Plastic pollution


Plastic pollution
Plastic pollution affects seas, beaches, rivers and land (clockwise from top left:)
Lecture of Erik van Sebille (Utrecht University) on plastic pollution.

Plastic pollution is the accumulation of plastic objects and particles (e.g. plastic bottles, bags and microbeads) in the Earth's environment that adversely affects wildlife, wildlife habitat, and humans.[1][2] Plastics that act as pollutants are categorized by size into micro-, meso-, or macro debris.[3] Plastics are inexpensive and durable making them very adaptable for different uses; as a result humans produce a lot of plastic.[4] However, the chemical structure of most plastics renders them resistant to many natural processes of degradation and as a result they are slow to degrade.[5] Together, these two factors allow large volumes of plastic to enter the environment as mismanaged waste and for it to persist in the ecosystem.

Plastic pollution can afflict land, waterways and oceans. It is estimated that 1.1 to 8.8 million tonnes of plastic waste enters the ocean from coastal communities each year.[6] It is estimated that there is a stock of 86 million tons of plastic marine debris in the worldwide ocean as of the end of 2013, with an assumption that 1.4% of global plastics produced from 1950 to 2013 has entered the ocean and has accumulated there.[7] Some researchers suggest that by 2050 there could be more plastic than fish in the oceans by weight.[8] Living organisms, particularly marine animals, can be harmed either by mechanical effects such as entanglement in plastic objects, problems related to ingestion of plastic waste, or through exposure to chemicals within plastics that interfere with their physiology. Degraded plastic waste can directly affect humans through both direct consumption (i.e. in tap water), indirect consumption (by eating animals), and disruption of various hormonal mechanisms.

As of 2019, 368 million tonnes of plastic is produced each year; 51% in Asia, where China is the world's largest producer.[9] From the 1950s up to 2018, an estimated 6.3 billion tonnes of plastic has been produced worldwide, of which an estimated 9% has been recycled and another 12% has been incinerated.[10] This large amount of plastic waste enters the environment, with studies suggesting that the bodies of 90% of seabirds contain plastic debris.[11][12] In some areas there have been significant efforts to reduce the prominence of free range plastic pollution, through reducing plastic consumption, litter cleanup, and promoting plastic recycling.[13][14] As of 2020, the global mass of produced plastic exceeds the biomass of all land and marine animals combined.[15] A May 2019 amendment to the Basel Convention regulates the exportation/importation of plastic waste, largely intended to prevent the shipping of plastic waste from developed countries to developing countries. Nearly all countries have joined this agreement.[16][17][18][19]

COVID-19 saw an increase in plastic finding its ways to the ocean, especially from medical waste and masks.[20][21] Several news reports point to a plastic industry trying to take advantage of the health concerns and desire for disposable masks and packaging to increase production of single use plastic.[22][23][24][25]


The pathway by which plastics enters the world's oceans

The trade in plastic waste has been identified as "a main culprit" of marine litter.[a] Countries importing the waste plastics often lack the capacity to process all the material. As a result, the United Nations has imposed a ban on waste plastic trade unless it meets certain criteria.[b]

Types of plastic debris

There are three major forms of plastic that contribute to plastic pollution: micro-, macro-, and mega-plastics. Mega- and micro plastics have accumulated in highest densities in the Northern Hemisphere, concentrated around urban centers and water fronts. Plastic can be found off the coast of some islands because of currents carrying the debris. Both mega- and macro-plastics are found in packaging, footwear, and other domestic items that have been washed off of ships or discarded in landfills. Fishing-related items are more likely to be found around remote islands.[27][28] These may also be referred to as micro-, meso-, and macro debris.

Plastic debris is categorized as either primary or secondary. Primary plastics are in their original form when collected. Examples of these would be bottle caps, cigarette butts, and microbeads.[29] Secondary plastics, on the other hand, account for smaller plastics that have resulted from the degradation of primary plastics.[30]


Microplastics in the surface ocean 1950–2000 and projections beyond, in million metric tonnes.

Microdebris are plastic pieces between 2 mm and 5 mm in size.[28] Plastic debris that starts off as meso- or macrodebris can become microdebris through degradation and collisions that break it down into smaller pieces.[3] Microdebris is more commonly referred to as nurdles.[3] Nurdles are recycled to make new plastic items, but they easily end up released into the environment during production because of their small size. They often end up in ocean waters through rivers and streams.[3] Microdebris that come from cleaning and cosmetic products are also referred to as scrubbers. Because microdebris and scrubbers are so small in size, filter-feeding organisms often consume them.[3]

Nurdles enter the ocean by means of spills during transportation or from land based sources. The Ocean Conservancy reported that China, Indonesia, Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam dump more plastic in the sea than all other countries combined.[31] It is estimated that 10% of the plastics in the ocean are nurdles, making them one of the most common types of plastic pollution, along with plastic bags and food containers.[32][33] These micro-plastics can accumulate in the oceans and allow for the accumulation of Persistent Bio-accumulating Toxins such as bisphenol A, polystyrene, DDT, and PCB's which are hydrophobic in nature and can cause adverse health affects.[34][35]

Image of plastic litter on the beach; Shown are bigger pieces of plastic that will eventually break into microdebris

Amounts, locations, tracking and correlations of the microdebris

A 2004 study by Richard Thompson from the University of Plymouth, UK, found a great amount of microdebris on the beaches and waters in Europe, the Americas, Australia, Africa, and Antarctica.[5] Thompson and his associates found that plastic pellets from both domestic and industrial sources were being broken down into much smaller plastic pieces, some having a diameter smaller than human hair.[5] If not ingested, this microdebris floats instead of being absorbed into the marine environment. Thompson predicts there may be 300,000 plastic items per square kilometre of sea surface and 100,000 plastic particles per square kilometre of seabed.[5] International pellet watch collected samples of polythene pellets from 30 beaches from. 17 countries which were then analysed for organic micro-pollutants. It was found that pellets found on beaches in the U.S., Vietnam and southern Africa contained compounds from pesticides suggesting a high use of pesticides in the areas.[36] In 2020 scientists created what may be the first scientific estimate of how much microplastic currently resides in Earth's seafloor, after investigating six areas of ~3 km depth ~300 km off the Australian coast. They found the highly variable microplastic counts to be proportionate to plastic on the surface and the angle of the seafloor slope. By averaging the microplastic mass per cm3, they estimated that Earth's seafloor contains ~14 million tons of microplastic – about double the amount they estimated based on data from earlier studies – despite calling both estimates "conservative" as coastal areas are known to contain much more microplastic. These estimates are about one to two times the amount of plastic thought – per Jambeck et al., 2015 – to currently enter the oceans annually.[37][38][39]


Plastic bags are an example of macrodebris.
Macroplastics at the surface ocean 1950–2000 and projections beyond, in million metric tonnes.

