The average American produces a half-pound of plastic waste every day; while around the world, 300 million tons of the exceedingly durable material are produced each year. Plastics were the material pegged to change the world; and they have had an amazing impact. But for all the technology and convenience borne from the polymer family, untold perils are becoming realized as well. Just how dangerous are plastics for human and environmental health?
Wading through the confusing studies, many sponsored by those with financial interests in the material, has been a daunting proposition. So hats off to Rolf Halden, associate professor in the School of Sustainable Engineering at Arizona State University and assistant director of Environmental Biotechnology at the Biodesign Institute. Halden has undertaken a survey of existing scientific literature concerning the hazards of plastics to human health and to the ecosystems we depend on. His findings, which appear in the latest issue of the Annual Review of Public Health, his conclusions are pretty grim.
Because of the material’s longevity, plastics pile up in landfills and are occupying the world’s oceans in increasing quantity. Halden’s study reiterates the fact that the effects to the environment from plastic waste are severe. Measurements from the most contaminated regions of the world’s oceans show that the mass of plastics exceeds that of plankton sixfold. Patches of oceanic garbage, called gyres, are swirling vortexes of plastic bits. The North Pacific Gyre, one of several in the world, is expanding at such a rate that from the first time it was studied until now, it has grown from the size of the state of Texas to twice the size of the continental United States!