In my area of work, I often read about many amazing solutions about plastics and plastic pollution.
These include enzymes that can eat plastics, biodegradable and compostable plastics, alternative materials, and making new products out of old plastic.
Whilst I am always very appreciative of all these efforts to try to find solutions to this extremely difficult and persistent problem, it always strikes me how viewing solutions through a narrow lens can end up creating more problems than solving them. If we open up that lens, I see we are often shifting the plastics' problem to another 'compartment' of our daily life.
For example, the Guardian recently showcased an example of women who collect plastic bags and bottles from the streets and dumps. They then wash, dry, and process the plastics into “a sustainable leather-like material to be made into backpacks, shopping bags and toiletry bags.”
Or collecting pieces of plastic litter to create bricks used for buildings where people live, or children learn - such as school classrooms.
In both these instances, we are solving the environmental problem but not considering the human or planetary health impacts – nor the social injustice.
Plastics will continue to abrade and release micro-fragments into the environment and our bodies so, realistically, these solutions do not solve a problem of removing them from the environment – they extend the problem and possibly make it worse. In addition, how will these solutions be disposed of – if even recycled later?
Plastics contain chemicals and plasticizers harmful to our health – and are directly impacted in a 50% drop in male spermcount in the last 40 years. When we heat plastics (to create or recycle them) chemical reactions occur with the existing harmful chemicals and also with attracted toxins that may have attached to the plastic during its journey ‘in the wild’. This chemical process creates NIAS (non-intentionally added substances) most of which are unknown to most manufacturers. Therefore, there potential for an exponential far reaching health effect of plastics on humans.
We now know that microplastics are everywhere, but we need to avoid long-term micro-dosing exposure to them for their worst effects.
Placing these recycled products close to our bodies or staying in an enclosed room for long periods of time (such as a classroom) are worrying toxicologists. There are the risks of inhalation, ingestion or via touch and the effects of micro and nano fragments in our bodies that can lead to an inflammatory response which
could trigger certain diseases – or the chemicals they leach may also lead to cancers, infertility, obesity, depression, and neurodegenerative diseases.
This is the overlooked side of dealing with plastics: human and planetary health impacts.
Another overlooked impact is social injustice. The poor who have inherited our exported plastic waste or had linear plastic systems imposed on them (think of Coca Cola bottles in plastic in Tanzania that used to be glass with a deposit return system. In the last five years, it has transformed from a system that encouraged behaviour to recycle to a take, make and dump system that has left Tanzania reeling under mountains of plastics. Waste picking jobs do not give jobs with dignity (as the ex-CEO of Oxfam Winne Biyanima pointed out at Davos in 2019). These “solutions” can lead to long term health problems that no one will be responsible for and are usually visited on the poor or minority sectors of society.
An example would be “ocean” plastic that is collected and travels thousands of miles to be collated and recycled into clothing (which releases microplastics and leaches toxics) and then will probably end up in the Atacama desert or landfill.
Resolving for one aspect of plastics does not mean that it gets to “pass go” if it doesn’t pass the other two gates
This does not mean we shouldn’t keep striving to find solutions for plastic and plastic waste. These are probably the best solutions one can manage on a limited budget. Scavenging solutions. We should not endorse or scale these without being clear of the other risks involved and working to mitigate them as fast as we can or find a better solution
For any solution involving plastics ask your board, investors, yourself: The Golden Triangle
1. Does it help the environment?
When it is in the environment is it totally benign? Can it still fragment, release micro/nano fragments? What is the impact on flora and further along the food chain? Can it leach microplastics or toxics that leach into plants, soil or the air? If it gets into the environment in its current form, will it degrade quickly enough to assure no harm comes to creatures who may ingest it, or get it caught around their neck or stomach or nest in it.
2. Does it harm humans or creatures?
Can it leach toxic chemicals or cause harm by ingestion, inhalation, or touch? What about the effects of long-term exposure? What potential illnesses associated with chemicals and plasticizers could be present? What about the effects of exposure to a mixture of many chemicals? The link between toxic chemicals leached from plastics and certain diseases is clear. It isn’t enough to address the effects of individual chemicals but the (unknown) chemical mixtures often pose the biggest threat.
3. Does it cause or exacerbate social injustice?
Do the environmental and health consequences of these plastics mainly affect poor or minorities? What about the low wages offered to waste pickers to collect these plastics in dangerous and toxic conditions? What about the long-term health conditions that may emerge 5-10 years later? What happens when a fire is exacerbated by flammability of these plastics?
Without looking at solutions through these lenses we must be aware that we bear responsibility for the impact on all those people should things go wrong.
Therefore, the Golden Triangle questions should be the test against which solutions to plastic production and waste should be judged.
Energy Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Energy & Sustainability writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.
Antoinette Vermilye is Co-founder of the Gallifrey Foundation and also She Changes Climate. She is passionate about the complex interrelationships between the ocean, plastics, gender, and overfishing on social injustice, human health and the environment. She seeks either coalitions to find action-oriented solutions that will have far reaching impacts downstream or to take action on identified gaps where little or no attention is being paid.