The blight of plastic has been known for years but many nations have turned a blind eye to it although, and precisely because, it's everywhere. The pollution it causes is highly visible but people cannot do without its protean possibility. This is, after all, the Plastic Age, as declared for some nine decades, and it's in most things one touches - from plastic bags to fittings in status symbols.
Given its many forms, regulation of plastic can be a complex exercise, especially when science is sometimes mixed with urban legend. For example, there was once a scare over the release of dioxins - which can cause skin disease and cancer - when freezing water in plastic bottles. However, there are no dioxins in plastic, although burning it can lead to dioxin formation. Another chemical, phthalates, is used to make some plastic flexible. Known to disrupt hormones, it is also present in soaps, body washes and cosmetics, and their levels are monitored by various regulators.
The case against small balls of plastic termed microbeads is more clear-cut, and the United States has forbidden their use in personal care products. Here, the National Environment Agency is keeping tabs on regulations adopted abroad and on research on microplastics. Their extremely small size - ranging from a pinhead to a fraction of the width of a human hair - make them hazardous when they slip past conventional wastewater treatment filters and make their way to the sea. The microplastic particles absorb pollutants and can wind up in plankton which lie at the bottom of the food chain. The plastic then gets into the respiratory and digestive systems of fish which depend on plankton. Humans consuming seafood are thus exposed to harm as well.
With legislation slow in coming, consumer groups elsewhere have rightly encouraged shoppers to reject products using plastic microbeads as there are biodegradable exfoliants that can be used instead by manufacturers. A single 130g tube of a scrub is said to contain over 1.4 million microbeads that can wind up in the environment. Some retail groups and producers have committed to a timetable to end the use of microplastics but, alas, many won't budge as long as consumers keep buying such products.
On a larger scale, discarded plastic in general poses a danger as it takes an exceedingly long time to decompose. Exposed to light in warmer waters, the process is hastened but risks remain as chemicals inherent in plastic wind up in the guts of fish. Even before it is broken down, larger creatures often ingest plastic flotsam. Taiwanese marine biologists who once conducted an autopsy of a sperm whale found enough plastic bags and fishing nets in its stomach to fill an excavator bucket. Humans who can't live without plastic might find life itself under threat when there's more of it than they can cope with.