Plastic debris is categorized as macrodebris when it is larger than 20 mm. These include items such as plastic grocery bags.[3] Macrodebris are often found in ocean waters, and can have a serious impact on the native organisms. Fishing nets have been prime pollutants. Even after they have been abandoned, they continue to trap marine organisms and other plastic debris. Eventually, these abandoned nets become too difficult to remove from the water because they become too heavy, having grown in weight up to 6 tonnes.[3]

Plastic production

Decomposition of plastics

Average estimated decomposition times of typical marine debris items. Plastic items are shown in blue.
Say no to polythene. Sign. Nako, Himachal Pradesh, India.

Plastics themselves contribute to approximately 10% of discarded waste. Many kinds of plastics exist depending on their precursors and the method for their polymerization. Depending on their chemical composition, plastics and resins have varying properties related to contaminant absorption and adsorption. Polymer degradation takes much longer as a result of saline environments and the cooling effect of the sea. These factors contribute to the persistence of plastic debris in certain environments.[28] Recent studies have shown that plastics in the ocean decompose faster than was once thought, due to exposure to sun, rain, and other environmental conditions, resulting in the release of toxic chemicals such as bisphenol A. However, due to the increased volume of plastics in the ocean, decomposition has slowed down.[40] The Marine Conservancy has predicted the decomposition rates of several plastic products. It is estimated that a foam plastic cup will take 50 years, a plastic beverage holder will take 400 years, a disposable nappy will take 450 years, and fishing line will take 600 years to degrade.[5]

Persistent organic pollutants

It was estimated that global production of plastics is approximately 250 mt/yr. Their abundance has been found to transport persistent organic pollutants, also known as POPs. These pollutants have been linked to an increased distribution of algae associated with red tides.[28]

Commercial pollutants

In 2019, the group Break Free From Plastic organized over 70,000 volunteers in 51 countries to collect and identify plastic waste. These volunteers collected over "59,000 plastic bags, 53,000 sachets and 29,000 plastic bottles," as reported by The Guardian. Nearly half of the items were identifiable by consumer brands. The most common brands were Coca-Cola, Nestlé, and Pepsico.[41][42] According to the global campaign coordinator for the project Emma Priestland in 2020, the only way to solve the problem is stopping production of single use plastic and using reusable products instead.[citation needed] China is the biggest consumer of single-use plastics.[43]

Coca-Cola answered that “more than 20% of our portfolio comes in refillable or fountain packaging”, they are decreasing the amount of plastic in secondary packaging.[citation needed]

Nestlé responded that 87% of their packaging and 66% of their plastic packaging can be reused or recycled and by 2025 they want to make it 100%. By that year they want to reduce the consumption of virgin plastic by one third.[citation needed][44]

Pepsico responded that they want to decrease "virgin plastic in our beverage business by 35% by 2025” and also expanding reuse and refill practices what should prevent 67 billion single use bottles by 2025.[44]

Major plastic polluter countries

Share of plastic waste that is inadequately managed
Per capita mismanaged plastic waste (in kilograms per person per day)

The United States is the world leader in generating plastic waste, producing an annual 42 million metric tons of plastic waste. This is more plastic waste than that of all countries of the European Union combined.[45][46]

Mismanaged plastic waste polluters

Top 12 mismanaged plastic waste polluters

  China (27.7%)
  Indonesia (10.1%)
  Philippines (5.9%)
  Vietnam (5.8%)
  Sri Lanka (5.0%)
  Thailand (3.2%)
  Egypt (3.0%)
  Malaysia (2.9%)
  Nigeria (2.7%)
  Bangladesh (2.5%)
  South Africa (2.0%)
  India (1.9%)
  Rest of the world (27.3%)

In 2018 approximate 513 million tonnes of plastics wind up in the oceans every year out of which the 83,1% is from the following 20 countries: China is the most mismanaged plastic waste polluter leaving in the sea the 27.7% of the world total, second Indonesia with the 10.1%, third Philippines with 5.9%, fourth Vietnam with 5.8%, fifth Sri Lanka 5.0%, sixth Thailand with 3.2%, seventh Egypt with 3.0%, eighth Malaysia with 2.9%, ninth Nigeria with 2.7%, tenth Bangladesh with 2.5%, eleventh South Africa with 2.0%, twelfth India with 1.9%, thirteenth Algeria with 1.6%, fourteenth Turkey with 1.5%, fifteenth Pakistan with 1.5%, sixteenth Brazil with 1.5%, seventeenth Myanmar with 1.4%, eighteenth Morocco with 1.0%, nineteenth North Korea with 1.0%, twentieth United States with 0.9%. The rest of world's countries combined wind up the 16.9% of the mismanaged plastic waste in the oceans, according to a study published by Science, Jambeck et al (2015).[6][47][48]

In 2020, a new study revised the potential 2016 U.S. contribution to mismanaged plastic.[16] It estimated an annual 0.15-0.99 metric tons was mismanaged in the countries to which the U.S. exported plastics for recycling, and an 0.14 and 0.41 metric tons was illegally dumped in the U.S. itself. Thus the amount of U.S.-generated plastic estimated to enter the ocean environment could range as high as 1.45 Mt, placing the U.S. behind Indonesia and India in oceanic pollution, or as low as 0.51 Mt, placing the U.S. behind Indonesia, India, Thailand, China, Brazil, Philippines, Egypt, Japan, Russia, and Vietnam. The authors noted that since 2016 China ceased importing plastics for recycling and since 2019 international treaties restricted the export of plastics for recycling.[49][50]

All the European Union countries combined would rank eighteenth on the list.[6][47]

A 2019 study calculated the mismanaged plastic waste, in millions of metric tonnes (Mt) per year:

