We often hear about the negative impacts of plastic on the environment, and now research has shown its detrimental effect on human health. What does our dependence on plastic hold for the future, and how can we reduce our consumption?

At the Ocean Conference in Lisbon earlier this year, Prince Hussain described the devastating impact of plastic pollution on marine life. 

“Over the five decades of my own life, I have been heartbroken to see how our oceans have become so clogged up by plastic and other forms of pollution and waste,” he said. “Coastal areas I visited as a child are unrecognisable today – the wildlife is suffocating and the coastal economies are stagnating.” 

The impact of plastic pollution has not been limited to wildlife. It's hard to believe, but we consume a single credit card worth of microplastics each week. That means we ingest, on average, 52 credit cards or 250 grams of plastic each year. Plastics are all around us. Humans have built an economy on the versatility of plastic, which has played an essential role in our society. The benefits, however, have often hidden the long-term consequences on human health and the environment. To understand how plastic pollution manifests in the water we drink, the food we eat, and the air we breathe, we need to look at the lifecycle of plastic – from production to disposal – and the impact it has on the way we live.  

Plastics in the Environment

Left up to nature, plastics can take more than 450 years to decompose. Consider that the first piece of plastic produced over 100 years ago still exists somewhere today. Why is this? Chemically, plastics are synthetically created using petroleum-based inputs and energy to forge molecules into long chains known as polymers. These polymers come in different compositions that eventually turn into the plastic products we use today, including bottles, cups, bags, containers, and even car parts. 

Generally, most plastic is non-biodegradable, which means it will not decompose using natural methods. That's a problem because 91 per cent of all plastics are not recycled, and 40 per cent of all plastic is used only once before being thrown away. When disposed of, they turn into microplastics that easily permeate our waterways, agriculture, and the air we breathe, and eventually make their way into our bodies. 

Microplastics are fragments of plastic that range from microscopic to mere millimetres. They have been found worldwide, from Mount Everest, the highest point on Earth, to the Mariana Trench, the deepest. Since its invention, humans have over-engineered plastic production and under-engineered processes to manage its safe disposal. 

Plastic Pollution and Human Health

The concentration of microplastics in our built environment is growing. Our use of plastic products at home contributes to significantly higher concentrations of microplastics than in the open air. Microplastic fibres collect in household dust, end up in the air we breathe, and eventually into our lung tissue. Some plastic products contain chemical additives, which have been associated with health problems such as hormone-related cancers, infertility and neurodevelopmental disorders like ADHD, and impaired immune health. 

They originate from our clothes, car tires, carpets and many other sources, eventually finding their way into food and water sources. Single-use water bottles, takeout containers, food cans, and storage wraps are examples of plastic-based food packaging containing microplastics. In fact, every time you open a plastic water bottle cap, microplastics are released into the water you are about to drink. Microplastic particles have also been found in meat and poultry products, highlighting the ability for microplastics to pass through the intestinal wall and enter the tissue and bloodstream of cows, chickens, and fish. 

Towards a Sustainable Future

Responsible stewardship of the environment is articulated in the AKDN Environment and Climate Commitment. In accordance with this principle, all AKDN agencies and institutions are committed to “reducing environmental toxins and pollution, including single-use plastics” and “recycling wherever possible.” 

While plastics do play an essential role in our society, plastic waste should not. We can redesign and engineer our built environment to include more sustainable systems that change our production and consumption patterns to create abundant cycles rather than depletive ones. Instead of the traditional linear model, which uses natural resources to produce products that are ultimately disposed of, the circular economy is based on the principles of designing out waste and pollution, keeping products and materials in use and regenerating natural systems by minimising the amount of new raw materials required.

What can we do individually and as a Jamat to create a lasting positive environmental impact? Here are five helpful actions to consider:

  1. Eliminate the use of plastic carrier bags and bring reusable bags when shopping
  2. Choose whole foods more often and limit or eliminate highly processed foods. This will lower levels of endocrine-disrupting microplastics in the body
  3. Use eco-friendly packaging that reduces the exposure to and migration of microplastics in the food supply
  4. Opt for reusable glass or stainless steel storage containers and water bottles instead of plastic ones
  5. Be responsible stewards of the environment and lead by example by making sustainable choices in our homes, businesses, and places of work

While environmental stewardship is an Islamic ethic, so, too, is human initiative. We can each make a contribution to reduce the level of plastic pollution impacting the environment and human health.

As Mawlana Hazar Imam noted at The Enabling Conference in Kabul in 2008, “An Ayat in the Holy Qur’an says: ‘Verily, God does not change a people's condition unless they change that which is in themselves.’ In the end, it is the will and the resourcefulness of the individual human being that, with Allah's blessings and guidance, will determine our future.”