Better health without plastic (4): Plastic additives that affect human health

Since the irruption of plastic in our lives (1950s), this material derived from oil and gas has become practically ubiquitous. It is obvious that some of its characteristics such as flexibility, durability, lightness and low cost (especially for its producers and distributors) have made it prevail as a substitute for all kinds of materials.

When plastic appeared, it did so as a spearhead of a new concept: using and disposing. Thus, the first disposable plastic products appeared as a modern option that allowed a release within the family. LIFE Magazine published at that time an article called “Throwaway Living” which celebrated the birth of this new society and introduced a range of products at a very low price.

Since its appearance, it is estimated that 9.2 billion tons of plastic have been produced -especially of disposable products and packaging- and almost half of this has been generated in the last twenty years. Of all the plastic that has been generated, less than 10% has been recycled, that is, most has been dumped, burned or abandoned in the environment (seas, oceans, forests …).

The turning point that has made plastic become one of the most referenced environmental problems today has been the inability to stop a production and distribution system that has encouraged its disproportionate use and outsourced environmental and economic costs to people and the environment. Currently, 40% of the plastic produced in the world is turned into waste in less than a month.

Oil becomes plastic thanks to the division of molecules that combine into long-chain polymers, mixed with chemicals and applying pressure and heat. To give the material the desired characteristics, several additives are added: light absorbers, antistatic, stabilizers, lubricants, pigments, plasticizers, etc. For example, there are plasticizers that convert rigid PVC into the flexible film that pools are made of, fluorinated compounds that impregnate waterproof jackets, or brominated substances that serve as flame retardants in appliances and furniture.

On average, plastic products contain approximately seven percent of these additives, many of which are harmful to health because they are gradually released and accumulate in food or beverages, in the air or in household dust.

To raise awareness of these impacts, at Rezero we have carried out urine tests to 20 opinion leaders from the worlds of culture, sports, science and medicine in order to detect the presence of plastic metabolites such as phthalates and bisphenols derived from the plasticization of our feeding. The results are overwhelming: 100% of the sample (myself included) have tested positive with an average of 21 substances detected.

The increasing awareness towards this problem must lead to a turning point which allows an effective reduction of single-use plastic. Now, more than ever, we need the responsibility from all social and economic agents to face this excess of plastic. The administration must transpose the European directive on disposable plastics and approve a future Catalan waste law based on the prevention and efficient resource use; the productive and distribution sectors must support food de-plasticization and guarantee that everything that is put on the market is reusable, repairable, recoverable and recyclable; and citizens must adopt conscious consumption practices, use reusable containers when shopping, acquire durable, low environmental impact and proximity products, and demand our right to consume without generating waste.

The evidence that the current economic model is unsustainable, the effects on our health and the climate emergency situation that we are experiencing make it necessary for us to act together quickly, in solidarity and effectively to advance the transition towards a zero waste society.