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Next Asbestosis: Plastic?

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By Praveen Gupta

· 7 min read

“Microplastic pollution has been detected in human blood for the first time”, reports The Guardian. Prof Dick Vethaak, an ecotoxicologist at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, calls it a “breakthrough result”!

Huge amounts of plastic waste are dumped in the environment and microplastics now contaminate the entire planet, from the summit of Mount Everest to the deepest oceans. (“Microplastics found in human blood for first time”) An estimated eight million tonnes of plastic enters the ocean each year; by 2050 there would be more plastic than fish in the ocean; 64 pounds of trash was found in the stomach of a sperm whale a couple of years ago. The danger is replicated on land with elephants and cows filling their stomachs. People were already known to consume the tiny particles via food and water as well as breathing them in, and they have been found in the faeces of babies and adults.

“More detailed research on how micro - and nano - plastics affect the structures and processes of the human body, and whether and how they can transform cells and induce carcinogenesis, is urgently needed, particularly in light of the exponential increase in plastic production. The problem is becoming more urgent with each day.” Says Vethaak in a review paper published on Tuesday.

As much as this omnipresence, it is the withdrawal syndrome which should also worry us all. “Oil trickles down to everything,” said Josh Lee, CJ Chemicals LLC. The headlines about high oil and gas prices seem far away from products like plastic wrap or lawn fertilizer. In reality, though, these everyday items need hydrocarbons to get made, and all across the supply chain, the struggle is on over who will bear the burden of higher costs.

We urgently need further research so we can find out, says Vethaak: “what is happening in our body? Are the particles retained in the body? Are they transported to certain organs, such as getting past the blood-brain barrier? And are these levels sufficiently high to trigger disease?”

"A recent study found that microplastics can latch on to the outer membranes of red blood cells and may limit their ability to transport oxygen." The particles have also been found in the placentas of pregnant women, and in pregnant rats they pass rapidly through the lungs into the hearts, brains and other organs of the foetuses. These are not just limited to bottled water or Arctic snow.

Insurers can ignore this at their own peril

A study published by United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) - Principles for Sustainable Insurance Initiative (PSI) - identifies how risks related to plastic pollution play out across insurance lines and asset classes in which insurers invest. "It argues that insurers should take an active role in addressing the risks related to plastic pollution and in contributing to global efforts to reduce it."

Just like climate change-related risks, this study shows that plastic pollution risks can affect insurance and investment portfolios in the form of physical, transition, liability and reputational risks. Risks ranging from threats to human health to evolving liability claims connected to marine litter and plastic pollution should be closely monitored by insurers in coming years.

In particular, insurers can consider the following approaches:

Lead by example:

1. Introduce policies to reduce plastic use and waste internally.

2. Include plastic pollution in ESG or sustainability approaches.

Understand, Prevent and Reduce Plastic Pollution Risks

3. Support knowledge and build awareness among the public, government and industry.

4. Include plastic pollution risks in risk assessment models for insurance and investment activities.

5. Develop relevant risk reduction measures.

6. Reduce the plastic footprint of reinstating damaged property.

Insure Risks Associated With Plastic Pollution

7. Design innovative insurance products to cover the risks associated with plastic pollution.

Support Alternatives To Plastic

8. Support innovations for plastic alternatives through insurance products and investments.

Support Wider Efforts To Reduce Plastic Pollution

9. Actively engage with key stakeholders as risk managers, insurers and investors.

10. Disclose plastic pollution risks and opportunities in relevant disclosure and reporting frameworks.

At the same time, plastic pollution presents significant opportunities for insurers to position themselves on the frontline in tackling this global issue and helping to secure a more sustainable future. (“Plastics and the Planet: Who Will Bear the Costs? - GARP”) Would they support the desired shift towards a circular economy? While the list of insurers avoiding coal continues to grow, only one player thus far has committed not to insure oil. Unless it’s a no to oil, it will be a yes to plastic.

