Human Wellbeing is Environmental Wellbeing; A look at the life cycle of plastics

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The lifecycle impacts of plastics disproportionately burden communities of color coming under increasing scrutiny from both public and private stakeholders as evidenced by recent advocacy efforts, an EPA regulation, and growing ESG disclosure expectations such as CSRD in Europe.

As the impacts of plastics on the environment and on public health are better understood, Earth Day 2024’s theme of ‘Planet vs. Plastics’ is an opportunity to reflect on opportunities our approach to the manufacture, use, and disposal of plastics.

Introduction 

In 1962, Rachel Carson’s groundbreaking book, Silent Spring, shed light on the long-ignored impacts of synthetic pesticide use on ecological and human well-being. Carson’s work galvanized the modern environmentalist movement and informed campaigns that led to the passage of laws banning the use of DDT. The legacy of her work – observing the connection between environmental threats and health – has never been more important than today. As plastic production rates are on track to double by 2050 (National Geographic), research is increasingly demonstrating concerning links between microplastics and heart attacks, plasticizers and DNA damage, plastic waste and infectious disease, and more.

While plastic pollution is a global issue — it’s found in human bodies, far-flung parts of the ocean, and littered across every city in the world — the lifecycle impacts of plastics are not evenly distributed. The environmental racism connected to the plastic manufacturing industry gained global attention after Sharon Lavigne led a grassroots campaign in “Cancer Alley” – a region in Louisiana home to communities of color who are subjected to some of the “most dangerous air in America.” (Source) More than 200 petrochemical plants and refineries located here have plagued the surrounding communities with toxic air and water pollution connected to high rates of cancers, miscarriages, and other health afflictions.

In 2022, Lavigne’s campaign against the construction of a new plant was successful in leading to the revocation of air pollution permits for a proposed plastics plant that would double toxic emissions in the area. (Source) However, in 2024, another court upheld the air permits for this plant, overturning the 2022 decision. Advocates in the region continue to challenge the decision. (Source) This ongoing fight for environmental justice in Louisiana speaks to the urgent need for accountability, transparency, and change.

Environmental justice advocacy has long highlighted the need to address the long-term impacts of decisions such as land-use planning and power plant siting, which continue to affect health outcomes disproportionately across different communities. Concurrently, in the corporate world, there is a significant shift toward increased environmental accountability. Companies are now including Scope 3 emissions in their sustainability reports, acknowledging the indirect impacts of their operations. This expanded definition of a company’s impact is becoming embedded into policy: while the recently paused SEC ruling was rolled back to exclude Scope 3 emissions from its requirements, California’s SB 253 notably requires certain companies to report on Scope 1, 2, and 3 emissions. This movement towards greater transparency is crucial in understanding the lifecycle impacts of materials, including plastics, from material extraction through disposal.

The environmental impact of plastics may not seem immediately relevant to cities and companies working in the built environment. However, waste management, and the management of materials usage, are deeply connected to the “Triple Planetary Crisis” recognized by the United Nations as encompassing Climate Change, Pollution, and Biodiversity Loss. At scales ranging from individual buildings to entire cities, and throughout the lifecycle of projects, from construction to daily operations – how governments and organizations of all types manage material usage and waste, including plastics, is crucial for achieving climate goals and contributing to healthy global and local conditions.

Policy at the local level can reduce the usage of plastics, while federal regulations can curb the usage of specific chemicals known to cause harm to humans and regulate pollution. For example, the Clean Air Act, passed more than 50 years ago, is estimated to have saved 230,000 premature deaths in 2020 alone. (Source) It’s a good example for how environmental policies double as effective forms of health promotion.

Companies also have a unique opportunity to lead by integrating health considerations into their supply chain management. By assessing their supply chains and reporting on how the health impacts from plastics are entangled in their operations, businesses can take accountability and potentially drive market-wide shifts towards more socially responsible behaviors.

Image: Adobe Stock.

The Lifecycle of Plastics 

Plastics have four primary lifecycle phases: extraction of the raw materials, production, usage, and disposal. At each stage of this cycle, there are enduring ecological and human health impacts that, according to the Minderoo-Monaco Commission on Plastics and Human Health, “disproportionately affect poor, disempowered, and marginalized populations such as workers, racial and ethnic minorities, “fenceline” communities, Indigenous groups, women, and children…. Plastics’ harmful impacts across its life cycle are most keenly felt in the Global South, in small island states, and in disenfranchised areas in the Global North.”

Plastics are produced from fossil fuels, putting them at odds with global efforts to transition towards clean sources of energy. According to the 2023 Minderoo-Monaco Commission report, in response to global decarbonization efforts and high levels of gas production as a result of fracking, “[Fossil-carbon corporations] are reducing their production of fossil fuels and increasing plastics manufacture.” The report goes on to say that, “At present, plastic production is responsible for an estimated 3.7% of global greenhouse gas emissions, more than the contribution of Brazil.” Currently, plastic production accounts for approximately 3.7% of global greenhouse gas emissions—a figure surpassing the emissions of entire nations like Brazil. The production not only impacts the environment but also poses significant health risks to workers and nearby communities through exposure to harmful chemicals and pollutants.

