From its arrival decades ago, plastic has transformed modern life. But in 2018, the alarm over the plastic pollution crisis sounded louder than ever. On Earth Day, the United Nations issued its first State of Plastics report, calling for more recycling and better ways to manufacture and manage the material in its many forms.
At The Conversation, we took a broad view of plastic, working with scholars to explain not only the environmental and health effects but also its cultural contribution and the industries that handle plastic goods – and waste.
1. We are guinea pigs
People now regularly hear reports of sea animals discovered with stomachs full of human-discarded plastic. But much of the plastic pollution in the oceans is microplastics – many times smaller than the width of a human hair.
Environmental epidemiologist John Meeker from the University of Michigan writes that the health effects of these microplastics, which are also found in many consumer products, are largely unknown. He walks through what scientists do know and notes that “given that human exposure to microplastics is widespread, results from animal studies are certainly a cause for concern and an important factor for risk assessment.”
2. Rivers and lakes