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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 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
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that it’s not only the physical and chemical properties of plastic that pose threats to people and wildlife, but that outdated management policies regarding plastic do too.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?


  1. Lethea
    October 11, 2013, 11:02 pm

    I think the most important thing is that we have to raise public awareness. The reason everyone is dumping stuff and plastic into the oceans is most likely they don’t know whats happening out there in the ocean. i hope alot of people will be educated on this matter soon! The wildlife helps us to survive. Now we should help them too.

  2. Matt Wright
    United Kingdom
    May 17, 2013, 10:18 am

    Say No To Plastic Bags! – There Is A Better Alternative.

    Hi I really need help. My name is Matt Wright and I am an inventor and live and work in the UK.
    Like you I am worried about our world and in particular the damage we are doing by continuing to use over 500 billion carrier bags per year which are then discarded within days to pollute our land and seas and kill wildlife let alone suffer the impact on our health if the food chain becomes infected.
    I am trying to do something practical about this problem and acknowledge that we still need to get our groceries home from the store easily and safely. I have invented what I believe to be a practical alternative to the plastic carrier bag which if adopted worldwide could be a significant breakthrough to address this environmental catastrophe. My invention I have called MyBuddy-Box as I couldn’t think of a better name. It is a rigid foldable stacking box made from 100% recycled plastic and is 100% recyclable. In addition the construction is such that once owned should last a lifetime irrespective of the use and abuse to which it might be subjected. I guarantee this. One box could replace an estimated 17,500 carriers used and discarded by a single person over a lifetime.
    I have started manufacturing my product in the UK. Honestly it’s a small facility and my production methods are still both basic and expensive but the product does exactly what I claim it does. I promise. I am making my appeal for help as I need to get the cost down so everyone can own one of MyBuddy-Boxes without thinking about price and equally importantly as it is a unique and revolutionary product need to create public awareness. I have invested every penny I have to get this far and don’t have the necessary funds to mount a marketing campaign to get people to know about my invention and acquire a box and stop using those carriers. I am hoping people power could be the solution.
    Currently I am trying to raise some funds to get my production costs down and spread the word and hopefully encourage people to own some of my boxes and become fans and product ambassadors.
    I am using a crowdfunding website http://igg.me/at/MyBuddy-Box-A-Box-For-Life/x/3008042 to ask for this practical help and I really believe that with help and support from other likeminded people we can begin to address this environmental disaster and make a real difference to clean up our environment. Please review my request for this help via this link. Any help I get in whatever form will, I can assure you, be welcome and gratefully accepted. Initially and hopefully with your support we may only make a small difference but my hope and belief is that I have the vision and commitment to create a genuine global benefit.
    I hope you are not offended at my communication here and if I offend I am truly sorry. Any feedback negative or positive would be appreciated. Thank you Matt – my email address is matt@shoppabox.com

  3. plastic products manufacturing company
    May 8, 2013, 2:26 am

    A very informative post! I agree with the points here. Its now about time to do something on all those plastic matters since it is really very hazardous to our ecological environment. Its now time to help preserve mother earth. Nice share!

  4. Meghan Miner
    Washington DC
    April 1, 2013, 3:04 pm

    Those interested in finding out more about what they can do regarding plastic pollution, or who to contact regarding labeling plastics as hazardous can contact the following organizations for more information:

    The Plastic Pollution Coalition: http://plasticpollutioncoalition.org/, Algalita: http://www.algalita.org/index.php, and 5 Gyres: http://5gyres.org/

  5. Meghan Miner
    Washington DC
    March 20, 2013, 9:31 am

    Andrew- thanks for your comment! The authors of the paper in Nature did not give specific guidance of the route to take to make the policy action. I am looking into non-profit organizations who are working in this arena and will hopefully have some guidance soon.

  6. andrew
    los angeles
    March 19, 2013, 2:06 am

    who can we be putting pressure on? my friends and I would surely put in some time to advocate such a cause – letting our leaders know how important this is to us.

    all we need is some direction

    for the earth,


  7. Faith Gagne
    Cape Cod, Massachusetts
    March 17, 2013, 10:28 pm

    Yes, it is high time to do something about plastics. So much of our food is sold in plastics; it is not just plastic bags, but bottles and cartons of all kinds. It is worrisome. Why do you not contact MoveOn.org to create a movement to label plastics as hazardous? MoveOn.org is very good at disseminating ideas and information all over the country and the world, and getting large groups of people to sign onto these ideas, pushing them to the attention of people who can make it happen. I hope that you will do this.

  8. Andrew Planet
    Gibraltar, Southern Iberia, Europe
    March 16, 2013, 4:53 pm

    I agree that plastics should be reclassified as they are indeed hazardous to ecological environments in general, which humans are part of by their dependence on extractable natural resources. Not only should plastics be reclassified but their commercial presence ought to allow for easy recycling, that in itself a time bonus to customers or actual monetary profit to recycling companies.

    We have an efficient public recycling service locally and I feel ever so guilty if I do not separate plastic from paper when these come combined together as packaging. Alas, it is very common to find from many firms, that even after soaking in water their paper covered plastic containers overnight, the paper still adheres as if stuck with super glue. Any responsible company that produces packaging from different materials should facilitate being able to separate them, or face their product being legally banned inclusive of a fine. In many cases that would only mean using substantially less glue to place a label, but enough so that it still won’t fall off and everyone is a winner, supplier or demand.

    Another avenue for plastic is to make any container a standard size or volume and reusable, as we used to with glass, or at least made from a standard plastic type engineered at the molecular level to be recast in other forms a multitude of times.

  9. Dean Aube
    March 16, 2013, 3:06 am

    ridiculous is that Canadian stores charge a 5 cent fee if you want a plastic bag,,this encourages Canadians to bring their own bags.
    meanwhile in Costa Rica,all plastic bags are free,take as many as you want,is’nt Costa Rica supposed to be a leader in ecology.and especially with all the turtles,they will swallow a plastic bag,thinking its a jelly fish floating,it chokes and dies.
    C’mon Costa Rica,ban all plastics,all life depends on the ocean ecosystems

  10. Munkstar
    March 15, 2013, 4:32 am

    Yes, The Midway Island Film you can find online teaches us this graphically.

  11. Randall Scott
    Washington state
    March 13, 2013, 2:21 am

    Garbage inclusive of plastics and thermal energy should be considered a serious form of contamination that should be banned, restricted, regulated, and or compensated for, where ever possible. The oceans should have a garbage collection system along heavely traveled routes, by utilizing large floating platforms and nearby islands to process the garbage collected. The shipping industry needs to be accountable for it’s garbage. Made to pay fees to dump it, which will help to pay for the collection and processing system. __The rapid decline inthe planetary ice, isn’t just due to atmospheric CO2’s, but is also the result of aquatic thermal contamination, which is the result of humanities massive and growing direct thermal contribution into the open waters. Mankind can easily reverse this condition, simply by removing this unnatural thermal contribution, which can partly be done by also implementing cost affective compensation measures, designed to capture, harvest, and or remove some of the natural thermal contribution from thermal vents and such. And by creating shading/ venting/ and or cold-spotting, using elevated ocean based solar structures.

  12. Jim
    March 13, 2013, 1:56 am

    EPR now!