No Plastic Waste10 Feb 2022

Buy-now-pay-later: the hidden health costs of plastic

A new report looking at global plastic production and its diverse and concerning effects on human and planetary health has been published.

Christos Symeonides_B7A7261
Dr Christos Symeonides. Photo Credit: Neiyo.

As kids scramble to open the plastic packaging around relatively low-cost plastic toys, consider this: plastic production has hit an all-time high, and we are raising our future generations in the most plastic polluted global environment ever without knowing the long-term threat to human health.

Paediatrician and Minderoo Foundation researcher Dr Christos Symeonides has highlighted the known health risks from chemicals used in plastics in a new scientific report into plastic production and waste – sounding the alarm over the insidious effect plastic is having on human health and the environment.

Buy-now-pay-later: the hidden health costs of plastic, published in the Journal of Paediatrics and Child Health, referenced more than 100 science publications on the raw materials, manufacture, and hazards to environmental and human health from plastic.

An integral member of Minderoo Foundation’s Plastics and Human Health program, Dr Symeonides said there needs to be a fundamental change in the way society deals with plastic because of the serious risks it poses to our health and the health of the planet.

“Our review of the science of plastics has really challenged some misplaced assumptions about plastics,” Dr Symeonides said.

“We concluded that plastics are not simple, not inert, not sustainable, and that if we treat plastics as cheap and convenient, and don’t factor in the cost of managing the hazards that come with plastic, then we are effectively passing on their true cost to future generations to pay on our behalf.”

The review examines the production of hundreds of millions of tonnes of plastic each year from fossil fuels, the complex mix of chemicals that are found in plastics, and the known risks to human health of some key chemicals in plastics called bisphenols, phthalates, and halogenated flame retardants.

Environmental hazards are also identified as a threat to human health both locally, where chemical leaching from plastic production factories leads to pollution of rivers and threatens local drinking water supplies; and more broadly through global warming and ocean pollution.

The report goes on to describe the many safety concerns that have not yet been addressed, including the unknown human health effects from 10,500 other known monomers, additives, and processing aid chemicals in plastics, and of the tiny breakdown products of plastic called micro- and nanoplastics.

Minderoo Foundation’s Director of Plastics and Human Health, Professor Sarah Dunlop, said the review highlights how current regulations to ensure the safe and effective production of plastics are inadequate.

“There needs to be a re-think on the design, pricing, regulation and post-marketing surveillance of plastics so that industry is empowered to take responsibility for the hazards of the plastic they produce,” Professor Dunlop said.

“Consumers can choose to reduce plastic use but there also needs to be fundamental changes from industry, regulators and brands about the way plastics are produced, used and managed as waste.”

Researchers estimate that more than 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic has been produced since the early 1950s. About 60 per cent of that plastic has ended up in either landfill or the natural environment.

Minderoo Foundation
by Minderoo Foundation

Established by Andrew and Nicola Forrest in 2001, we are a modern philanthropic organisation seeking to break down barriers, innovate and drive positive, lasting change. Minderoo Foundation is proudly Australian, with key initiatives spanning from ocean research and ending slavery, to collaboration in cancer and community projects.

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