  • 52 Mt – Asia
  • 17 Mt – Africa
  • 7.9 Mt – Latin America & Caribbean
  • 3.3 Mt – Europe
  • 0.3 Mt – US & Canada
  • 0.1 Mt – Oceania (Australia, New Zealand, etc.)[51]

Total plastic waste polluters

Around 275 million tonnes of plastic waste is generated each year around the world; between 4.8 million and 12.7 million tonnes is dumped into the sea. About 60% of the plastic waste in the ocean comes from the following top 5 countries.[52] The table below list the top 20 plastic waste polluting countries in 2010 according to a study published by Science, Jambeck et al (2015).[6][47]

Top plastic polluters as of 2010.
Position Country Plastic pollution
(in 1000 tonnes per year)
1 China 8820
2 Indonesia 3220
3 Philippines 1880
4 Vietnam 1830
5 Sri Lanka 1590
6 Thailand 1030
7 Egypt 970
8 Malaysia 940
9 Nigeria 850
10 Bangladesh 790
11 South Africa 630
12 India 600
13 Algeria 520
14 Turkey 490
15 Pakistan 480
16 Brazil 470
17 Myanmar 460
18 Morocco 310
19 North Korea 300
20 United States 280

All the European Union countries combined would rank eighteenth on the list.[6][47]

In a study published by Environmental Science & Technology, Schmidt et al (2017) calculated that 10 rivers: two in Africa (the Nile and the Niger) and eight in Asia (the Ganges, Indus, Yellow, Yangtze, Hai He, Pearl, Mekong and Amur) "transport 88–95% of the global plastics load into the sea.".[53][54][55][56]

The Caribbean Islands are the biggest plastic polluters per capita in the world. Trinidad and Tobago produces 1.5 kilograms of waste per capita per day, is the biggest plastic polluter per capita in the world. At least 0.19 kg per person per day of Trinidad and Tobago's plastic debris end up in the ocean, or for example Saint Lucia which generates more than four times the amount of plastic waste per capita as China and is responsible for 1.2 times more improperly disposed plastic waste per capita than China. Of the top thirty global polluters per capita, ten are from the Caribbean region. These are Trinidad and Tobago, Antigua and Barbuda, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Guyana, Barbados, Saint Lucia, Bahamas, Grenada, Anguilla and Aruba, according to a set of studies summarized by Forbes (2019).[57]


Effects on the environment

The distribution of plastic debris is highly variable as a result of certain factors such as wind and ocean currents, coastline geography, urban areas, and trade routes. Human population in certain areas also plays a large role in this. Plastics are more likely to be found in enclosed regions such as the Caribbean. It serves as a means of distribution of organisms to remote coasts that are not their native environments. This could potentially increase the variability and dispersal of organisms in specific areas that are less biologically diverse. Plastics can also be used as vectors for chemical contaminants such as persistent organic pollutants and heavy metals.[28]

Plastic pollution has also greatly negatively affected our environment. “The pollution is significant and widespread, with plastic debris found on even the most remote coastal areas and in every marine habitat”.[58] This information tells us about how much of a consequential change plastic pollution has made on the ocean and even the coasts.

In January 2022 a group of scientists assumed that the planetary boundary for “novel entities” (pollution, including plastic pollution) is already exceeded. "“There has been a 50-fold increase in the production of chemicals since 1950. This is projected to triple again by 2050,” says co-author Patricia Villarubia-Gómez from the Stockholm Resilience Centre". There are at least 350,000 artificial chemicals in the world. They have mostly "negative effects on planetary health". Plastics are responsible for a considerable part of this pollution.[59]

Plastic pollution as a cause of climate change

In 2019 a new report "Plastic and Climate" was published. According to the report, in 2019, production and incineration of plastic will contribute greenhouse gases in the equivalent of 850 million tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) to the atmosphere. In current trend, annual emissions from these sources will grow to 1.34 billion tonnes by 2030. By 2050 plastic could emit 56 billion tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions, as much as 14 percent of the earth's remaining carbon budget.[60] By 2100 it will emit 260 billion tonnes, more than half of the carbon budget. Those are emission from production, transportation, incineration, but there are also releases of methane and effects on phytoplankton.[61]

Effects of plastic on land

Plastic pollution on land poses a threat to the plants and animals – including humans who are based on the land.[62] Estimates of the amount of plastic concentration on land are between four and twenty three times that of the ocean. The amount of plastic poised on the land is greater and more concentrated than that in the water.[63] Mismanaged plastic waste ranges from 60 percent in East Asia and Pacific to one percent in North America. The percentage of mismanaged plastic waste reaching the ocean annually and thus becoming plastic marine debris is between one third and one half the total mismanaged waste for that year.[64][65]

In 2021 a report conducted by the Food and Agriculture Organization stated that plastic is often used in agriculture. There is more plastic in the soil that in the oceans. The presence of plastic in the environment hurt ecosystems and human health and pose a threat to food safety.[66] Chlorinated plastic can release harmful chemicals into the surrounding soil, which can then seep into groundwater or other surrounding water sources and also the ecosystem of the world.[67] This can cause serious harm to the species that drink the water.

Effect on flooding

Volunteers clearing gutters in Ilorin, Nigeria during a volunteer sanitation day. Even when there is adequate infrastructure for sanitation, plastic pollution can prevent drainage and impede sewage flow.

Plastic waste can clog storm drains, and such clogging can increase flood damage, particularly in urban areas.[68] For example, in Bangkok flood risk increases substantially because of plastic waste clogging the already overburdened sewer system.[69]

In tap water

A 2017 study found that 83% of tap water samples taken around the world contained plastic pollutants.[70][71] This was the first study to focus on global drinking water pollution with plastics,[72] and showed that with a contamination rate of 94%, tap water in the United States was the most polluted, followed by Lebanon and India. European countries such as the United Kingdom, Germany and France had the lowest contamination rate, though still as high as 72%.[70] This means that people may be ingesting between 3,000 and 4,000 microparticles of plastic from tap water per year.[72] The analysis found particles of more than 2.5 microns in size, which is 2500 times bigger than a nanometer. It is currently unclear if this contamination is affecting human health, but if the water is also found to contain nano-particle pollutants, there could be adverse impacts on human well-being, according to scientists associated with the study.[73]

However, plastic tap water pollution remains under-studied, as are the links of how pollution transfers between humans, air, water, and soil.[74]

