The History and Future of Plastics (6)-Plastic Problems: Waste and Health

Plastic’s reputation fell further in the 1970s and 1980s as anxiety about waste increased. Plastic became a special target because, while so many plastic products are disposable, plastic lasts forever in the environment. It was the plastics industry that offered recycling as a solution. In the 1980s the plastics industry led an influential drive encouraging municipalities to collect and process recyclable materials as part of their waste-management systems. However, recycling is far from perfect, and most plastics still end up in landfills or in the environment. Grocery-store plastic bags have become a target for activists looking to ban one-use, disposable plastics, and several American cities have already passed bag bans. The ultimate symbol of the problem of plastic waste is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which has often been described as a swirl of plastic garbage the size of Texas floating in the Pacific Ocean.

The reputation of plastics has suffered further thanks to a growing concern about the potential threat they pose to human health. These concerns focus on the additives (such as the much-discussed bisphenol A [BPA] and a class of chemicals called phthalates) that go into plastics during the manufacturing process, making them more flexible, durable, and transparent. Some scientists and members of the public are concerned about evidence that these chemicals leach out of plastics and into our food, water, and bodies. In very high doses these chemicals can disrupt the endocrine (or hormonal) system. Researchers worry particularly about the effects of these chemicals on children and what continued accumulation means for future generations.

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