Biodiversity under attack

Plastic is an increasingly high-profile threat to our climate, ocean, wildlife and human health. Its production has increased twenty times since 1964 and almost half of plastic produced is used just once before it is discarded. The mountains of plastic waste generated by people, businesses, food production and almost every other sector of modern life are, on the whole, poorly collected and managed. "As a result, plastic pollution is becoming widespread both in the ocean and on land, where it is impacting our ecosystems and threatening lives and human health."

Many worrying effects have been found. For example, additives in plastics are known to disrupt animals’ hormonal systems, and possible impacts on human health include lung inflammation, carcinogenicity, gene mutilation and repercussions for reproductive health. Furthermore, plastics make a direct contribution to climate change. Plastics, which are made from fossil fuels, account for 20% of total oil consumption and their manufacture, recycling and incineration is energy intensive, resulting in high carbon emissions.

More detailed research on how Micro and Nanoplastics (MNPs) affect the structures and processes of the human body, and whether and how MNPs can transform cells and induce carcinogenesis is urgently needed, particularly in light of the exponential increase in plastic production and the ensuing accumulation of non-degradable MNPs, the problem is becoming more urgent with each day. (To Waste or Not to Waste: Questioning Potential Health Risks of Micro- and Nanoplastics with a Focus on Their Ingestion and Potential Carcinogenicity | SpringerLink). Given its perceived versatility, can plastic outlive oil? For sure a toothless UNEP and an insurance industry playing in the hands of big oil.

Recycling, unfortunately, is a complete joke. We have no infrastructure to do it properly. We used to send our plastic trash to China, but in 2018, the country decided not to take it anymore. Other countries still take our recycling, but they often end up just burning the plastic rather than actually recycling it (burning plastic, shockingly, is not great for air quality). Plastic loses many of its desirable qualities - its hardness and its malleability - when it is melted down to be recycled into new products, so hard things like bottles are often recycled into softer items.

At this point, recycling is basically just a ploy the petrochemical industry uses to shift the onus of plastic waste from their manufacturing plants onto us consumers and to assuage our guilt about our ridiculously wasteful way of life so that we will continue to buy more plastic. Recycled plastic can’t readily be made into new usable products, so it must be bolstered with the addition of newly manufactured plastic.

Recycled plastic bottles, for instance, pass more harmful chemicals into contents than newly manufactured ones, warned researchers. Over 150 chemicals were found to be passed into drinks from plastic bottles by researchers at Brunel University, London. Around 18 of these chemicals were in levels, which exceeded regulations.

An optimist could view plastics as the death throes of the oil industry, desperate to maintain its profits and power and thus turning to promoting plastics as the ultimate use for oil since people don’t want it for fuel anymore. Erica Cirino, the author of Thicker Than Water conveys there is some hope on the horizon, with new laws banning single-use items and technological innovations to replace plastic in our lives. But Cirino shows that we can only fix the problem if we face its full scope and begin to repair our throwaway culture. The book is an eloquent call to reexamine the systems churning out waves of plastic waste. "Cirino ends on this note, reminding us that culture shifts are possible and that even mighty corporations can topple."

In conclusion

Shouldn’t the UNEP be looking for plastic alternatives rather than ensuring the longevity of the mother industry? Asbestos claims were a bane of insurers for at least a decade. "They nearly brought down the Lloyd’s of London market in the 1990s and have cost some of the industry’s largest players billions of dollars." It, however, seems like a drop in what is proving to be an ever-ballooning ocean of plastics! Ubiquitously MNPs are all over due to continuous release and accumulation - thereby posing threats to ecology & human health - resulting into irreversible global biodiversity damage. We now deserve a breakthrough in the form of a replacement to the wonder product of the yore, whose destiny intertwines the fossil fuel.

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.

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About the author

Praveen Gupta was the second most-read author in the environment and sustainability space for illuminem in 2022, and the third most read in climate change during 2023. A former insurance CEO and a Chartered Insurer, he researches, writes, and speaks on diverse subjects. His blog captures much of the work.

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