During the usage phase, plastics are integrated into daily life in various forms, from packaging and containers to textiles and electronic casings. Airborne microplastics are an emerging area of concern, given the harmful impacts of inhaling plastics. A 2023 research paper indicated that, “airborne [microplastics] may pose a greater risk to public well-being than those in water, food, or soil”. (Source) According to another 2023 research paper, “Textiles are the main source of airborne microplastics in indoor ambiance, while traffic-related plastic particles, textiles and agricultural and marine airborne microplastics appear to be responsible for polluting cities’ outdoor atmosphere.” (Source)

This finding has implications for both the private and public sectors. For companies involved in building construction and development, the Living Building Challenge Red List is a resource that Buro Happold often recommends clients use to guide material selection. As a list of “substances prevalent in the building industry that pose serious risks to human health and the environment”— it can be used to seek out materials and suppliers that use alternative chemicals and compounds with lesser human health effects.

For city and local governments, environmental justice studies like the New York City Mayor’s Office of Climate and Environmental Justice’s recently published EJNYC Report, developed with support from Buro Happold, reveal how communities of color are disproportionately exposed to air pollutants from traffic and other stationary sources of air pollution. Considering that outdoor microplastics are “mostly generated by the wear and tear of tires, brake pads, waste incineration and industrial activities” (Source), it’s likely that microplastic exposure also burdens these same communities that are already experiencing degraded air quality.

Once disposed of, plastics leach chemicals that bind to water and sediment, causing harm to humans and ecosystems. In addition to the 2024 research demonstrating the harms of microplastics, a 2020 report published by The Endocrine Society and IPEN (International Pollutants Elimination Network) shed light on the widespread, intergenerational impacts of endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) on public health. This report posits strong evidence for the connection between exposure to these chemicals and rates of cancer, diabetes, preterm births, and other health issues – particularly in communities in proximity to waste disposal facilities.

In the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that plastics constitute approximately 12% of all waste. (Source) At a global scale, the United States generates more plastic waste than any other nation. (Source) While companies reporting on their greenhouse gas emissions following the GHG Protocol guidelines are certainly aware of the Scope 3 carbon impacts of waste, fully understanding the impacts of material and waste management on people and places also requires acknowledging the social and ecological impacts embedded in the lifecycle of plastic waste.

Plastics: Growing Awareness 

Governmental and intergovernmental organizations are mobilizing to confront plastic pollution around the globe. In a significant step, 175 nations united in 2022 under a United Nations initiative to “develop a legally binding agreement on plastic pollution by 2024.” (UN) This forthcoming treaty aims to address the extensive environmental and health challenges linked to the lifecycle of plastics, including their contribution to greenhouse gas emissions, human health issues, and biodiversity loss. This treaty’s impacts will be far-reaching – possibly shaping national and local policy and elevating the topic of plastic impacts to the global stage.

On the domestic front, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) made a landmark move on April 10, 2024, by establishing the first-ever national, legally enforceable standard – the National Primary Drinking Water Regulation (NPDWR) – aimed at safeguarding drinking water from the contamination of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). These chemicals – commonly found in products like food packaging and cleaning agents, as well as building products such as roofing and paint – are closely associated with plastic production. Although the new EPA regulation doesn’t target plastics directly, its passage is significant in that it recognizes the risks that these chemicals pose to public health.

This regulation also signals to manufacturers of PFAS and plastic products the importance of reevaluating and possibly redesigning their products to reduce health risks and environmental impact.

At the city and state level, plastic bag bans have been around since 2014, when California enacted the first “statewide ban on single-use plastic bags at large retail stores.” (Source) Today, twelve states have banned single-use plastic bags, with over five hundred municipalities following suit. Plastic bag bans are impactful in reducing waste with studies showing that these bans could translate to approximately 300 fewer bags used per person annually. While progress has been made, ongoing efforts are necessary to address the broader issue of plastic pollution and its unevenly distributed impacts effects on community health.

Image: Adobe Stock.

Conclusion 

As Rachel Carson’s work taught the world more than 60 years ago, human well-being is tied to environmental well-being. We are not apart from nature, but truly a part of it.

The dispersion of plastic waste across the globe, and into our bodies, is representative of the far-reaching impacts of the intertwined climate, ecological, and social crises that are reshaping our world, and each other. The intersection of human health, environmental justice, and the broader ecological impact of plastics necessitates action on behalf of policymakers and companies to leverage their power creatively to address this issue. Below are some considerations for how individuals and organizations can play a part in reducing the harmful impacts of plastics.

  1. Enhanced Legislation and Enforcement: Governments are increasingly legislating the production, use, and disposal of harmful plastics – particularly those that contribute significantly to pollution and public health issues. Consider researching whether your local government has legislation supporting the reduction of harmful and polluting plastics.
  1. Educate and Engage Communities: Public awareness campaigns and community engagement initiatives are vital to changing consumer behavior and supporting policy shifts. These efforts should particularly focus on communities disproportionately affected by plastic pollution to address environmental justice concerns. Consider reaching out to a local Environmental Justice group and supporting their work educating communities on equity and sustainability issues such as plastics.
  1. Develop an ESG Strategy: Companies are having to disclose a range of metrics through ESG reporting such as CSRD and TNFD. Details of plastic use, waste disposal practices etc. are being reported to investors alongside other metrics such as carbon emissions. Consider reviewing how the organization you work for is measuring, reducing, and reporting their plastic use/disposal.
  1. Advocate for Greater Material and Supply Chain Transparency: The opacity of the global supply chain is an ongoing challenge in targeting the reduction in the use of harmful materials. Consider advocating for the use of tools such as the Living Building Challenge Red List which can help drive manufacturers and suppliers to better track data on what materials are included in their products.

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