In terrestrial ecosystems

Mismanaged plastic waste leads to plastic directly or indirectly entering terrestrial ecosystems.[75] There has been a significant increase of microplastic pollution due to the poor handling and disposal of plastic materials.[76] In particular, plastic pollution in the form of microplastics now can be found extensively in soil. It enters the soil by settling on the surface and eventually making its way into subsoils.[77] These microplastics find their way into plants and animals.[78]

Effluent and sludge of wastewater contain large amounts of plastics. Wastewater treatment plants don't have a treatment process to remove microplastics which results in plastics being transferred into water and soil when effluent and sludge are applied to land for agricultural purposes.[78] Several researchers have found plastic microfibers that are released when fleece and other polyester textiles are cleaned in washing machines.[79] These fibers can be transferred through effluent to land which pollutes soil environments.[77]

The increase in plastic and microplastic pollution in soils can cause adverse impacts on plants and microorganisms in the soil, which can in turn affect soil fertility. Microplastics affect soil ecosystems that are important for plant growth. Plants are important for the environment and ecosystems so the plastics are damaging to plants and organisms living in these ecosystems.[76]

Microplastics alter soil biophysical properties which affect the quality of the soil. This affects soil biological activity, biodiversity and plant health. Microplastics in the soil alter a plant's growth. It decreases seedling germination, affects the number of leaves, stem diameter and chlorophyll content in these plants.[76]

Microplastics in the soil are a risk not only to soil biodiversity but also food safety and human health. Soil biodiversity is important for plant growth in agricultural industries. Agricultural activities such as plastic mulching and application of municipal wastes contribute to the microplastic pollution in the soil. Human-modified soils are commonly used to improve crop productivity but the effects are more damaging than helpful.[76]

Plastics also release toxic chemicals into the environment and cause physical, chemical harm and biological damage to organisms. Ingestion of plastic doesn't only lead to death in animals through intestinal blockage but it can also travel up the food chain which affects humans.[75]

Effects of plastic on oceans and seabirds

The unaltered stomach contents of a dead albatross chick photographed on Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge in the Pacific in September 2009 include plastic marine debris fed the chick by its parents

Marine plastic pollution (or plastic pollution in the ocean) is a type of marine pollution by plastics, ranging in size from large original material such as bottles and bags, down to microplastics formed from the fragmentation of plastic material. Marine debris is mainly discarded human rubbish which floats on, or is suspended in the ocean. Eighty percent of marine debris is plastic.[80] Microplastics and nanoplastics result from the breakdown or photodegradation of plastic waste in surface waters, rivers or oceans. It is estimated that there is a stock of 86 million tons of plastic marine debris in the worldwide ocean as of the end of 2013, assuming that 1.4% of global plastics produced from 1950 to 2013 has entered the ocean and has accumulated there.[81] The 2017 United Nations Ocean Conference estimated that the oceans might contain more weight in plastics than fish by the year 2050.[82]

Oceans are polluted by plastic particles ranging in size from large original material such as bottles and bags, down to microplastics formed from the fragmentation of plastic material. This material is only very slowly degraded or removed from the ocean so plastic particles are now widespread throughout the surface ocean and are known to be having deleterious effects on marine life.[83] Discarded plastic bags, six pack rings, cigarette butts and other forms of plastic waste which finish up in the ocean present dangers to wildlife and fisheries.[84] Aquatic life can be threatened through entanglement, suffocation, and ingestion.[85][86][87] Fishing nets, usually made of plastic, can be left or lost in the ocean by fishermen. Known as ghost nets, these entangle fish, dolphins, sea turtles, sharks, dugongs, crocodiles, seabirds, crabs, and other creatures, restricting movement, causing starvation, laceration, infection, and, in those that need to return to the surface to breathe, suffocation.[88] There are various types of ocean plastics causing problems to marine life. Bottle caps have been found in the stomachs of turtles and seabirds, which have died because of the obstruction of their respiratory and digestive tracts.[89] Ghostnets are also a problematic type of ocean plastic as they can continuously trap marine life in a process known as ‘ghost fishing.’[90]

Marine life is one of the most important when one is affected by plastic pollution. Plastic pollution puts animals' lives in danger and is in constant fear of extinction. Marine wildlife such as seabirds, whales, fish and turtles mistake plastic waste for prey; most then die of starvation as their stomachs become filled with plastic. They also suffer from lacerations, infections, reduced ability to swim, and internal injuries[91]”. This evidence tells us how damaged marine wildlife is being affected by plastic pollution, they bring up how many animals mistake plastic for prey and eat it without knowing. “Globally, 100,000 marine mammals die every year as a result of plastic pollution. This includes whales, dolphins, porpoises, seals and sea lions”.[92] This evidence tells us the statistics of how many marine mammals really are negatively affected enough to die from plastic pollution.

Effects on humans

Compounds that are used in manufacturing pollute the environment by releasing chemicals into the air and water. Some compounds that are used in plastics, such as phthalates, bisphenol A (BRA), polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE), are under close statute and might be very hurtful. Even though these compounds are unsafe, they have been used in the manufacturing of food packaging, medical devices, flooring materials, bottles, perfumes, cosmetics and much more. The large dosage of these compounds are hazardous to humans, destroying the endocrine system. BRA imitates the female's hormone called estrogen. PBD destroys and causes damage to thyroid hormones, which are vital hormone glands that play a major role in the metabolism, growth and development of the human body. Although the level of exposure to these chemicals varies depending on age and geography, most humans experience simultaneous exposure to many of these chemicals. Average levels of daily exposure are below the levels deemed to be unsafe, but more research needs to be done on the effects of low dose exposure on humans.[93] A lot is unknown on how severely humans are physically affected by these chemicals. Some of the chemicals used in plastic production can cause dermatitis upon contact with human skin.[94] In many plastics, these toxic chemicals are only used in trace amounts, but significant testing is often required to ensure that the toxic elements are contained within the plastic by inert material or polymer.[94] Children and women during their reproduction age are at most at risk and more prone to damaging their immune as well as their reproductive system from these hormone-disrupting chemicals.

