Thoughts on Plastic Pollution - World Environment Day 2023

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Piece of plastic floating in dark sea water.

World Environment Day is marked every year on June 5. Inaugurated by the United Nations General Assembly in 1972, it is a date which aims to invigorate people globally to act towards protecting and restoring our planet. A crucial initiative, given that almost half of the world’s children live in areas of high climate and environmental hazard [1, 2]. It is also a pressing goal for anyone who cares about future generations, as 95% of children in the United Kingdom are worried about climate change, with 89% concerned about climate action - or more specifically, inaction, by people with the most power to make a difference; governments and business owners [3].   

This year's World Environment's Day theme is about tackling Plastic Pollution. The first synthetic plastic, Bakelite, was patented in 1907, just over 100 years ago [4]. The new material was wondrous because of its specific chemical properties of durability, malleability and ease of production. These capabilities caused its production to sky-rocket, and also are causing the planet’s downfall. 

In general plastics take around thousands to hundred thousands of years to degrade. This longevity causes issues in our ecosystems, most prominently observed in bioaccumulation of plastics through the food chain, ending up in our plates. As if eating plastic is not bad enough, the degradation products of plastic cause potent health issues, showing negative effects to be multi-layered. Microplastics have invaded all areas of the planet, from fields to rainforests to rivers. Having been around for so long, some microorganisms in the sea have adapted to live and proliferate in man-made plastics - the ‘plastisphere’ in the sea [5]. Perhaps most alarmingly, microplastics enter the human body through the air we breathe, depositing in our lungs, kidney and spleen. This process starts within the first few moments of life, affecting children in every country. Scientific consensus shows that this is bad for human health. As a medical student I worry about the widespread impact of plastic pollution on children’s health because it has the potential to plague humanity in a cyclical fashion. Sick children grow to be sicker adults, and unwell populations lead to an ill environment which decreases the vitality of the planet.

Plastic pollution also contributes to the grander scheme of the climate crisis. Everybody on this planet should be concerned about this issue because the climate crisis is a child right’s crisis. Plastic pollution exemplifies this with its reverbating impacts on the Convention on the Rights of the Child, by preventing children’s access to their rights of life, survival and development (Article 6), standard of living (Article 27) and leisure, play and culture (Article 31). 

As mentioned above, microplastic invade many body cavities, which impairs the body’s ability to function optimally. For example, exposure to microplastics amongst other pollutants exacerbates asthma symptoms in children, and can even quicken the onset of asthma leading to a poorer quality of life [6]. Some evidence even suggests that maternal exposure to microplastic can cause miscarriage, increased chance of post-natal mortality and contributes to developing diseases in later life such as obesity, hypertension and cancer [7. 8].

Reducing microplastics in the environment, hence exposure to all children, can improve access to Article 6. Similarly, plastics decrease standard of living not just through health outcomes, but also by decreasing biodiversity and even potential for economic growth. This directly contraindicates Article 27, resulting in children struggling to survive because their rivers and playgrounds are clogged up by plastic. Thirdly (but not the final impact), is how plastic impacts Article 31, the right to leisure, play and culture. Not only does plastic pollution decrease the liveability of our planet for next generations, but it also insidiously intertwines itself with children’s lives through being a component of children’s toys. When outgrown these toys cannot be broken down safely, and disrupt delicate balances on Earth, tearing down fundamental human rights like sustainable food and water access and safe housing. With a struggle for meeting a child’s basic needs for survival, play, leisure and cultural activities will inadvertently take a backseat. 

Preventing these disastrous outcomes by curbing plastic pollution can be achieved with support from governments to pledge an end to all single-use plastic and tangible action on commitments by the plastic industry. It is important to note that there is scope for careers to be harnessed through this objective, as every problem requires creative thinking for solutions. Governments can fund innovations such as making 100% plastic bricks out of recycled plastic collected from shores, as is being done in 2023’s World Environment Day host country Cote d'Ivoire. Individually, we can urge the people with the power to make a difference to make the right choices. Whilst persuasion goes on, we can all make personal efforts to clean up and prevent plastic waste by actions such as participating in river and beach cleans, adopting a zero-waste lifestyle and shopping sustainably. 

Yet it is important to remember that plastic is not the villain here. The boom in plastic production all those years ago and the same reason it is continuously being produced today is because it is endlessly useful, and has allowed human activity to progress. Plastic provided equal access to amenities such as phones and housing across the globe and even made education more accessible through forming electronics or providing easily transportable food. The goal is not to ban all plastic; it is to find methods which integrate plastic sustainably into society to feed into a circular economy. 

If you want to find out more information about actions you can take to fight against plastic pollution, make sure to educate yourself further on this topic and other pertinent climate issues through research. This link is a brilliant starting point for learning about actions for general climate activism : https://www.voicesofyouth.org/climate-toolkit

 

References
1. The Climate Crisis and Violence Against Children [Internet]. Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Violence Against Children (OSRSG/VAC); 2022 [cited 2023 May 30]. Available from: https://violenceagainstchildren.un.org/sites/violenceagainstchildren.un…

2. Children in the World by Country 2022 [Internet]. [cited 2023 May 30]. Available from: https://worldpopulationreview.com/country-rankings/children-in-the-worl…

3. COP26 Impact Report [Internet]. Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Violence Against Children (OSRSG/VAC); 2022 [cited 2023 May 30]. Available from: https://violenceagainstchildren.un.org/sites/violenceagainstchildren.un…

4. Bakelite: The First Synthetic Plastic [Internet]. Science Museum Blog. 2017 [cited 2023 May 30]. Available from: https://blog.sciencemuseum.org.uk/bakelite-the-first-synthetic-plastic/…

5. UN Environment Programme Beat Plastic Pollution [Internet]. UNEP; 2022. [cited 2023 May 30]. Available from: https://www.unep.org/interactives/beat-plastic-pollution/

6. Jurewicz J, Hanke W. Exposure to phthalates: Reproductive outcome and children health. A review of epidemiological studies. International Journal of Occupational Medicine and Environmental Health. 2011 Jan 1;24(2). [cited 2023 May 30]. Available from: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21594692/

7. Lathi RB, Liebert CA, Brookfield KF, Taylor JA, vom Saal FS, Fujimoto VY, et al. Conjugated bisphenol A in maternal serum in relation to miscarriage risk. Fertility and Sterility [Internet]. 2014 Jul 1 [cited 2023 May 30];102(1):123–8. Available from: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0015028214002659

8. Apau J, Acheampong A, Adua E. Exposure to bisphenol A, bisphenol F, and bisphenol S can result in obesity in human body. Wong BM, editor. Cogent Chemistry. 2018 Sep 7;4(1). [cited 2023 May 30]. Available from: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/23312009.2018.1506601

 

 

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