Plastic pollution has attracted a tremendous amount of attention and press coverage in early 2021 as evidenced in news stories; an episode of John Oliver’s show, “Last Week Tonight”; and a viral tweet from Greta Thunberg highlighting a study linking plastic pollution to human penises shrinking. These eye-catching pieces stemmed from Dr. Shanna H. Swan’s work that culminated in her book, Count Down: How Our Modern World Is Threatening Sperm Counts, Altering Male and Female Reproductive Development, and Imperiling the Future of the Human Race. Other articles have highlighted plastic pollution’s impact on polar bears, which causes their penis bones to lose density and become vulnerable to fracturing when they attempt to procreate. The severity of plastic pollution has reached a critical tipping point. Plastic pollution is not just changing lifestyles; it is changing humans and nature on a biological level.
The production and consumption of plastic is unsustainable for three reasons. First, the production of plastic is tied to fossil fuels, which are finite resources. Second, the emissions associated with plastic production and disposal contribute significantly to climate change. Third, plastic is unsustainable because it has no good place to go. Even when it can be recycled, which is not necessarily a given, it is often downcycled. This means that plastic recycled today is often turned into a product that cannot be recycled later. It is waste.
The costs of fossil fuel extraction are evident in the large volume of oil and gas exploration and production undertaken nationwide. Production and incineration of plastics emits toxic chemicals into the air. According to a Center for International Environmental Law (“CIEL”) report, in 2030, emissions from the plastic lifecycle could hit 1.34 gigatons annually. CIEL notes that emissions-wise that figure equates to roughly 295 new 500-megawatt coal-fired power plants.9 Even plastics that make it to a recycling center are rarely given a second life. It is estimated that only 2.5% of U.S. plastics are ever recycled. The vast majority of plastic waste either accumulates in landfills or is incinerated, which contributes to increased CO2 emissions, exacerbates climate change and disproportionately impacts communities of color and the underserved.
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