How Does Plastic Pollution Affect Humans:
Know the Risks and
Join the Plastic-Free Movement
In Partnership with Plaine Products
*When you buy a product through our links below, we may earn money from our affiliate partners to help support the site. Learn more here.*
We’ve likely never gone a day without seeing something made from plastic. Isn’t that crazy?
In addition to the plastic we see in use every day, large pieces of plastic remain in landfills for hundreds of (even a thousand!) years *yep, I’m with you*; tonnes of plastic waste flood into our oceans, devastating marine ecosystems *so terrible*; and nano-sized microplastics make their way into the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the food we eat *wait, what!?*.
It’s inside our bodies? YES!
The influx of plastic into our food chain, water supply, and air poses a threat to human health for two key reasons. Firstly, there is no safe exposure level to microplastics. Turns out, these temples aren’t built to be filled with plastic. Secondly, plastic absorbs and magnifies other pollutants and toxins, spreading them and the harm they cause further throughout the environment we are exposed to daily.
Learning these important details will help us, as individuals, identify where we can reduce the amount of plastic in the environment and limit our own exposure to it. So, let’s look at how plastic pollution affects humans…
Meet Our Partner: Plaine Products
The first step to change is letting people know about the cause, and our partners at Plaine Products are all about making change in the world of single-use plastic elimination!
Plaine Products is one family’s answer to the earth’s single-use plastic crisis—offering plastic-free personal care products that are good for you, your family, and the planet. Plaine Products is a certified B Corporation and 1% for the Planet member. They teamed up with us to spread the word on plastic waste so that you might join them in their dream to have less plastic waste in the world.
Effects of Plastic Pollution on the Human Body
Plastics in Food
Every piece of plastic ever produced still exists today, and two thirds of it has been released back into the environment, whether it’s broken down into microplastics in the ocean, in a garbage pile, or deep within our agricultural soil. Plastic makes its way to your plate in sneaky ways with some studies concluding that we ingest thousands of plastic particles each year.
Most of us have been warned that eating seafood comes with a little plastic on the side due to the ocean plastics marine life ingests. There is growing concern around the toxicity of fish or marine animals who have been eating plastic, which ends up in the food chain. Heavy metals, phthalates, and other additives in plastic can continue to climb the food chain, which has the potential for devastating health effects.
Plastic exposure in food comes from more than just ocean dwellers. Plastic can be detected in teabags, canned goods, and even table salt.
It’s unclear which aspects of health complications are the direct result of plastic in the body and which are merely triggered, exacerbated, or more prone to complications. And that makes sense— one day’s worth of microplastic particles (estimated to be 200+) may not cause severe health issues immediately, but over time, ingestion of thousands and thousands of particles can cause serious problems. But over that same amount of time, you’ve been exposed to millions of other particles as well, muddying health experts’ ability to point to one single root cause.
Despite not being able to draw a straight, uninterrupted line from plastics to illness, scientists and medical experts have long agreed: ingesting plastics creates health risks on its own and harms the functioning of important organs. Of course, that’s not surprising…plastics just don’t belong in our bodies.
Scientists have done extensive studies showing plastics existed in tissue samples from every major human organ. In addition to the damage caused by the microplastics themselves and the toxic chemicals they carry with them from their processing, once in the human body, they can also build up and block the important filtration systems in your body.
Endocrine disruptors like bisphenol A (BPA) will increase our risk of certain cancers, can cause hormonal issues, and even increase risk of infertility and birth defects. Ingesting plastic can also negatively impact the immune system over time.
Plastics in Drinking Water
If you use plastic water bottles, you’ve probably been warned that the plastic makes its way into the water you’re drinking. But, perhaps you opt for a BPA-free, plastic-free water bottle. Big, important steps!
Now, it’s good to note that plastics are in both bottled water and tap. Plastics enter waterways through two predominant paths: surface runoff and sewage effluent. Even when plastic waste is disposed of properly (although it often is not) it may be swept into rivers, streams, and drainage, and carried into our oceans.
