Science, Tech & Environment

Group of scientists argue plastic should be treated as hazardous waste

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Plastic debris pollutes San Diego's Tijuana River Valley. (Photo by Chelsea Rochman.)

Each year, about 280 millions tons of plastic are produced globally — much of which winds up as environmental pollution.

But in a report from Nature Magazine, a group of scientists say they have a potential solution to ameliorating plastic waste — reclassify plastic as a hazardous waste.

Chelsea Rochman, a marine ecologist studying toxicology at the University of California, Davis, says waste can be considered hazardous if it meets a set of government criteria set to evaluate whether something is hazardous to organisms.

"We found that plastics are associated with 78 percent of these priority pollutants listed by the U.S. EPA, 61 percent listed by the European Union, either as a chemical ingredient of the plastic itself or when the plastic ends up in the aquatic environment, they absorb these contaminants from the water," she said. "From that perspective, we thought maybe plastic as a waste product should also be considered as a hazardous substance."

Scientists don't know the exact ecological hazards of these plastics, Rochman says, but they know priority pollutants become hazardous when they get into the food system and ecosystems.

"We’re concerned that if these plastics are another vessel for these priority pollutants to be getting into habitats, that they also may cause harm," she said.

Materials used to make plastic, like styrene, are considered priority pollutants because they are carcinogenic and can potentially harm the reproductive system, Rochman said. 

Other materials, like copper, lead and the pesticide DDT become hazardous when they are absorbed into the environment. 

But the hazard depends on the chemicals used to make the plastic, Rochman said.

"If plastics are considered a hazardous substance, the EPA then has legislation to go in and clean up that area and use funding and litigation to prevent further debris from accumulating," she said.

In 2011, 280 million tons of plastic were produced, globally, Rochman said. And in the same year, the World Bank accounted for 130 million tons of plastic disposed of in landfills or recycling, leaving 150 million tons unaccounted for.

"Obviously, some of that plastic is still on our feet as shoes or on our computers, in our houses, but not all of it can still be in use," she said.

Scientists need to conduct more research to determine what ecosystems are being threatened by plastic waste, Rochman says, but they should concentrate on the vast amount plastic debris found in the middle of the ocean and along the coasts because they are near urban areas.

"I still think there is a great future in plastics. And I don’t think plastics are evil and that we should ban them all, but I think we should start thinking about making plastic materials that are benign by design, and use our innovation strategies to make products that are recyclable, reusable and durable, and that are safe for people and the planet," she said.

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