polymers. It initially gained widespread use as a wrinkle-free fiber (commonly called "polyester"), and the majority of its production still goes toward textile manufacturing. It has become extremely popular for food and drink packaging purposes because of its strong ability to create a liquid and gas barrier - so oxygen cannot get in to spoil food, and the carbon dioxide that makes drinks fizzy cannot get out. Properties: clarity, lightness, strength, toughness, barrier to liquid and gas.

Typical Use: Bottles (water, soft drink, juice, beer, wine, mouthwash, salad dressing), peanut butter/jam jars, oven-ready and microwaveable meal trays, detergent and cleaner containers. Also used inliquid crystal displays,film forcapacitors,insulationforwireandinsulating tapes, and as a common finish for wood products such asguitars,pianosand vehicle/yacht interiors.

PET fabric (polyester) is commonly used in textiles (fabric and clothing), padding and insulation (for pillows, comforters, upholstery), carpet, and mouldings. Also fortyre reinforcements, conveyor belts, safety belts, coated fabrics and tarpaulins.

Toxicity: PET may leachantimony(antimony trioxide is used as a catalyst and flame retardant in PET). The longer a liquid is left in a PET container the greater the potential for release. As well, warmtemperatures inside cars, garages, and enclosed storage areas increase therelease of antimony into the liquid. Antimony trioxideis considered a possible carcinogen. Workers exposed to antimony trioxide for long periods of time have exhibited respiratory and skin irritation and among female workers, increased incidence of menstrual problems and miscarriage -- while there is no evidence that these effects could arise from exposure to the small amounts of antimony released from PET products (such as water bottles), it is preferable not to be exposed to it at all

Evidence is also emerging thatphthalate endocrine disruptors also leach from PET PET as a textile - i.e., polyester - likely contains flame retardants incorporated into it during the manufacturing process. As such, polyester is often described as "inherently flame retardant", but it is unclear exactly which flame retardant chemicals are added to polyester as it is being made, and thus it is difficult to know if there is a toxicity issue with polyester fibre.

Recycling: About 29% Recycled material downcycled into polyester fibre for fleece clothing, tote bags, strapping. Note: "Downcycling" means that the recycled material is of lower quality than the original PET, and can only be made into progressively lower quality products until it can no longer be recycled and becomes landfill waste which is most likely landfilled.

High density polyethylene (HDPE)

Description:Polyethylenes are the most widely used family of plastics in the world. The versatile polyethylene polymer has the simplest basic chemical structure of any plastic polymer (repeating units of CH2: one carbon and two hydrogen molecules) making it very easy to process and thus extremely popular for numerous low value applications - especially packaging. HDPE has long virtually unbranched polymer chains which align and pack easily making it dense and very crystalline (structurally ordered) and thus a stronger, thicker form of of polyethylene. Properties: stiffness, strength, toughness, resistance to moisture, permeability to gas, ease of processing.

Typical Use: Plastic bags (grocery), opaque milk, water, and juice containers, bleach, detergent and shampoo bottles, garbage bags, dishes, yogurt and margarine tubs, cereal box liners, some medicine bottles, apart from Tyvek insulation, PEX piping, plastic/wood composites.

Toxicity: Being relatively stable, it is generally considered a safer plastic for food and drink use, although some studies have shown that it can leach the endocrine disruptor nonylphenol (added to HDPE as a stabilizer,especially when exposed to ultraviolet light - i.e., sunlight -and possibly other additive chemicals with estrogen-mimicking activity.

Recycling: Recycled material has been turned to bottles for non-food items like shampoo, laundry detergent, motor oil; plastic lumber and furniture, piping, recycling bins, fencing, floor tiles, buckets, crates, flower pots, garden edging, film and sheeting.

Polyvinyl chloride (V or Vinyl or PVC)

Description: Widely popular as the second most widely used plastic resin in the world (after polyethylene), PVC (or vinyl) use has decreased because of serious health and environmental pollution issues associated with its manufacture, use and disposal -- its whole life cycle is toxic. But it is still popular and in common use because of its cost-effective versatility. The base monomer is vinyl chloride, which can be combined and blended with numerous chemicals (including plasticizers such as phthalates) to create resins with properties ranging from rigid to filmy to soft to leathery. Properties: versatility, ease of blending, strength, toughness, clarity, transparency.