Plastics that break down then get cycled into our drinking water. More than 2 million tons of water bottles are piled in our landfills, so use of plastic water bottles is a big issue both for the individuals drinking that water and for the rest of us when those bottles and/or their microplastics make their way into our water systems.
The health effects are similar to those we experience from the plastic we ingest through food. In the end, it’s simply not good news to be drinking plastic.
Plastics in Clothing
Yep, plastic is in our clothes too. We really just cannot catch a break! When certain synthetic fabrics like spandex and polyester are produced, worn, and washed, they release small plastic microfibers. These are 35% of the primary plastics that become ocean pollution.
We release microfibers from our clothes into the environment every time we use a washer and dryer—yet another reason to focus on these machines when looking to save energy at home.
These microplastics absorb and release airborne pollutants, which is cause for concern as well. We inhale these microfibers too, which lodge within the lungs and induce inflammation. Certain fibers can be pretty persistent and lodge deep in the lungs for quite some time.
It’s worth repeating that it’s not just the plastics, but the toxic chemicals that they may be treated with as well, such as flame retardants and pesticides, that cause harm to our bodies. Ah, the lungs, yet another place plastics and their toxic sidekicks just shouldn’t exist.
Effects of Plastic Pollution on our Economy
Plastics in Fishing
You might have heard about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the infamous giant floating, accidental landfill caught between California and Hawaii. Ocean gyres or currents move this pollution all around the globe.
This particular type of waste is often what we see in images of marine species who have died because of ocean plastic: sea turtles caught in plastic packaging, seabirds tangled in old fishing line. Ocean plastic is harmful at every level: animals eat it or get entangled in it, organisms absorb it, they die, it disrupts movement patterns and creates scarcity in the food chain, and erodes the oceanic ecosystems all life relies on! *deep breaths*
In addition to catching fish full of plastic, the fishing community is having a hard time navigating plastic in the oceans themselves. Plastic bags stuck in propellers and fishing nets tangled in plastic pollution wastes valuable time and costs money to fix.
In the Shetlands of Scotland, the losses in revenue due to ocean plastic are estimated at $4 million, and most fishermen avoid certain areas altogether because the process of navigating ocean plastic is too time-consuming and expensive.
Plastics in Tourism
The coastal communities active in the tourism industry know that tourism itself happens to be a source of pollution on beaches. In addition to a higher consumption of goods during the tourist seasons, local waste treatment centers are often bombarded with much more trash to process than normal during this time. This leads to inadequate disposal and more plastic pollution.
Ironically, a number of studies have shown a staggering correlation between marine litter and the tourism industry. In Cape Town, South Africa, just two pieces of trash on the beach was enough to deter 85% of visitors from going to the beach at all. On the coast of Sweden, litter has also caused a reduction in tourism and with it, a $22.5 million loss in annual tourist revenue.
Beyond the long-term appearance plastic makes, the effect plastic has on the marine environment causes destruction of coastal ecosystems that often draw tourists to high-traffic destinations in the first place. Many coveted destinations flaunt the beauty of vibrant fish and coral reef, but as plastic obstructs these beautiful ocean residents, the sightseeing declines as well!
More than 2.3 million people are employed by ocean-based tourism and recreation, and their work contributes around $124 billion to U.S. GDP annually. Without ocean-based tourism and its contribution to our local and global economy, we would all feel the loss.
Indirect Effects of Plastic Pollution on Humans
Disruption of Food Chains
Over 690 types of marine animals from plankton to mammals have ingested ocean plastic. That’s not at all surprising given the fact that a dump truck worth of plastic ends up in the ocean every minute. With that fact, it’s more surprising that number isn’t much higher!
There are 228,450 known species in the ocean (and millions suspected to be still undiscovered). And as the vast marine life ingests these not-so-tasty plastics and their tiny byproducts, they often develop foreign illnesses due to the toxicity introduced into their diet. In other instances, they may be entangled and suffocated or starved. This plastic affects these animals’ reproduction rates as well.
