Plastic: Urgent Action for our Health, and the Environment

Scroll intro

Single use plastics and plastic pollution have caught the attention of citizens, companies and experts worldwide. While the increasing use and thus waste of disposable plastics is not a new issue, it is having a moment in the mainstream and society and the private sector are reacting with regulations, sourcing changes, product innovations and behaviour shifts.

While plastic certainly isn’t solely a villain (life-saving medical solutions, light-weighting and associated fuel efficiency and climate impacts, just to name a few of the good things plastics have brought us) there is a dark side of plastics, beyond the straw in a sea turtle’s nose, that has yet to be fully uncovered, that raises the urgency of our collective work to reduce plastic pollution.

There is a dark side of plastics, beyond the straw in a sea turtle’s nose, that has yet to be fully uncovered, that raises the urgency of our collective work to reduce plastic pollution.

We’re talking about our health. Plastic from a variety of products – think carpet, clothing, packaging — are showing up in our tap and bottled water and even our beer. How is it getting there? There are a variety of theories including microfibres floating in factory air and sewage sludge which is used to fertilise agricultural fields in some countries. This sludge can contain microplastics from cosmetics washed down the drain or clothing fibers from laundry drainage. If microplastics are in our water then there’s a good chance they are in our food, too. Studies show that plastics are accumulating in one third of UK-caught fish. The health impacts of digesting plastic are unclear, but some studies point to some concerning results when microplastics are inhaled.

Plastic from a variety of products – think carpet, clothing, packaging – are showing up in our tap and bottled water and even our beer.

While it is not clear how significant the risks of inhaling and ingesting microplastics, we should use this potential health concern as further motivation to reduce disposable plastic production and ensure plastics are reused and recycled through infrastructure development, policy change and behavior change. It is also a motivation to carry out further research on the sources of microplastics pollution and its health impacts to better understand potential solutions and the overall risks. Nearly all stakeholders have a role to play in solving this problem and the private sector has a particularly important role to play as the main producer of plastics. Reducing the amount of plastic used by improving design efficiency, innovating to develop alternative materials to replace plastics and influencing policy and customer behavior change are all on the menu when it comes to the actions companies can take.

Packaging company Amcor has pledged to develop all its packaging to be recyclable or reusable by 2025. Marks and Spencer has a 2022 goal to have all of its customer-facing product packaging in the UK be ‘recyclable’ but also ‘widely recyclable’ “i.e. not just recyclable in theory but in reality too”. They also seek to simplify their plastic packaging to improve its recyclability by exploring the feasibility of making packaging from just one polymer. And progress is underway, with a shift from 11 polymers in 2007 to 4 today. And groups such as Closed Loop Partners are working to improve infrastructure and recycling technologies to work toward a circular economy. It’s Closed Loop Fund helps invest in scaling recycling infrastructure and sustainable manufacturing technologies and aims to recover and return 8 million tons of plastics to the supply chain by 2025.

We should use this potential health concern as further motivation to reduce disposable plastic production and ensure plastics are reused and recycled through infrastructure development, policy change and behavior change.

The private sector has the opportunity, and the responsibility, to invest in new solutions that can help shape our future. Companies can invest in R&D to develop new products and innovations from alternative and recycled materials, adjust product design to be more recyclable, inform consumers about their choices and impacts, and collaborate with partners to invest in and advocate for recycling infrastructure and legislation. In a very real sense, our health could depend on it.

About the author

Margo Mosher
Margo Mosher

Margo Mosher is a Director in SustainAbility’s New York office, leading on consulting, thought leadership and business development.

Author profile

You might also like…