This is a short guide outlining some of the potential environmental impacts of plastic – on land and soil, the ocean, fresh water sources (like rivers and lakes), the air and atmosphere, and other natural resources and ecosystems.
General Impact Of Plastic On The Environment
There’s many general ways that plastic can potentially impact the environment.
Some of the consequences plastic pollution in the environment may be clear, whilst others may be uncertain. This is something that needs to be addressed at some point – there needs to be more certainty around the full impact of plastic on the environment with more comprehensive and definitive studies and data.
One clear way plastic might impact the environment is via leaching or carrying of chemicals and other harmful/toxic substances (or disease carrying organisms). This could lead to contamination of parts of eco systems, or the depletion or lowering of quality of natural resources.
A more uncertain consequence of plastic in the environment might be what the full impact of micro plastics and nano plastics is.
Read about the general potential harmful effects of plastic in this guide.
Impact Of Plastic On Land & Soil
You can read about plastic pollution on land in this guide.
The full impact of plastic on land and soil is not known (there is a lack of standardised testing that can provide an accurate assessment of the situation), but it’s thought it could be far more significant than the impact on the ocean
It’s thought that up to one third of plastic produced every year ends up in soil and fresh water
One of the main ways that plastic ends up in soil is via micro plastics and nano plastics, and some sources indicate these micro plastics could be a new long term stress factor for the environment
A potential source of these micro and nano plastics is biosolids and sewage sludge turned fertilizer that is applied to agricultural land
The impact of micro plastics and nano plastics is not really known at this stage
Another way plastic can impact the land and soil is if plastic breaks down and accumulates organic pollutants (could do this in a landfill or in the open) or disease causing organisms, or if a plastic like heavily chlorinated PVC breaks down and contaminates soil
Impact Of Plastic On The Ocean
You can read about plastic in the ocean in this guide.
Plastic (from many sources) gets into the ocean via many entry points
Coastal populations within 50kms from the ocean front are one of the main entry points, with rivers being a way that plastic gets carried to the ocean from inland locations
Plastic comes from land based and marine based sources
Plastic packaging is one of the main land based plastics, whilst dumped fishing gear and equipment is one of the main marine based plastics
Larger plastics in the ocean tend to accumulate on the surface at ocean basins and ocean gyres
But, these plastics break down into micro plastics and nano plastics that can end up anywhere. It’s thought a lot of these small plastic particles sink to the deep sea, but they can also end up in digestive tracts of marine life
Impact Of Plastic On Freshwater
We wrote about the impact of plastic on fresh water in the guide about plastic pollution on land above, but also the guide about ocean plastic pollution (as rivers can carry plastic into the ocean, or to coastal ocean entry points)
Rivers receive a significant amount of fresh water plastic pollution
Rivers in Asia in particular have some of the highest rates of plastic pollution
But, river plastic pollution is a global issue
A common source of plastic pollution in rivers is micro plastic fibres from textiles and clothing that have been washed in households as discharged as waste water. There are many other potential sources
But, realistically, plastic pollution in rivers can come from many waste water and run off water sources (that find their way into rivers)
Some estimates say that 4 million tonnes of plastic passes along rivers per year, and in some locations, there can be over half a million plastic fragments per square metre of river bed
An often forgotten fresh water source where micro plastic can be present is bottled water … and, bottled water often tests higher for micro plastics than tap water
Impact Of Plastic On Air & Atmosphere
Greenhouse gases from the lifecycle of plastic – some of the newest studies indicate plastics might be responsible for about 3.8% of greenhouse gases
Impact Of Plastic On Other Natural Resources
In general, plastic may have the ability to degrade and deplete natural resources.
Just as one example, plastic may have the ability to degrade marine beach and water quality