The World Air Quality Index holds an accurate, real-time map of our planet's air quality, and it doesn't look great. Today, pollution is the leading cause of death and disease in the atmosphere, responsible for over 9 million premature deaths worldwide in 2015. Of those 9 million deaths, two-thirds were directly linked to air pollution, which has been described as the most widespread threat to human health.
There are many factors that contribute to air pollution: the burning of fossil fuels, the introduction of chemical pesticides, and now plastics. But how do plastics impact our air quality?
Here are four main ways plastics have an effect on our air quality:
the manufacture of plastic raw material: Oil
Some plastics are made from fossil fuels such as oil and natural gas, which emit harmful pollutants when extracted from our soil. Huge amounts of chemicals are released into the air from oil and gas drilling, including: benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, xylene, carbon monoxide, hydrogen sulfide, ozone, sulfur dioxide, particulate matter and volatile organic compounds. Oil refineries turn crude oil into a wide range of products, including plastics, and require multiple phases of activity that emit hundreds of contaminants that make our skies smog, hazier, and more breathable, in addition to driving global warming.
The effect of the recycling industry on air quality
The recycling of plastic today is certainly a major step towards preventing more new plastics from being made, thereby reducing our environmental impact. Tossing our plastic bottles and packaging into a recycle bin makes us feel good. Nevertheless, plastic recycling can become an issue if it does not comply with strict environmental and labor standards.
Did you know that over half of our plastics deemed to be "recycled" are shipped overseas? Sadly, many informal and formal recycling facilities in South and South East Asia do not have safe working conditions and pollution control measures. Lian Jiao is a Chinese town that has become a toxic waste dump for plastic recycling in the West. Workers melt down plastics without wearing any professional protective gear, and the air in this small town is thick with plastic-derived, toxic emissions. Like the processing of new plastics, the recycling of plastics has the same criterion for the release of toxic gasses into the atmosphere.
In 2017, China declared that it no longer wanted to be a "garbage dump" for everyone, as it recycled 50% of the planet's plastic products. As a result, Western nations have been puzzled as to what to do with the enormous amount of garbage they produce each year and how to dispose of it, which leads us to the next way plastics affect our air quality: the release of toxic substances through incineration.
Incineration of Plastic Materials
Plastic's sluggish decomposition rate is a major obstacle to the rapid filling of landfill sites all over the world. Researchers estimate that more than 40% of the world's garbage is being burned. Burning plastics and other materials releases hazardous substances such as heavy metals, persistent organic pollutants (POPs) and other toxic chemicals into the environment and persists in ash residues.
Such chemicals have been related to the development of asthma, endocrine disorders and cancer. In fact, POPs travel across our world through wind currents, which means that plastics burned in Germany may easily affect the quality of the air in Italy. According to the United States of America. Environmental protection authority, burning plastics is, in fact, the worst possible end-of-life management solution for plastics from a climate perspective.
Plastic Ability to "Off-Gas"
Phthalates are chemicals that are applied to plastics that offer structural qualities such as flexibility and heat resistance. Unfortunately, endocrine disruptors have also been correlated with many health problems, such as the production of lower testosterone rates, decreased sperm counts and reduced female fertility, and many more. Phthalates are not chemically bound to plastic, which means that they can easily release gas into the air and the products we consume.
We're all familiar with the identifiable scent of a brand new car interior, but did you know that this is actually due to off-gas phthalates?
Research shows that many of the microplastics in our bodies come from the air that we breathe. Due to their small size, microplastics can be inhaled and are abundant in indoor and outdoor air. The smallest particles can move through the bloodstream and cause cardiovascular and cerebrovascular diseases. In addition, microplastics have been found in lung tissue and muscle tissue, which shows the bio-persistence of this material and the inability of the body to rid itself of it.
Breathe In, Breath Out: What's next?
So, what can we do about it? Before we find a new substitute, one with the same characteristics of plastic but with an expiry date, the best thing to do is to reduce our reliance on it and keep it away from landfill sites and our precious oceans.
As consumers, we have the power to change things. In just 60 years, we've built a plastic world that's drowning in itself, but we still have time to reverse the trend and leave our children a planet that's preserved in its natural beauty.
You will inspire and help countries in the Global South in their attempts to recycle plastics, rather than burn them, by going to #PlasticNeutral today.