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Toxic Plastic Harms Communities and Ocean Health According to a New National Academies Report

A new report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine details the serious impacts that plastic is having on the health of our oceans and communities. It underscores the interconnectivity between plastic pollution and toxic chemicals and reinforces the importance of tackling these challenges together.

In its report, “Reckoning with the Role of the US in Global Ocean Plastic Waste,” the Academy not only found that the U.S. is the largest generator of plastic waste in the world, but also emphasized how the production of plastic is harming fenceline communities since they are “often exposed to toxic pollution.” Plastic is an environmental justice issue, according to the National Academies: “From exploration of oil to extraction to the disposal of plastic waste, there are aspects along the entire life cycle of plastics that have disproportionately harmful effects on marginalized communities.”

The report also highlighted how toxic chemicals added to plastic pose health threats to both humans and wildlife, noting that “endocrine-disrupting effects from plastics-associated compounds, including reproductive disease, sperm [damage], and obesity” may even be passed down to future generations. Toxic chemicals in plastics can’t be ignored whether you are considering the health of the animals eating microplastics, the potential for this to “introduce toxins to the food web,” the chemical in tire-rubber that are killing salmon in the Pacific Northwest, or the fact that microplastics are now found in human placentas at birth. 

The top three “interventions” recommended by the National Academies to combat ocean plastic pollution are noteworthy because they are not waste management strategies; rather, they are strategies that get at the true sources of the plastic and toxics problems:

  1. Reduce Plastic Production – less plastics means less toxics

  2. Innovate Design and Materials – we need truly safer materials designed for reuse that won’t cause harm along the supply chain

  3. Decrease Waste Generation – less waste means fewer impacts on communities

Many of the strategies the National Academies list to achieve these goals are familiar, since Safer States has relied on them for decades to help create change, while others are strategies that we are now moving into, such as:

  • Enforceable product standards for manufacturers

  • Clarified and enforceable labeling standards (e.g. what can be called “recyclable”)

  • Incentivizing innovative material and product design including green chemistry

  • Product bans (and substitutes)

  • Mandatory procurement rules favoring reusable products

  • Incentivizing and investing in reuse/fill systems

States are primed to lead the work the National Academies signaled is needed and make sure we are moving toward better, safer materials and chemistries and addressing plastic and toxic chemical issues together. Our communities, oceans, and planet health depend on it.

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