Typical Use: Soft PVC (softened with plasticizers) used in toys, clear food (e.g., take-out) and non-food packaging (e.g., blister wrap, cling wrap), squeeze bottles, shampoo bottles, mouthwash bottles, cooking oil and peanut butter jars, detergent and window cleaner bottles, loose-leaf binders, shower curtains, blood bags and medical tubing, "pleather" clothing, Naugahyde upholstery, wire and cable insulation, carpet backing and flooring. Rigid PVC used for blister packs and clamshell packaging, credit cards, piping (e.g., for plumbing), vinyl siding, window frames, fencing, decking, and other construction materials.

Toxicity: PVC is widely considered the most toxic and hazardous plastic that is still - unbelievably so -commonly used to make numerous consumer products It may contain and/or leach a variety of toxic chemicals including, but not limited to: bisphenol A (BPA), phthalates, lead, dioxins, mercury, and cadmium. Here is a taste of the toxic life cycle of PVC:

  • The vinyl chloride monomer from which PVC is made is a known carcinogen, thus putting manufacturing workers and surrounding communities at risk.
  • Soft forms of PVC, such as toys and packaging and bottles, may leach phthalates. For example, di(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate (DEHP) and butyl benzyl phthalate (BBzP) are two phthalates commonly used as plasticizers or softening agents (usually DEHP). DEHP and BBzP are endocrine disruptors mimicking the female hormone estrogen and have been strongly linked to asthma and allergic symptoms in children living in homes where PVC dust was present and to ADHD in children may cause certain types of cancer, including breast cancer. Recent consumer product legislation in Europe, Canada and the US, bans DEHP and BBzP and other dangerous phthalates from use in children's products in concentrations greater than 0.1%.
  • When PVC is burned (e.g., via waste incineration, car or home fires), dioxins are formed. Dioxins are known human carcinogens and persistent organic pollutants, and are considered one of the most toxic types of chemicals ever tested

Recycling Rate: Very low. It is rarely recycled, because it is difficult to do on an industrial scale. It should not be recycled because it contaminates the recycling stream. Recycled PVC can become packaging, binders, decking, paneling, insulation, mud flaps, film and sheet, flooring, garden hoses.

Low-density polyethylene (LDPE)

Description:Polyethylenes are the most widely used family of plastics in the world. The versatile polyethylene polymer has the simplest basic chemical structure of any plastic polymer (repeating units of CH2: one carbon and two hydrogen molecules) making it very easy to process and thus extremely popular for numerous low value applications - especially packaging. LDPE polymers have significant chain branching including long side chains, making it less dense and less crystalline (structurally ordered) and thus a generally thinner more flexible form of polyethylene. Properties:strength, toughness, flexibility, resistance to moisture, ease of sealing, ease of processing.

Typical Use: Mostly for film applications like bags (grocery, dry cleaning, bread, frozen food bags, newspapers, garbage), plastic wraps; coatings for paper milk cartons and hot & cold beverage cups; some squeezable bottles (honey, mustard), food storage containers, container lids. Also used for wire and cable covering.

Toxicity:Being relatively stable, it is generally considered a safer plastic for food and drink use, although some studies have shown that it can leach the endocrine disruptornonylphenol(added to LDPE as a stabilizer),especially when exposed to ultraviolet light - i.e., sunlight -and possibly other additive chemicals with estrogen-mimicking activity.

Recycling Rate: Low. It is difficult to recycle.Recycled material can be made into compost bins, paneling, plastic lumber.r

Polypropylene (PP)

Description: Polypropylene is used for similar applications as polyethylenes, but is generally stiffer and more heat resistant - so is often used for containers filled with hot food. It too has a simple chemical structure (many methyl groups of CH3 - one carbon and three hydrogen molecules) making it very versatile. It's crystallinity (structural order affecting hardness & density) is quite high, somewhere between LDPE and HDPE. Properties: strength, toughness, resistance to heat, chemicals, grease & oil, barrier to moisture.

Typical Use: Food containers (ketchup, yogurt, cottage cheese, margarine, syrup, take-out), medicine containers, straws, bottle caps, Britta filters, Rubbermaid and other opaque plastic containers, including baby bottles. Other uses include disposable diaper and sanitary pad liners, thermal vests, appliance parts and numerous car parts (bumpers, carpets, fixtures).

Toxicity:Being relatively stable, it is generally considered a safer plastic for food and drink use, although it has been shown to leach plastic additives (such as the stabilizing agent oleamide) when PP labware was used in scientific experiments and one older study has suggested heated PP may be linked to occupational asthma based on the exposure of a worker in a PP factory.