It can also affect humans because it may create an eyesore that interferes with enjoyment of the natural environment.[95]

Human health has also been negatively impacted by plastic pollution. “Almost a third of groundwater sites in the US contain BPA. BPA is harmful at very low concentrations as it interferes with our hormone and reproductive systems”.[96] This quote tells us how much of a percentage of our water is contaminated and should not be drunk on a daily basis. “At every stage of its lifecycle, plastic poses distinct risks to human health, arising from both exposure to plastic particles themselves and associated chemicals”.[97] This quote is an intro to numerous points of why plastic is damaging to us, such as the carbon that is released when it is being made and transported which is also related to how plastic pollution harms our environment.

Clinical significance

Due to the pervasiveness of plastic products, most of the human population is constantly exposed to the chemical components of plastics. 95% of adults in the United States have had detectable levels of BPA in their urine. Exposure to chemicals such as BPA have been correlated with disruptions in fertility, reproduction, sexual maturation, and other health effects.[98] Specific phthalates have also resulted in similar biological effects.

Thyroid hormone axis

Bisphenol A affects gene expression related to the thyroid hormone axis, which affects biological functions such as metabolism and development. BPA can decrease thyroid hormone receptor (TR) activity by increasing TR transcriptional corepressor activity. This then decreases the level of thyroid hormone binding proteins that bind to triiodothyronine. By affecting the thyroid hormone axis, BPA exposure can lead to hypothyroidism.[12]

Sex hormones

BPA can disrupt normal, physiological levels of sex hormones. It does this by binding to globulins that normally bind to sex hormones such as androgens and estrogens, leading to the disruption of the balance between the two. BPA can also affect the metabolism or the catabolism of sex hormones. It often acts as an antiandrogen or as an estrogen, which can cause disruptions in gonadal development and sperm production.[12]

Reduction efforts

Household items made of various types of plastic.
Waste generation, measured in kilograms per person per day

Efforts to reduce the use of plastics, to promote plastic recycling and to reduce mismanaged plastic waste or plastic pollution have occurred or are ongoing. The first scientific review in the professional academic literature about global plastic pollution in general found that the rational response to the "global threat" would be "reductions in consumption of virgin plastic materials, along with internationally coordinated strategies for waste management" – such as banning export of plastic waste unless it leads to better recycling – and describes the state of knowledge about "poorly reversible" impacts which are one of the rationales for its reduction.[99][100]

Some supermarkets charge their customers for plastic bags, and in some places more efficient reusable or biodegradable materials are being used in place of plastics. Some communities and businesses have put a ban on some commonly used plastic items, such as bottled water and plastic bags.[101] Some non-governmental organizations have launched voluntary plastic reduction schemes like certificates that can be adapted by restaurants to be recognized as eco-friendly among customers.[102]

In January 2019 a "Global Alliance to End Plastic Waste" was created by companies in the plastics industry. The alliance aims to clean the environment from existing waste and increase recycling, but it does not mention reduction in plastic production as one of its targets.[103]

Biodegradable and degradable plastics

The use of biodegradable plastics has many advantages and disadvantages. Biodegradables are biopolymers that degrade in industrial composters. Biodegradables do not degrade as efficiently in domestic composters, and during this slower process, methane gas may be emitted.[93]

There are also other types of degradable materials that are not considered to be biopolymers, because they are oil-based, similar to other conventional plastics. These plastics are made to be more degradable through the use of different additives, which help them degrade when exposed to UV rays or other physical stressors.[93] yet, biodegradation-promoting additives for polymers have been shown not to significantly increase biodegradation.[104]

Although biodegradable and degradable plastics have helped reduce plastic pollution, there are some drawbacks. One issue concerning both types of plastics is that they do not break down very efficiently in natural environments. There, degradable plastics that are oil-based may break down into smaller fractions, at which point they do not degrade further.[93]

A Parliamentary committee in the United Kingdom also found that compostable and biodegradable plastics could add to marine pollution because there is a lack of infrastructure to deal with these new types of plastic, as well as a lack of understanding about them on the part of consumers.[105] For example, these plastics need to be sent to industrial composting facilities to degrade properly, but no adequate system exists to make sure waste reaches these facilities.[105] The committee thus recommended to reduce the amount of plastic used rather than introducing new types of it to the market.[105]

Also worth noting is the evolution of new enzymes allowing microorganisms living in polluted locations to digest normal, hard-to-degrade plastic. An 2021 study looking for homologs of 95 known plastic-degrading enzymes spanning 17 plastic types found a further 30,000 possible enzymes. Despite their apparent ubiquity, there is no current evidence that these novel enzymes are breaking down any meaningful amount of plastic to reduce pollution.[106]


Up to 60% of used plastic medical equipment is incinerated rather than deposited in a landfill as a precautionary measure to lessen the transmission of disease. This has allowed for a large decrease in the amount of plastic waste that stems from medical equipment.[98]

At a large scale, plastics, paper, and other materials provides waste-to-energy plants with useful fuel. About 12% of total produced plastic has been incinerated.[107] Many studies have been done concerning the gaseous emissions that result from the incineration process.[108] Incinerated plastics release a number of toxins in the burning process, including Dioxins, Furans, Mercury and Polychlorinated Biphenyls.[108] When burned outside of facilities designed to collect or process the toxins, this can have significant health effects and create significant air pollution.[108]


Share of inadequately managed plastic waste (2010)
Projected share of inadequately managed plastic waste (2025)

Agencies such as the US Environmental Protection Agency and US Food and Drug Administration often do not assess the safety of new chemicals until after a negative side effect is shown. Once they suspect a chemical may be toxic, it is studied to determine the human reference dose, which is determined to be the lowest observable adverse effect level. During these studies, a high dose is tested to see if it causes any adverse health effects, and if it does not, lower doses are considered to be safe as well. This does not take into account the fact that with some chemicals found in plastics, such as BPA, lower doses can have a discernible effect.[109] Even with this often complex evaluation process, policies have been put into place in order to help alleviate plastic pollution and its effects. Government regulations have been implemented that ban some chemicals from being used in specific plastic products.

