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Should Plastics Be Labeled “Hazardous” to Reduce Ocean Pollution?

With packaging holding in place nearly all of our consumer desires, slow decomposition rates, and swirling debris fields the size of Texas in our oceans – it seems plastic isn’t going anywhere fast.  A recent Comment piece in Nature by authors Chelsea Rochman at UC Davis and Mark Anthony Browne at UC Santa Barbara offers...

With packaging holding in place nearly all of our consumer desires, slow decomposition rates, and swirling debris fields the size of Texas in our oceans – it seems plastic isn’t going anywhere fast.  A recent Comment piece in Nature by authors Chelsea Rochman at UC Davis and Mark Anthony Browne at UC Santa Barbara offers a rare posturing by scientists, suggesting an actionable item to address this problem: classifying some plastic waste as hazardous.

According to the piece, last year humans collectively produced 280 million tons of plastic, only half of which was recycled or sent to a designated area like landfills, where it will slowly decay. Some of the remaining plastic remains in use, but the rest is unaccounted for, littering our planet. (See an infographic on plastic bags.)

A red-crowned crane in a sanctuary in northeastern China inspects a plastic bag. Photo: James Lee, My Shot

In the ocean, plastic can be pulverized into particles as small as the beads in face wash and ingested by animals of all sizes. Larger plastic particles can ensnare wildlife or serve as transport for invasive species. And, as the sun and the waves break down the structure of polymers in plastics, they can even combine chemically with more harmful pollutants in the water to become toxic.

The authors argue that it’s not only the physical and chemical properties of plastic that pose threats to people and wildlife, but that outdated management policies regarding plastic do too.  In the United States, Europe, Australia, and Japan, plastics are still classified as “solid waste,” the same designation afforded to food scraps and grass clippings.

Despite earlier efforts and laws to curb plastic pollution, especially in the ocean, the problem is worsening. According to the piece, the volume of micro-plastics in the Pacific Garbage Patch has doubled since an international law banning disposal of plastic waste at sea was signed into effect in 1988. The hard truth is marine plastic waste often originates from land.

If plastics were reclassified, their disposal on land would be regulated differently.

“We believe that if countries classified the most harmful plastics as hazardous, their environmental agencies would have the power to restore affected habitats and prevent more dangerous debris from accumulating,” said the authors in a press release. Furthermore, this change could be enough to push the plastics industry toward developing new and safer compounds as alternatives.

But not everyone agrees with the scientist’s suggestion. In an article for PlasticNews, author Don Loepp concurs that while the plastics industry has been slow to respond to the issue of marine plastic pollution, the classification of some plastics as ‘hazardous’ is “extreme and unreasonable.”  For most plastics, he argues, government agencies have already vetted their hazardous status.  Furthermore, Loepp expresses concern that governments would be unprepared and less than eager to take on the legal and regulatory responsibilities associated with such a classification change, detracting focus from other hazardous materials.

But, according to Rochman and Browne, if current rates of consumption continue the planet will hold another 33 billion tons of plastic by 2050. “If the most problematic plastics are classified as hazardous immediately and replaced with safer, reusable materials in the next decade,” the authors state, “this could be reduced to just 4 billion tons.”

What do you think?

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Meet the Author

Meghan Miner
Meghan Miner is a freelance science and travel writer based in Washington, DC. She has a master’s degree in science journalism, and has worked as an editorial researcher for National Geographic’s Traveler Magazine, as a science news writer for COSMOS Magazine in Sydney, Australia, and for the NPR program Living on Earth. After receiving her BSc from the University of Michigan in environmental science and aquatic ecology, she spent nearly three years working aboard commercial fishing boats in New England as a Marine Fisheries Observer. She has also studied the impacts of invasive species on Great Lakes fish communities and the water chemistry of permafrost meltwater in arctic Alaska in order to detect changes over time. She is an avid scuba diver and traveler, and has been diving off five continents.