Polystyrene (PS)

Description: Polystyrene is commonly associated with the trade name Styrofoam food containers and packing peanuts made of expanded PS (EPS), which is essentially foamed PS that has been puffed up with air. PS synthesis requires benzene, a known carcinogen, to form the monomer styrene, which is reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen. Apart from low cost, low strength foam, PS can be made as a clear, glassy, hard polymer used for things like cutlery and CD cases; also higher impact versions exist for harder applications. Properties: versatility, clarity, easily formed.

Typical Use: EPS: Styrofoam food containers, egg cartons, disposable cups and bowls, take-out food containers, deli food plates, packaging, packing peanuts, bike helmets. Harder clear/opaque PS: disposable cutlery & razors, compact disc & dvd cases. High impact PS: hangers, smoke detector housing, licence plate frames, medecine bottles, test tubes, petri dishes, model assembly kits.

Toxicity: PS food containers can leach styrene, which is reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen and is considered a brain and nervous system toxicant Animal studies have shown adverse effects on genes, lungs, liver, and the immune system Note that styrene is also present in second-hand cigarette smoke, off-gassing building materials, and car exhaust. The leaching of styrene from PS containers into food is increased when the food or liquid is hot and oily.

Recycling Rate: Very low, because difficult to recycle Recycled material made into packaging and thermal insulation.

Other (O) - All other plastics

This category does not identify one particular plastic resin. It is a general catch-all for all plastics other than those identified by numbers 1-7, and can include plastics that may be layered or a mixture of various plastics. It includes the new bioplastics.

Polycarbonate (PC) is an extremely common plastic in this category and is often associated with this category

Polycarbonate (PC)

Description:Polycarbonate use as a consumer plastic has decreased drastically in recent years due to the health-related problems associated with bisphenol A (BPA), the primary molecule in PC polymers, as well as increasing national bans on its use for certain products such a baby bottles and infant formula packaging. It is a tough family of engineering plastics originally developed to be an alternative to die-cast metal. Itsstrength and transparencymade it a popular choice for consumer products needing to be shatter-proof, and also for epoxy resins. PC is also known by various trade names includingLexan,MakrolonandMakroclear. Properties: Easily molded, temperature resistance, stiffness, strength, optical clarity.

Typical Use: Baby bottles, sippy cups, water bottles, three and five gallon large water storage containers, metal food can liners, juice and ketchup containers, oven-baking bags, carbonless paper receipts. Also used in custom packaging, eye glass lenses, epoxy resins, dental sealants, compact discs, DVDs, Blu-ray discs, lab equipment, gears, snowboards, car parts, housing forcell phones, computers and power tools.

Toxicity: The problem with PC is bisphenol A (BPA), the synthetic backbone which readily breaks down and leaches from PC. For example,BPA leaching is a significant concern with PC epoxy-lined cans used for foods, especially oil-based and/or acidic foods, which will increase leaching. BPA is often described as a hormone orendocrine disuptor, because it mimics human hormones, in particular theestrogenhormones, which are involved in normal cellular function, reproduction, development and behaviour. Peer-reviewed scientific studies have linked BPA to numerous health problems including chromosome damage in female ovaries, decreased sperm production in males, early onset of puberty, various behavioural changes, altered immune function, sex reversal in frogs, impaired brain and neurological functions, cardiovascular system damage, adult-onset (Type II) diabetes, obesity, resistance to chemotherapy, increased risk of breast cancer, prostate cancer, infertility, and metabolic disorders -- research into the impacts of BPA on human healthis extensive and ongoing

Recycling Rate: Very low. Not all municipalities include polycarbonate as readily acceptable for their recycling programs. Recycled PC may be used to make plastic lumber.

Plastic Pollution

Plastic has been found in more than 60% of all seabirds and in 100% of sea turtles species, that mistake plastic for food. And when animals ingest plastic, it can cause life-threatening problems, including reduced fitness, nutrient uptake and feeding efficiency - all vital for survival.

