In the Pacific Northwest, salmon have been dying for years. The mystery of why loomed long but at the end of 2020, researchers found the culprit was a toxic chemical often added to rubbers and plastics. The coho salmon were being exposed to the chemical via tire runoff that ended up in waterways.
"There were mass die-offs of these salmon for decades, and they just found out what that one compound was," said Imari Walker, environmental engineering Ph.D candidate at Duke University, during last week’s Circularity 21. "We're battling with so many different things, and it's taking so much longer for the research to catch up."
That’s just one example of the adverse impacts of plastic in the environment. But the substance is everywhere — in our homes, in food packaging, in children’s toys — and it’s estimated that each week humans consume up to 2,000 tiny plastic particles. And while the impact of plastics — and its chemical additives — on human health are relatively unknown, ingesting it has been linked to diseases and conditions such as cancer and reproductive issues.
With that in mind, what can companies be doing to do less harm moving forward?
There are no simple solutions other than transparency.
"We have to start thinking about what we are trying to do to create a clean circular economy," said Boma Brown-West, director of consumer health at the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF). "What we need to be doing is trying to eliminate or reduce the use of toxic chemicals in the first life of the product or packaging, so that when we move on to that second, third or fourth life, we're not continually reintroducing those toxic chemicals into our lives."?
Brown-West pointed to studies that showed that paper fiber packaging coated with per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), a group of man-made chemicals linked to a wide range of health problems, ends up being composted, then added to soil used to grow crops eventually eaten by livestock.?
That means "we have that repeated movement of this toxic chemical," she said. "It's vital that we start addressing … how that can continue to expose people afterwards as we increase our recycling and reuse of materials streams."
And when it comes to plastic that’s "compostable," it has to be taken to specific facilities to get processed. Plastic that is marketed as compostable, which is manufactured from plant-based materials instead of petrochemicals, is actually still plastic and has similar impacts on the environment.
"One of the problems is that we don't have a lot of facilities that openly accept compostable plastic," said Walker. "We need to make sure that it's actually getting to the right place to actually be broken apart. Or else, it's no different than a normal piece of plastic."
Brown-West said it comes down to companies recognizing that thinking about chemicals, and having a strong chemicals management system in place where they commit to safer chemistry and understanding where they sit in the supply chain is pivotal to tackling the impacts of plastics and chemicals on human health.?
"Taking action on that is crucial, and transparency is the key to being able to really move forward," Brown-West said. "Even if you can't replace that certain compound, just let us know what's in there. Let us make the choice whether we want to be exposed or purchase that product."
"There are no simple solutions other than transparency," Walker said.