All of this is to say that these animals, whether predators, prey, or facilitators to the marine and land-based ecosystems are reduced or eliminated through plastic pollution, disrupting the food chain we rely on both as a direct food source, economic provider, and an indirect engine for our society.
Plastic Pollution in Landfills
According to the United Nations, 8.3 billion tons of plastic has been manufactured since the 1950s. Alarmingly, most plastic is not actually being recycled and instead accumulates in landfills. In these massive heaps, as plastic breaks down, the release harmful toxins into groundwater which negatively affects everyone.
Many of the problems plastic causes that we have already discussed connect to plastic’s life in landfills (or on their way there). So, a sure-fire way to reduce those threats? Reduce plastic going to the landfill altogether.
Plastic pollution in landfills and its effects increase in times of health crisis like we’ve seen during COVID. So, when national and global emergencies require more plastics, it becomes even more important we account for the reduction we need in our own personal lives!
Long-Term Effects of Plastic Pollution on Humans
Extinction of Animals
An estimated 700 species could go extinct because of plastic pollution and subsequent habitat loss. Plastic waste and plastic production are threatening species that are core to many ecosystems.
Biodiversity is critical to a healthy planet. Biodiversity is what sustains balanced ecosystems that ensure we have the raw materials and resources we use in daily life. This includes food for human consumption—we are talking about key resources!
Every organism has a role to play, and we have to make sure we foster the process to make sure it all keeps flowing smoothly. When one species is removed from our ecosystem, the balance is thrown off, and our existence is threatened. As beneficiaries of all the marine world offers, it’s essential that we save our oceans and all the vital members of our ecosystem.
Plastic production is an intensive and consumptive process that uses fossil fuels and contributes immensely to climate change. Once plastic is ready to be disposed of, waste management becomes an issue.
Incineration, or the process of burning garbage, releases toxins in the air. This has a huge carbon impact which also contributes to climate change. Sadly, incinerators are often located near low-income communities of color who pay the price of a global consumption problem.
Even in landfills, heat can cause plastic to release harmful greenhouse gases and pollutants. At every stage of its life, plastic is a public health issue for people, animals, and the planet.
Who is Fighting for our Health & How Can You Join Them?
As we understand how plastic gets into the ocean and how it then gets into our bodies, it can feel like we are living on a plastic planet, but what we love the most is sharing about the people fighting to keep us and our planet healthy, and on the plastic front, there’s a lot of successful changemakers.
Environmentally friendly companies like our partners at Plaine Products built their entire company around removing single-use plastic from our lives, and they are constantly innovating to make an impact in building a plastic-free world. When it comes to single-use plastics we use daily, bath and body care is a primary culprit—shampoo, conditioner, soap, lotion, they all come in plastic bottles tossed out after use.
The shampoo bottles thrown out every year in the U.S. alone could fill 1,164 football fields!
That is, unless we all opt for a plastic-free option. The Plaine Products team knows the impact every individual can have through their own individual actions, and that’s why they partnered with us on this content series to get the word out.
And they aren’t alone. Each purchasing decision we make has a direct impact on our environment and our own health, and there are many companies focused on eliminating single-use plastics. A good rule of thumb is look for the B—B Corp certification requires companies to demonstrate environmental stewardship, and many B Corps put environmentalism at the core of the business.
Consider supporting companies that are Carbon Neutral Certified as well. These companies have undergone evaluation and commit to a neutralized carbon footprint through carbon reduction and offsetting.
Of course, in your own day-to-day life, be mindful of your impact with the 3 Rs: reduce, reuse, recycle. Or as the Plaine Products team puts it: Refill, Reuse, Rejoice!
Jackie is a mission-driven writer currently living in Nashville, TN. Her background in nonprofit communications and sustainability is what drives her to create content that educates the public on climate change and sustainable living. Jackie enjoys hiking with her rescue dog, finding craft breweries, and traveling the globe in search of plant-based eats.
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