With rising interest about the dangers of plastic pollution and air pollution, are they linked?
There are many causes of air pollution, however, plastic is also a factor in four main ways which includes the extraction of oil to make plastic; recycling processes; incineration of plastic and off-gas from chemicals in plastic.
What Are The Typical Types Of Air Pollution?
Air pollution has many factors that can contribute including:
- Fossil fuels
- Release of chemical pesticides
- Plastic pollution.
Common air pollutants include:
- Particulate matter (PM10 and PM2) – a mixture of tiny solid particles and liquid droplets from acids, toxic metals, soil or dust particles, acids and the like.
- Ozone (O3) – chemical reaction at ground level between nitrogen and organic compounds exposed to sunlight.
- Nitrogen dioxide (NO2) – emitted by high-temperature combustion.
- Carbon monoxide (CO) – odorless, colorless gas from combustion processes and often come from mobile sources.
- Sulphur dioxide (SO2) – chemical compound produced by volcanic eruptions and industrial processes.
- Lead – toxic heavy metal from motor vehicles and industries.
How Does Plastic Contribute To Air Pollution?
Plastic is contributing to air pollution in four main ways:
- The extraction of oil to make plastic – most plastics are made from fossil fuels such as oil and gas, which release toxic emissions when extracted from the earth. The drilling required for oil and gas drilling release large amounts of contaminants into the air. The process of extraction emits dozens of pollutants that make the skies smoggier, hazier and more toxic to breathe.
- Recycling processes – recycling of plastic may be a good way to reduce plastic waste however, it can be a problem when standards aren’t followed. Often the air is thick with plastic-derived, toxic emissions.
- Incineration of plastic – it’s estimated that more than 40 per cent of the world’s garbage is burned away to avoid more landfill contributions. This process releases dangerous substances including heavy metals, persistent organic pollutants and other toxic chemicals in the air.
- Off-gas from chemicals in plastic – chemicals added to plastic (phthalates) give flexibility and heat resistance but are also endocrine disruptors that have been linked to many health problems. As phthalates aren’t chemically bound to the plastic, meaning they can easily off-gas into the air and products we consume.
What Does This Mean For Our Health?
One of the major impacts of plastic pollution and air pollution in terms of plastic are to do with air quality and microplastics. As more and more people understand the existence of microplastics, more studies are being done to see where microplastics are and how they are getting so widespread.
Microplastics have been found in groundwater, often a source of drinking water, along with rivers, soils and oceans. They’ve also been found in salt and some seafood as well as other marine species and bottled water.
Unfortunately, microplastics are essentially everywhere. They’ve been found in deep oceans, Arctic snow, shellfish, table salt, beer, drinking water, in the air, Antarctic ice, falling with rain over mountains and cities. Essentially EVERYWHERE.
This also means they end up in seafood and salt that humans consume, animals humans consume and drinks that use water in their ingredients. A study in 2020 found an average of 132 small pieces of plastic rained down into each square meter of public land in the western United States EVERY YEAR.
The main pathway for microplastics to get inside the human body is ingestion of them through contaminated food or water or inhalation. A few known issues with microplastics in salt and other food include:
- Microplastics in food reduces nutritional value as they may prevent proper digestion of nutrients
- Microplastics can translocate through the circulatory and lymphatic systems
- Microplastics can cause oxidative stress
- They can cause inflammation of body tissue
- They can also make the immune system less capable of removing synthetic substances
- The polymers used can also cause health issues to humans with materials such as polyethylene (used in salt packaging) disrupting hormones; or polypropylene damaging the liver and brain as well as insulin resistance; or polyethylene terephthalate which can cause eye and respiratory irritation and is carcinogenic.
What We Can Do About The Problem?
Reducing your use of plastics is a start to helping to fix this issue, as well as making sure you are switching to plastic alternatives, reusing or upcycling and recycling where possible. Steer clear of anywhere that incinerates plastic waste as well.
If you’re anywhere near waste management that may be less than standard, you can choose to wear a good quality face mask that covers your nose and mouth while in the vicinity.
Understanding your plastic alternatives as well as how to filter water, which salts are less likely to be contaminated and the same with marine food you may consume are the best ways to reduce your exposure to plastic and air pollution.’
Unfortunately, plastic is everywhere and so we can’t completely stop air pollution or plastic pollution. However, we can reduce our own environmental impact by understanding what alternatives are available and what is adding to air pollution. Use biodegradable trash bags or compostable trash bags that doesn’t harm the earth.
You can also look more into microplastics in this article and learn the ways you can try to avoid consuming these.