In Canada, the United States, and the European Union, BPA has been banned from being incorporated in the production of baby bottles and children's cups, due to health concerns and the higher vulnerability of younger children to the effects of BPA.[98] Taxes have been established in order to discourage specific ways of managing plastic waste. The landfill tax, for example, creates an incentive to choose to recycle plastics rather than contain them in landfills, by making the latter more expensive.[93] There has also been a standardization of the types of plastics that can be considered compostable.[93] The European Norm EN 13432, which was set by the European Committee for Standardization (CEN), lists the standards that plastics must meet, in terms of compostability and biodegradability, in order to officially be labeled as compostable.[93][110]

Given the significant threat that oceans face, the European Investment Bank Group aims to increase its funding and advisory assistance for ocean cleanup. For example, the Clean Oceans Initiative (COI) was established in 2018. The European Investment Bank, the German Development Bank, and the French Development Agency (AFD) agreed to invest a total of €2 billion under the COI from October 2018 to October 2023 in initiatives aimed at reducing pollution discharge into the oceans, with a special focus on plastics.[111][112][113]

Voluntary reduction efforts failing

Major plastic producers continue to lobby governments to refrain from imposing restrictions on plastic production and to advocate for voluntary corporate targets to reduce new plastic output. However, the world's top 10 plastic producers, including The Coca-Cola Company, Nestle SA and PepsiCo have been failing to meet even their own minimum targets for virgin plastic use.[114]

There have been several international covenants which address marine plastic pollution, such as the Convention on the Prevention of Marine Pollution by Dumping of Wastes and Other Matter 1972, the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships, 1973 and the Honolulu Strategy, there is nothing around plastics which infiltrate the ocean from the land.[115]

In 2020, 180 countries agreed to limit the amount of plastic waste that rich countries export to poorer countries, using rules from the Basel Convention. However, during January 2021, the first month that the agreement was in effect, trade data showed that overall scrap exports actually increased.[116]

Legally binding plastics treaty

Some academics and NGOs believe that a legally binding international treaty to deal with plastic pollution is necessary. They think this because plastic pollution is an international problem, moving between maritime borders, and also because they believe there needs to be a cap on plastic production.[117][118][119] Lobbyists were hoping that UNEA-5 would lead to a plastics treaty, but the session ended without a legally binding agreement.[120][121]

Policy in Canada

Institutional arrangements in Canada

The Canadian federal government formed a current institution that protects marine areas; this includes the mitigation of plastic pollution. In 1997, Canada adopted legislation for oceans management and passed the Oceans Act.[122] Federal governance, Regional Governance, and Aboriginal Peoples are the actors involved in the process of decision-making and implementation of the decision. The Regional Governance bodies are federal, provincial, and territorial government agencies that hold responsibilities of the marine environment. Aboriginal Peoples in Canada have treaty and non-treaty rights related to ocean activities. According to the Canadian government, they respect these rights and work with Aboriginal groups in oceans management activities.[122]

With the Oceans Act made legal, Canada made a commitment to conserve and protect the oceans. The Ocean Acts' underlying principle is sustainable development, precautionary and integrated management approach to ensure that there is a comprehensive understanding in protecting marine areas. In the integrated management approach, the Oceans Act designates federal responsibility to the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans Canada for any new and emerging ocean-related activities.[122] The Act encourages collaboration and coordination within the government that unifies interested parties. Moreover, the Oceans Act engages any Canadians who are interested in being informed of the decision-making regarding ocean environment.

In 2005, federal organizations developed the Federal Marine Protected Areas Strategy.[122] This strategy is a collaborative approach implemented by Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Parks Canada, and Environment Canada to plan and manage federal marine protected areas. The federal marine protected areas work with Aboriginal groups, industries, academia, environmental groups, and NGOs to strengthen marine protected areas. The federal marine protected areas network consists of three core programs: Marine Protected Areas, Marine Wildlife Areas, and National Marine Conservation Areas.[122] The MPA is a program to be noted because it is significant in protecting ecosystems from the effects of industrial activities. The MPA guiding principles are Integrated Management, ecosystem-based management approach, Adaptive Management Approach, Precautionary Principle, and Flexible Management Approach.[122] All five guiding principles are used collectively and simultaneously to collaborate and respect legislative mandates of individual departments, to use scientific knowledge and traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) to manage human activities, to monitor and report on programs to meet conservation objectives of MPAs, to use best available information in the absence of scientific certainty, and to maintain a balance between conservation needs and sustainable development objectives.[122]

Plastic toxity

In 2021 Canada's government officially recognize plastic as toxic material what creates the possibility to limit its consumption in different ways.[123][124]

Collection or recycling

The two common forms of waste collection include curbside collection and the use of drop-off recycling centers. About 87 percent of the population in the United States (273 million people) have access to curbside and drop-off recycling centers. In curbside collection, which is available to about 63 percent of the United States population (193 million people), people place designated plastics in a special bin to be picked up by a public or private hauling company.[125] Most curbside programs collect more than one type of plastic resin, usually both PETE and HDPE.[126] At drop-off recycling centers, which are available to 68 percent of the United States population (213 million people), people take their recyclables to a centrally located facility.[125] Once collected, the plastics are delivered to a materials recovery facility (MRF) or handler for sorting into single-resin streams to increase product value. The sorted plastics are then baled to reduce shipping costs to reclaimers.[126]

There are varying rates of recycling per type of plastic, and in 2017, the overall plastic recycling rate was approximately 8.4% in the United States. Approximately 2.7 million tonnes (3.0 million short tons) of plastics were recycled in the U.S. in 2017, while 24.3 million tonnes (26.8 million short tons) plastic were dumped in landfills the same year. Some plastics are recycled more than others; in 2017 about 31.2 percent of HDPE bottles and 29.1 percent of PET bottles and jars were recycled.[127]

On 21 May 2019, a new service model called "Loop" to collect packaging from consumers and reuse it, began to function in the New York region, US. Consumers drop packages in special shipping totes and then a pick up collect them. Partners include Procter & Gamble, Nestlé, PepsiCo, Unilever, Mars Petcare, The Clorox Company, The Body Shop, Coca-Cola, Mondelēz, Danone and other firms.[128] It has begun with several thousand households, but there are 60,000 on the waiting list. The target of the service is not only stop single use plastic, but to stop single use generally by recycling consumer product containers of various materials.[129]

Ocean cleanup

The organization "The Ocean Cleanup" is trying to collect plastic waste from the oceans by nets. There are concerns from harm to some forms of sea organisms, especially neuston.[130]