Some facts about plastics in ocean:


About 8 million metric tons of plastic are thrown into the ocean annually. Of those, 236,000 tons are microplastics– tiny pieces of broken-down plastic smaller than your little fingernail


There are five massive patches of plastic in the oceans around the world. These huge concentrations of plastic debris cover large swaths of the ocean; the one between California and Hawaii is the size of the state of Texas


Every minute, one garbage truck of plastic is dumped into our oceans


The amount of plastic in the ocean is set to increase tenfold by 2020


By 2050 there will be more plastic in the oceans than there are fish (by weight)


Plastic is found in the ocean as far as 11km deep, meaning synthetic fibers have contaminated even the most remote places on Earth


Many marine organisms can't distinguish common plastic items from food. Animals who eat plastic often starve because they can't digest the plastic and it fills their stomachs, preventing them from eating real food


The likelihood of coral becoming diseased increases from 4% to 89% after coming in contact with marine plastic. It also damages the skin of coral, allowing infection. Coral reefs are home to more than 25%of marine life.


There is more plastic than natural prey at the sea surface of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which means that organisms feeding at this area are likely to have plastic as a major component of their diets. For instance, sea turtles by-caught in fisheries operating within and around the patch can have up to 74% (by dry weight) of their diets composed of ocean plastics.

FACT #10

Many fish humans consume, including brown trout, cisco, and perch, have at one time or another, ingested plastic microfibers.

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is the world's largest collection of floating trash—and the most famous. It lies between Hawaii and California and is often described as “larger than Texas,” even though it contains not a square foot of surface on which to stand.

Micro plastics make up 94 percent of an estimated 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic in the patch. But that only amounts to eight percent of the total tonnage. As it turns out, of the 79,000 metric tons of plastic in the patch, most of it is abandoned fishing gear - not plastic bottles or packaging drawing headlines today.

A comprehensive new study by Slat's team of scientists, published in Scientific Reports Thursday, concluded that the 79,000 tons was four to 16 times larger than has been previously estimated for the patch. The study also found that fishing nets account for 46 percent of the trash, with the majority of the rest composed of other fishing industry gear, including ropes, oyster spacers, eel traps, crates, and baskets. Scientists estimate that 20 percent of the debris is from the 2011 Japanese tsunami. Ghostnets, a term coined to describe purposely discarded or accidentally lost netting, drift through the ocean, entangling whales, seals, and turtles. An estimated 100,000 marine animals are strangled, suffocated, or injured by plastics every year.

Publication of the garbage patch study coincided with a new report from Britain, Foresight Future of the Sea, that found plastic pollution in the ocean could triple by 2050 unless a “major response” is mounted to prevent plastic from reaching the ocean. The report declared plastic pollution to be one of the main environmental threats to the seas, along with sea-level rise and warming oceans.

The study included two aerial surveys in October of 2016 that took 7,000 images, and 652 ocean surface trawls conducted in July, August, and September of 2015 by 18 vessels.

Banning plastic straws merely might prove detrimental to the interests of disabled persons. The global movement to ban straws is really picking up steam, fuelled by viral videos such as the cringe-worthy one of scientists extricating a plastic straw from a turtle's nostril and aided by catchy hashtags such as #strawssuck.

The vilification of straws has also become a cultural phenomenon, with hipsters carrying their own metal straws and establishments embracing alternatives made of glass, paper, bamboo, rubber, hemp, wheat and more.

But well-meaning gestures can have unintended consequences, and this one is no exception.

People with a broad range of health conditions, from Down syndrome to dementia, from rare neuromuscular disorders to stroke impairments, rely heavily on straws – and bendy plastic straws in particular – to facilitate drinking.

For people with disabilities, straws are an accessibility issue as much as ramps are for users of mobility devices. While most people take it for granted, getting a drink from one's hand to lips, and then tipping liquid in and swallowing requires a complex set of motions. The straw, and the bendable plastic straw more specifically, is a remarkably successful example of an accessible technology, and it should not be banned mindlessly any more than it is discarded thoughtlessly.

When we embrace sweeping bans and enforce self-righteous no-straws policies in bars and restaurants, we have to be careful not to create barriers to inclusion.

Thus, plastics might be versatile in terms of their usage. Nevertheless their impact upon the environment cannot be overlooked. Some plastics last longer compared to others. We need to do our bit by reducing the consumption of plastics, particularly single use ones such as plastic bags, plastic cutlery and switch to eco-friendly ones. At the same time it is necessary to address the concerns of disabled persons as well. It would be unfair to charge them extra in restaurants for buying/ using plastic straws. As we observe World Environment Day and World Oceans Day this month, let us pledge to reduce plastic from our lives and recycle the existing ones in a proper manner.




on 13 June 2018
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