I still remember the brief exchange in the 1967 movie “The Graduate.” The actor Walter Brooke insisted on giving the young Dustin Hoffman one piece of advice: “Plastics….There’s a great future in plastics….” I guess this just shows my age. However, I still recall the time when most of the containers for household detergents and common hygiene products were made of glass instead of the more commonly used plastics that we see nowadays. During the past decades, advances in the petrochemical industry have led to positive uses for plastics in the fields of medicine, construction, automotive, packaging, and many others. The innovative usage of plastics has fundamentally changed our world. Unfortunately, its proliferation has had unintended consequences.
Today, plastics are a constant in our lives. From beverage containers, household items to packaging, plastics are everywhere. Ultimately, many of these items are discarded on a daily basis and they end up as trash in our landfills or oceans. For example, in the year 2007, almost 12.1 percent of the total municipal solid waste in the United States came from 31 million tons of plastics. Since plastics do not easily break down into simpler components, they become virtually everlasting in the environment. Increasing awareness of the situation is just the first step in addressing the problem. Recycling deals with just one area. Technological advances are only part of the solution.
That brings me to another aspect of the preponderance of plastics: their toll on the environment. The adverse effects of plastics are not solely related to the tonnage of plastic debris produced yearly. Moreover, the negative impacts on human health and the environment stem from some of the chemicals added to plastics during the manufacturing process. Recently, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson outlined the Obama Administration’s principles for reforming the legislation commonly known as TSCA, the 1976 Toxic Substance Control Act. In a recent speech at the Commonwealth Club of San Francisco, Administrator Lisa P. Jackson spoke of the need to fix the weaknesses in TSCA with a new chemical risk management law. The planets seem to be aligning in the right direction. Important players in government, the private sector, health and environmental organizations all seem to agree that the time for reform is now.
About the author: Lina Younes has been working for EPA since 2002 and chairs EPA’s Multilingual Communications Task Force. Prior to joining EPA, she was the Washington bureau chief for two Puerto Rican newspapers and she has worked for several government agencies.