Great Bubble Barrier

In the Netherlands, plastic litter from some rivers is collected by a bubble barrier, to prevent plastics from floating into the sea. This so-called 'Great Bubble Barrier’ catches plastics bigger than 1 mm.[131][21] The bubble barrier is implemented in the River IJssel (2017) and in Amsterdam (2019)[132][133] and will be implemented in Katwijk at the end of the river Rhine.[134][135]

Reduction in usage by country/region


In July 2018, Albania became the first country in Europe to ban lightweight plastic bags.[136][137][138] Albania's environment minister Blendi Klosi said that businesses importing, producing or trading plastic bags less than 35 microns in thickness risk facing fines between 1 million to 1.5 million lek (€7,900 to €11,800).[137]


It has been estimated that each year, Australia produces around 2.5m tonnes of plastic waste annually, of which about 84% ends up as landfill, and around 130,000 tonnes of plastic waste leaks into the environment.[139] Six of the eight states and territories had by December 2021 committed to banning a range of plastics. The federal government's National Packaging Targets created the goal of phasing out the worst of single-use plastics by 2025,[140] and under the National Plastics Plan 2021,[141] it has committed "to phase out loose fill and moulded polystyrene packaging by July 2022, and various other products by December 2022.[140]


China is the biggest consumer of single-use plastics.[43] In 2020 China published a plan to cut 30% of plastic waste in 5 years. As part of this plan, single use plastic bags and straws will be banned[142][143]

European Union

In 2015 the European Union adopted a directive requiring a reduction in the consumption of single use plastic bags per person to 90 by the year 2019 and to 40 by the year 2025.[144] In April 2019, the EU adopted a further directive banning almost all types of single use plastic, except bottles, from the beginning of the year 2021.[145][146]

On 3 July 2021, the EU Single-Use Plastics Directive (SUPD, EU 2019/904) went into effect in EU member states. The directive aims to reduce plastic pollution from single-use disposable plastics. It focuses on the 10 most commonly found disposable plastics at beaches, which make up 43% of marine litter (fishing gear another 27%). According to the SUP directive, there is a ban on: plastic cotton buds and balloon sticks; plastic plates, cutlery, stirrers and straws; Styrofoam drinks and food packaging (f.e. disposable cups, one-person meals); products made of oxo-degradable plastics, which degrade into microplastics. cigarette filters, drinking cups, wet wipes, sanitary towels and tampons receive a label indicating the product contains plastic, that it belongs in the trash, and that litter has negative effects on the environment.[147][148]


Say no to polythene. Sign. Nako, Himachal Pradesh, India.

The government of India decided to ban single use plastics and take a number of measures to recycle and reuse plastic, from 2 October 2019[149]

The Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation, Government of India, has requested various governmental departments to avoid the use of plastic bottles to provide drinking water during governmental meetings, etc., and to instead make arrangements for providing drinking water that do not generate plastic waste.[150][151] The state of Sikkim has restricted the usage of plastic water bottles (in government functions and meetings) and styrofoam products.[152] The state of Bihar has banned the usage of plastic water bottles in governmental meetings.[153]

The 2015 National Games of India, organised in Thiruvananthapuram, was associated with green protocols.[154] This was initiated by Suchitwa Mission that aimed for "zero-waste" venues. To make the event "disposable-free", there was ban on the usage of disposable water bottles.[155] The event witnessed the usage of reusable tableware and stainless steel tumblers.[156] Athletes were provided with refillable steel flasks.[157] It is estimated that these green practices stopped the generation of 120 tonnes of disposable waste.[158]

The city of Bangalore in 2016 banned the plastic for all purpose other than for few special cases like milk delivery etc.[159]

The state of Maharashtra, India effected the Maharashtra Plastic and Thermocol Products ban 23 June 2018, subjecting plastic users to fines and potential imprisonment for repeat offenders.[160][161]


In Bali, one of the many islands of Indonesia, two sisters, Melati and Isabel Wijsen, made efforts to ban plastic bags in 2019.[162][163] As of January 2022 their organization Bye Bye Plastic Bags had spread to over 50 locations around the world.[164]


In Israel, 2 cities: Eilat and Herzliya, decided to ban the usage of single use plastic bags and cutlery on the beaches.[165] In 2020 Tel Aviv joined them, banning also the sale of single use plastic on the beaches.[166]


In August 2017, Kenya has one of the world's harshest plastic bag bans. Fines of $38,000 or up to four years in jail to anyone that was caught producing, selling, or using a plastic bag.[167]

New Zealand

The country announced a ban on many types of hard – to – recycle single use plastic by 2025[168]


In 2019, The House of Representatives of Nigeria banned the production, import and usage of plastic bags in the country.[169]


In February 2018, Taiwan restricted the use of single-use plastic cups, straws, utensils and bags; the ban will also include an extra charge for plastic bags and updates their recycling regulations and aiming by 2030 it would be completely enforced.[167]

United Kingdom

In January 2019, the Iceland supermarket chain, which specializes in frozen foods, pledged to "eliminate or drastically reduce all plastic packaging for its store-brand products by 2023."[170]

As of 2020, 104 communities achieved the title of "Plastic free community" in United Kingdom, 500 want to achieve it.[171]

After 2 schoolgirls Ella and Caitlin launched a petition about it, Burger King and McDonald's in the United Kingdom and Ireland pledged to stop sending plastic toys with their meals. McDonald's pledged to do it from the year 2021. McDonald's also pledged to use a paper wrap for it meals and books that will be sent with the meals. The transmission will begin already in March 2020.[172]

United States

In 2009, Washington University in St. Louis became the first university in the United States to ban the sale of plastic, single-use water bottles.[173]

In 2009, District of Columbia required all businesses that sell food or alcohol to charge an additional 5 cents for each carryout plastic or paper bag.[174]

In 2011 and 2013, Kauai, Maui and Hawaii prohibit non-biodegradable plastic bags at checkout as well as paper bags containing less than 40 percent recycled material. In 2015, Honolulu was the last major county approving the ban.[174]

In 2015, California prohibited large stores from providing plastic bags, and if so a charge of $0.10 per bag and has to meet certain criteria.[174]

In 2016, Illinois adopted the legislation and established “Recycle Thin Film Friday” in effort toe reclaim used thin-film plastic bags and encourage reusable bags.[174]

