The global plastic industry is one of the largest in the world, with plastic products making up a significant part of our everyday lives.
However, the poor conditions of plastic manufacturing plants leave workers at risk for severe health conditions, and the mass amounts of plastic waste lead to significant environmental damage.
This article examines the effects of the plastic industry on the environment and human health.
The plastic industry is one of the largest global markets on the planet, with an estimated value of $580 billion worldwide. Plastic is a significant commodity across the world, and is found in the vast majority of household items, including clothes, furniture, electronics, and most significantly, packaging. The global plastic market first boomed in the 1970s, when it was discovered that plastic was a cheap and efficient material to use in manufacturing and packaging. Since then, plastic production has grown rapidly. As of 2020, approximately 367 million metric tonnes of plastic are produced annually.
The use of plastic materials is a direct cause of its rising production, as plastics are being increasingly used in construction materials for long-lasting structures, in vehicles to reduce weight and increase fuel efficiency, and in the rising demand for packaging materials for food and shipments. This extreme plastic production results in billions of tonnes of plastic in the world, the majority of which ends up in the ocean and in landfills.
Plastic is produced in primarily in China, the United States, and Europe. The majority is used in developed countries, with individual plastic consumption nearly 34-times higher per person in developed countries than those in developing countries. Among the highest plastic consumer is the United States, with an average of 0.75-lbs of plastic used per person per day.
The mass amounts of plastic production result in severe environmental degradation through pollution and air emissions. In addition, the majority of plastic materials, including toys and electronics, are produced in countries that lack substantial safety regulations, resulting in dangerous working conditions for factory workers.
Asia produces over half of the world’s plastic, with China alone producing over 31%. Plastic factories around the world can be hazardous to employees, with workers facing risks of:
- Chemical burns
- Hearing damage from loud noises
- Fume inhalation
These risks are accentuated in developing countries that lack proper health and safety management. In China, workers face poor safety regulations and workers’ rights, with low wages, long hours, and hazardous conditions.
Millions of workers across plastic factories in developing nations face severely low wages, with some earning as little as $1 per hour, and having to work 11-hour shifts up to seven days per week to meet the costs of living. In peak production season, including holiday seasons when demand for toys and appliances are high, many workers face forced overtime to meet production demands. Many report having to work over 100-hours of overtime per month.
These excessive working hours put employees at risk of:
- Back injuries
- Machine-related incidents due to exhaustion
- Stress-related conditions
- High blood pressure
These conditions are common throughout factories in developing countries, with a lack of substantive labor laws leading to severely poor working conditions and worker exploitation.
Read more: Impacts of the Garment Industry
However, the plastic industry poses further threats to its workers, as the chemical processing involved with plastic production can lead to severe health threats.
Many of the plastic processing facilities in developing countries lack the structural safety regulations needed to fully protect their workers. Sufficient ventilation is vital to removing toxic airborne chemicals from factories, and without proper ventilation, many factory workers are at risk of long-term exposure to hazardous substances used in oil and plastic refinement.
Plastic production in developing nations can also be poorly regulated in terms of materials used. In 2019, millions of toys were recalled from Chinese toy processing plants that used harmful chemicals in their production. Not only did these pose health threats to the children that handled the final products, but they also put factory workers at severe risk for regularly handling the materials for long periods of time. Heavy exposure to harmful plastic and oil chemicals, both through inhalation and physical handling, can lead to severe health effects, including:
- Respiratory conditions
- Heart conditions
- Skin reactions
- Chromosomal aberrations
The heavy exposure of plastic processing is severe in developing nations that lack proper worker safety regulations, leading to millions of factory workers being exposed to dangerous conditions and life-threatening hazards.
In addition to worker safety, the growing plastic industry also poses significant threats to environmental health. Plastic pollution and production result in increasing greenhouse gas emissions and oceanic pollution that pose major threats to worldwide resources.
Plastic waste is the leading source of solid pollution across the world. Plastic is non-biodegradable, and a single plastic product can last for hundreds to thousands of years. Plastic waste is a growing issue, especially in countries that lack waste disposal and recycling methods. In countries where waste disposal and recycling facilities are limited, including China, Indonesia, and other developing nations, plastic waste rapidly builds up in landfills and overspills into waterways.
Plastics in waterways is an increasing issue at the global scale. Current estimates assume over 5.25 trillion pieces of micro and macroplastics in the ocean, which put wildlife at severe risk for consumption and suffocation of these products. Approximately 80% of oceanic plastics come from land-based sources, including:
- Single-use plastic bags
- Plastic wrappers and packaging materials
- Food containers
- Synthetic rope
The heavy plastic pollution in waterways not only results in solid waste, but in chemical waste as well. These plastics chemically break down over time, releasing harmful microplastics and chemicals from paints into waters. This threatens human health and significantly decreases the amount of available drinking water in many regions.
While there is a growing push for individuals to recycle their plastic waste, approximately 95% of plastic is thrown out after a single use, and studies indicate that only 9% of all plastic created has been recycled.
Read more: Industrial Pollution of Shared Resources
In addition to water pollution, plastic production also results in significant air pollution. In developing countries where plastic pollution is the highest, the majority of plastic waste is disposed of in unsanitary landfills and incineration methods, which can lead to burning plastics and the emissions of toxic fumes. These fumes not only threaten the health of nearby communities, but also contribute heavily to climate change.
Nearly all plastic material is derived from petroleum and other fossil fuels, and the extraction, production, and shipping of these materials result in billions of tonnes of greenhouse gases per year. As demand for plastics grows, plastic production is expected to account for nearly 20% of all oil consumption by 2050.
Read more: Industrial Contributions to Climate Change
Plastic is an extremely versatile material that is used in almost every aspect of our everyday lives. However, the production of this material is based heavily on poor factory conditions and worker exploitation. Additionally, plastic production poses major threats to the environment through pollution and climate change. The majority of plastic is used for packaging, which results in single-use plastics that often end up in incineration or oceanic pollution. Individuals can reduce their plastic consumption by limiting the use of single-use plastics and by supporting ethical and sustainable industries that promote workers’ rights.