Pair urges government to classify some plastic waste as hazardous

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DAVIS, CALIF. -- A pair of scientists has published an environmental call to arms that says that some plastics should be classified as hazardous waste in order to ensure that governments properly deal with them.

In the online version of the journal Nature, Chelsea Rochman and Mark Anthony Browne claim that labeling some plastics – specifically PVC, polystyrene, polyurethane and polycarbonate – as hazardous would cut health risks and protect wildlife.

Rochman works at the University of California Davis School of Veterinary Medicine's Aquatic Health Program, and is a Ph.D. candidate in ecology seeking a joint degree from UC Davis and San Diego State University. Browne is a post-doctoral fellow at the National Center for Ecological Analysis & Synthesis at the University of California Santa Barbara.

"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," they wrote.

According to the pair, in 2012 some 280 million metric tons of plastic were produced globally of which less than half was recycled or went to landfill. The scientists suggest of the remaining 150 million metric tons, some will still be in use but a substantial amount has ended up discarded as litter.

Their article claims that if the current rate of production continues the planet will be shouldering an additional 33 billion metric tons of plastic by 2050.

"This could be reduced to just 4 billion metric tons if the most problematic plastics are classified as hazardous immediately and replaced with safer, reusable materials in the next decade," said Rochman and Browne.

"We feel that the physical dangers of plastic debris are well enough established, and the suggestions of chemical dangers sufficiently worrying, that the biggest producers of plastic waste – the United States, Europe and China – must act now."