In 2019 The New York (state) banned single use plastic bags and introduced a 5-cent fee for using single use paper bags. The ban will enter into force in 2020. This will not only reduce plastic bag usage in New York state (23,000,000,000 every year until now), but also eliminate 12 million barrels of oil used to make plastic bags used by the state each year.[175][176]

The state of Maine ban Styrofoam (polystyrene) containers in May 2019.[177]

In 2019 the Giant Eagle retailer became the first big US retailer that committed to completely phase out plastic by 2025. The first step – stop using single use plastic bags – will begun to be implemented already on January 15, 2020.[178]

In 2019, Delaware, Maine, Oregon and Vermont enacted on legislation. Vermont also restricted single-use straws and polystyrene containers.[174]

In 2019, Connecticut imposed a $0.10 charge on single-use plastic bags at point of sale, and is going to ban them on July 1, 2021.[174]


On July 30, 2017, Vanuatu’s Independence Day, made an announcement of stepping towards the beginning of not using plastic bags and bottles. Making it one of the first Pacific nations to do so and will start banning the importation of single-use plastic bottles and bags.[167]

Obstruction by major plastic producers

The ten corporations that produce the most plastic on the planet, The Coca-Cola Company, Colgate-Palmolive, Danone, Mars, Incorporated, Mondelēz International, Nestlé, PepsiCo, Perfetti Van Melle, Procter & Gamble, and Unilever, formed a well-financed network that has sabotaged for decades government and community efforts to address the plastic pollution crisis, according to a detailed investigative report by the Changing Markets Foundation. The investigation documents how these companies delay and derail legislation so that they can continue to inundate consumers with disposable plastic packaging. These large plastic producers have exploited public fears of the COVID-19 pandemic to work toward delaying and reversing existing regulation of plastic disposal. Big ten plastic producers have advanced voluntary commitments for plastic waste disposal as a stratagem to deter governments from imposing additional regulations.[179]

Deception of the public about recycling

As early as the early 1970s, petrochemical industry leaders understood that the vast majority of plastic they produced would never be recycled. For example, an April 1973 report written by industry scientists for industry executive states that sorting the hundreds of different kinds plastic is "infeasible" and cost-prohibitive. By the late 1980s, industry leaders also knew that the public must be kept feeling good about purchasing plastic products if their industry was to continue to prosper, and needed to quell proposed legislation to regulate the plastic being sold. So the industry launched a $50 million/year corporate propaganda campaign targeting the American public with the message that plastic can be, and is being, recycled, and lobbied American municipalities to launch expensive plastic waste collection programs, and lobbied U.S. states to require the labeling of plastic products and containers with recycling symbols. They were confident, however, that the recycling initiatives would not end up recovering and reusing plastic in amounts anywhere near sufficient to hurt their profits in selling new "virgin" plastic products because they understood that the recycling efforts that they were promoting were likely to fail. Industry leaders more recently have planned 100% recycling of the plastic they produce by 2040, calling for more efficient collection, sorting and processing.[180][181]

Action for creating awareness

Earth Day

In 2019, the Earth Day Network partnered with Keep America Beautiful and National Cleanup Day for the inaugural nationwide Earth Day CleanUp. Cleanups were held in all 50 states, five US territories, 5,300 sites and had more than 500,000 volunteers.[182][183]

Earth Day 2020 is the 50th Anniversary of Earth Day. Celebrations will include activities such as the Great Global CleanUp, Citizen Science, Advocacy, Education, and art. This Earth Day aims to educate and mobilize more than one billion people to grow and support the next generation of environmental activists, with a major focus on plastic waste[184][185]

World Environment Day

Every year, 5 June is observed as World Environment Day to raise awareness and increase government action on the pressing issue. In 2018, India was host to the 43rd World Environment Day and the theme was "Beat Plastic Pollution", with a focus on single-use or disposable plastic. The Ministry of Environment, Forest, and Climate Change of India invited people to take care of their social responsibility and urged them to take up green good deeds in everyday life. Several states presented plans to ban plastic or drastically reduce their use.[186]

Other actions

On 11 April 2013 in order to create awareness, artist Maria Cristina Finucci founded The Garbage Patch State at UNESCO[187] headquarters in Paris, France, in front of Director General Irina Bokova. This was the first of a series of events under the patronage of UNESCO and of the Italian Ministry of the Environment.[188]

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Further reading

  • Colette, Wabnitz & Wallace J. Nichols. Editorial: Plastic Pollution: An Ocean Emergency. 3 March 2010. 28 January 2013.
  • Biodegradable Plastics and Marine Litter. Misconceptions, concerns and impacts on marine environments, 2015, United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), Nairobi.
  • A million bottles a minute: world's plastic binge 'as dangerous as climate change'. The Guardian. 28 June 2017.
  • Guess What's Showing Up In Our Shellfish? One Word: Plastics. NPR. 19 September 2017
  • Microplastic pollution revealed ‘absolutely everywhere’ by new research. The Guardian. 6 March 2019
  • After bronze and iron, welcome to the plastic age, say scientists. The Guardian. 4 September 2019.
  • Planet Plastic: How Big Oil and Big Soda kept a global environmental calamity a secret for decades. Rolling Stone. 3 March 2020.
  • Plastics an 'unfolding disaster' for US marine life. BBC, 19 November 2020.

External links

  • #noplasticwaste project of Minderoo Foundation
  • Ark, Planet. Plastic Bag Reduction. 1 December 2011. 29 January 2013.
  • Jessica, A. Knoblauch. Environmental Health News. 2 July 2009. 29 January 2013
  • Treacy, Megan. "Biodegradable Plastics are Adding to Landfill Methane Emissions". 10 June 2011. 29 January 2013.
  • Tina, L. Plastic Pollution and Wastefulness. 20 February 2011. 29 January 2013.
  • Boyan Slat. "How the oceans can clean themselves". TED Talk. Retrieved 4 January 2016.
  • "22 Facts About Plastic Pollution (And 10 Things We Can Do About It)". 7 April 2014. Retrieved 4 January 2016.
  • "Ocean Phoenix Project". SAS Ocean Phoenix. Archived from the original on 7 March 2016. Retrieved 5 March 2016.
  • "Tide of plastic rubbish discovered floating off idyllic Caribbean island coastline". The Independent. 24 October 2017. Retrieved 31 October 2017.