Plastics: Human Health and Environmental Justice Considerations

Take action on plastics for human health and environmental justice!



CAPE approaches environmental issues through a lens of the interconnectedness of things – sometimes referred to as a planetary health approach. We recognize the importance of connecting the dots between plastics and climate change, human health and environmental justice. A solutions-oriented approach towards the challenges of the current Anthropocene guide our calls to action with the goal of an overall reduction in plastic production and use.

What is CAPE Doing About Plastics?

The problem of plastics from cradle-to-grave is an area of concern and we are working with allied organizations on a number of projects and campaigns, as we draw out the connections between plastics, toxic substances, the climate crisis, ill health and environmental justice. 

CAPE has identified plastic as a significant threat to public and environmental health. We regularly make submissions to government bodies and participate in public consultations on environmental health and plastics regulation in Canada. We also aim to educate the public on these issues through research and writing. Our Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA) Reform work and support for the passage of Bill C-226 the National Strategy Respecting Environmental Racism and Environmental Justice Act has and still does intersect with the problem of plastics including as an active member of the Coalition for Action on Toxics (CAT) and with other allied health organizations involving a combination of advocacy, communications, research and education.

A Deeper Dive into the Issue of Plastics


Climate Change

The World Health Organization (WHO) asserts climate change is the biggest health threat facing humanity. From cradle-to-grave the effects of plastic and the connections to climate change are significant. As such, the relationship between climate change and plastic is important to consider in the development of pollution prevention plans as well for human health and the related costs.

Plastic contributes significantly to the climate crisis. 460 million tonnes of new plastic are made each year and production is rising. Plastics lead to enormous GHG emissions at every stage of their lifecycle – from extraction and transport of fossil fuels to refining, waste management and leakage into the environment. The production, use and disposal of plastics all contribute to climate change. When plastics break apart or are burned, they release carbon dioxide. Single-use plastic waste is a major climate contributor. 

The plastics industry is the fastest-growing source of global industrial greenhouse gasses (GHGs). Carbon dioxide accounts for about 76% of total GHG emissions and causes approximately 20% of the global greenhouse effect. GHG emissions from plastic production, use and disposal could be 19% of the total global carbon budget by the year 2040. Research suggests that if plastic was a country, it would be the fifth-biggest global greenhouse gas emitter. 

Plastics are currently part of many systems and products. Food packaging is one among many others such as medical equipment, clothing and furniture, car parts such as tires and lights, children’s toys and dishes, and cosmetics. Microplastics enter the environment, waterways, and ultimately, human food systems. Even traffic-heavy roads are a potential source of microplastic emissions. 

The resulting high levels of greenhouse gas emissions from plastics through their life cycle are warming the planet. The warmer temperatures increase exposure to toxic substances. The impacts of extreme weather and climate change amplify the release of chemicals into the environment. Climate change exacerbates the human health impacts of air and other pollution sources. Toxic chemicals are thought to hinder the ability to adapt to climate change. 

Reductions in plastic products are a critical part of the overall approaches that are necessary for any effective climate mitigation and adaptation.

Human Health

Toxic chemicals are intimately interconnected with the climate emergency, both in terms of their contribution to climate change and the exacerbation of the impacts of toxic exposures to human and environmental health. Likewise, humans and the environment are suffering from serious adverse health outcomes linked to plastics and their toxic components.

At every stage of its life cycle, plastic may threaten human health. People are exposed to plastics and their toxic components in many ways, with varying effects and outcomes at different stages of life, from prenatal exposure, to conception to adulthood. 

The global costs of treating plastics-related illnesses and environmental waste clean-up are estimated at CAD $800 billion.

Of the over 10,000 chemicals used in plastics, over 2,400 of them are of concern including for their carcinogenicity and endocrine disruption potential. Hazardous chemical families including heavy metals, flame retardantsphthalatesbisphenols and endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) are associated with plastics.  Exposure to these substances is linked with breast cancer, endometriosis, ovarian cancer, polycystic ovarian syndrome, behavioural disorders, miscarriages, reproductive disorders, abnormal menstruation and more.

Microplastic exposure can cause toxicity through oxidative stress, inflammatory lesions, increased uptake or translocation, metabolic disturbances, neurotoxicity, and increased cancer risk in humans, according to research. A recent study found microplastic exposure induces both behavioural changes and alterations in immune markers in liver and brain tissues. Health risks related to microplastics are expected to increase. Older microplastic particles are more toxic as they can harbour pathogens and other pollutants including heavy metals.

Environmental Justice

Women-identifying persons, children, and racialized and Indigenous people disproportionately experience the adverse health outcomes of plastics. The toxic chemicals associated with plastic from cradle-to-grave also increase the vulnerability of communities to climate change effects.

Sarnia, Ont., is home to one of the largest clusters of manufacturing facilities in the plastics sector and workers and residents in nearby communities, including Aamjiwnaang First Nation, are negatively impacted in various ways from exposure to toxic gasses, chemical waste and air pollution. 

Blue Water Bridge Connecting Port Huron, Michigan, United States and Sarnia, Ontario, Canada

The UN Special Rapporteur on Toxics wrote in their 2020 report: “There exists a pattern in Canada where marginalized groups, and Indigenous peoples in particular, find themselves on the wrong side of a toxic divide, subject to conditions that would not be acceptable elsewhere in Canada. A natural environment conducive to the highest attainable standard of health is not treated as a right, but unfortunately for many in Canada today an elusive privilege.” 

Western countries including Canada ship plastic waste to other countries, while also exporting human health and environmental harm.

For environmental justice, action is needed to halt the ubiquitous and disproportionate exposure throughout the cradle-to-grave cycle of plastics by people and communities who are already experiencing injustices and are made vulnerable by social and political influences.

Selected CAPE Materials and Resources on Plastics

Press Releases/Statements

Briefs and Briefing Notes