In a small shed with corrugated tin roofing and skirting, Rosie is lighting a wood fire to cook large tureens and pots heavy with traditional Fijian dishes made of ingredients like marinated fresh fish, taro and coconut milk.
She uses a lighter to set fire to a piece of plastic, letting the melting, flaming plastic drip down onto the wood.
She uses plastic as a firestarter three times a day, every day.
“You start having breathing problems, coughing, headache,” Rosie says, after noting that it was making her eyes water.
But despite the health impacts she experiences first hand, plastic is simply “easier to burn, easier to find, much cheaper,” than any other available fuel.
This is one of many striking scenes from A Plastic Ocean, a chilling and extensively-researched documentary on the health-threatening problem of plastic pollution in oceans.
It is unsurprising that plastics are easy to find in Fiji, Rosie’s island home. By 2050, the UN anticipates that there will be more plastic than fish in the world’s oceans unless we change our behaviour and stop using single-use plastic items.
Rosie’s daily routine gives us a glimpse of the tip of the iceberg— one scientific review found that 12 per cent of municipal waste that is burnt consists of plastic, and 40 per cent of the world’s garbage is burnt.
In many places in the world, it’s burnt openly, releasing various health-threatening substances, including dioxins, furans, mercury, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) from the burnt plastic waste into the atmosphere.
Phthalates, the very chemicals that give plastic its desirable qualities— flexibility and softness— are endocrine disruptors, associated with a plethora of health problems, from fertility issues and neonatal impacts on babies to allergy and asthma symptoms.
Chronic exposure to these highly toxic fumes and substances can cause cancer and neurological damage and disrupt reproductive, thyroid and respiratory systems.
Apart from fine particles, burning plastic also releases black carbon, which contributes to driving climate change and the toll taken by air pollution on human health— one that includes 7 million people around the world dying from exposure to air pollutants each year.
“We need to be clear that we’re not against plastics. After all, look in any hospital and see how plastics are also saving countless lives. Polymers are a key part of the clean, renewable energy revolution, and plastics can help cut colossal food waste through storage and refrigeration. The problem isn’t plastic, it’s what we do with it,” said UN Environment’s Executive Director, Erik Solheim, in his 2018 World Environment Day commentary.
But the negative health impacts of plastics from production to destruction are leading the health profession to examine its own use of certain kinds of plastics.
PVC, for example, which is widely used in medical devices, can be harmful to health as both its production and disposal by incineration can lead to the release of particularly toxic pollutants, including cancer-causing agents such as dioxins.
According to Healthcare Without Harm, a growing number of hospitals, health systems, communities and manufacturers around the world are thus moving away from PVC in medical devices and other products.
The World Health Organization’s latest guidance on Safe Management of Waste from Healthcare Activities also recommends shifting to non-PVC products when possible, as well as using non-incineration methods for the disinfection and disposal of PVC waste, when such alternatives are available. When incineration is used, it should comply with international guidelines for release of toxic pollutants.
PVC is also made softer and more pliable with the addition of DEHP— a phthalate. There is emerging evidence that DEHP may leach out of products like IV tubing directly, with impacts on vulnerable patient populations.
Medical associations and government agencies in several countries now acknowledge that there are risks, especially to the most vulnerable patients, and advocate replacing PVC and DEHP-containing products with alternatives.
When PVC is burnt, the cancer-causing agent dioxin is produced. Along with replacing certain kinds of plastics with more innocuous alternatives, WHO recommends separation of general waste from more contaminated waste in health care facilities, so as to reduce the amount of waste that must undergo special treatment for disposal. These strategies as well as further resources are further described here and here.
Plastic adds to pollution from the time it is created. The vast majority of the material used to make plastics, such as ethylene and propylene, are derived from fossil fuels. Emissions from the extraction process, refining the fossil fuels and processing them into plastics can create even more toxic and climate-forcing emissions.
None of the commonly-used plastics are biodegradable, so most of them literally last a lifetime in the natural environment.
That the negative impacts of plastic pollution on both humans and wildlife are so pervasive prompted countries at the UN Environment Assembly in December 2017 to pass a resolution addressing marine litter and microplastics.
Continuing that momentum, World Environment Day on 5 June is focused on beating plastic pollution.
People all over the world are pledging to take action against plastic pollution. You can join them here.
Erik Solheim’s World Environment Day commentary: The missing science: Could our addiction to plastic be poisoning us?
Vital Strategies’ Earth Day commentary on plastics and air pollution: Combating Plastic and Air Pollution on Earth Day
For live updates from UN Environment on World Environment Day efforts, see here.