However, there can be some more indirect forms of plastic pollution too.
In this guide we summarise the types of plastic pollution, the causes, the sources, the effects, and potential solutions to reduce and/or stop plastic pollution.
(*Note – You can also read more generally about waste pollution in this guide)
Summary – Plastic Pollution
- Plastic as a material and when used in products has a long list of pros and cons, and is a widely used material across a number of sectors
- The reality is … we probably couldn’t get by without using plastic on a mass scale due to the number of benefits it currently provides society with to live our day to day lives
- However, a result of using plastic is having to manage plastic waste, and also dealing with plastic pollution
- There’s really two main categories of plastic pollution – plastic pollution in the ocean, and plastic pollution on land
- Plastic pollution in the ocean comes from both land based and marine based sources
- Plastic pollution on land comes from a range of land based sources
- Plastic pollution has the ability to impact humans, wild life, the environment and the economy – all in different ways
- Solutions to plastic pollution can be wide ranging, but, there are certainly some solutions that may be more effective than others. Addressing mismanaged plastic waste in countries and regions with the highest mismanaged plastic waste rates and highest rates of plastic pollution is one example of this
- Another consideration might be to consider the impact of plastic production and consumption in countries with lower plastic pollution rates and better plastic waste management – but, consider the impact from a resource sustainability perspective, and consider the impact on factors like emissions, and other types of pollution like air pollution, water pollution, and so on (even the management of plastic waste has a footprint)
What Is Plastic Pollution?
Plastic pollution is when plastic materials, particles or chemicals get into the environment and cause some type of negative impact.
The general way this happens is:
- Plastic is generated/produced (usually from oil and fossil fuels), and used for various applications
- Plastic becomes waste once it can no longer be used
- Plastic can be littered (at roughly an average of 2% of total plastic waste generation – ourworldindata.org), and be introduced into the environment
- Plastic waste can be disposed of, but disposal is inadequate to sufficiently manage the waste to prevent pollution. One example of this plastic being sent to a dumping site or landfill that isn’t properly contained or closed off – the plastic can easily leak into or escape into the environment
- (Together, the littering of plastic, and the inadequate disposal of plastic, are referred to as mismanaged plastic waste)
- Plastic may also break down via photo degradation (exposure to light) and mechanical abrasion into micro plastics and nano plastics at the usage or waste stage
- Once plastic is in the environment, it can potentially impact one or a combination of wild life and living organisms, eco systems, humans, and the economy. Plastic pollution can also be as little as negatively impacting a space’s aesthetics
- [Note – there’s also the potential health impact plastic can have on humans through use of plastic water bottles and other plastic items]
There’s a few main types of plastic pollution, and each has their own specific variables as to how they happen, and what the impact of each is.
Plastic Pollution In The Ocean
A brief summary of plastic pollution in the ocean:
- Plastic in the ocean comes from both land based and marine based sources.
- Land based plastic is generally the dominant type of plastic pollution at around 70 to 80% of total plastic pollution, and marine at 20 to 30%. Although, in certain parts of the ocean, particularly parts where there is intensive fishing or sea traffic, marine plastic can reach up to 50 to 60% of total ocean plastic pollution
- Marine based plastic comes from marine based sources like fishing ships/boats and ocean vessels, usually via dumping or loss of plastic waste to the ocean. Fishing gear and equipment is a main type of ocean plastic pollution waste – it’s sometimes referred to as ghost gear
- Plastic from land based sources usually comes from plastic being carried into the ocean (via rivers, waterways and runoff), or by being blown or washed into the ocean from a beach or coastal area (usually within 50km of the ocean). Plastic packaging is one main type of land based plastic that gets into the ocean
- A high share of the world’s ocean plastics pollution has its origin in Asia. China contributes the highest share of mismanaged plastic waste with around 28 percent of the global total. East Asia and the Pacific lead all regions at 60%
- A large majority of rivers that carry plastic into the ocean are located in Asia (about 86%). China is home to the River Yangtze – the top plastic polluting river by plastic input into the ocean in the world
- Once plastic is in the ocean – it can initially float on the surface and accumulate in ocean basins and gyres e.g. the Great Pacific Garbage Patch
- However, it’s less clear what happens to plastic that breaks down into micro plastics and smaller plastic particles. Several places it could go are that sinks and becomes deep sea sediment, it is ingested by marine life, or it washes up at beaches and it accumulates near our shorelines, around coastal areas and in offshore locations
- Plastic in the ocean can impact hundreds of marine species via ingestion and entanglement
- Plastic in the ocean also impacts the economy as it has to be removed from the ocean, and can impact various industries like tourism
- It’s unclear if micro plastics ingested by the seafood we eat has any impact on us
- Four main ways we may address plastic pollution in the ocean are 1. Decrease our rate of littering, 2. Target countries and regions most responsible for plastic pollution in the ocean, 3. Upgrade plastic waste management practices to better contain and dispose of plastic via recycling, incineration and landfill (so plastic doesn’t leak into the environment), 4. Introduce penalty or incentive based programs for marine vessels to reduce marine plastic pollution
Read more about plastic pollution in the ocean in this guide.
Plastic Pollution On Land
A brief summary of plastic pollution on land:
- It appears that there is less research and investigation that has been done into the extent and impact of plastic pollution on land (compared to ocean plastic pollution)
- A key issue for plastic pollution on land is microplastics, which occur via the degradation and break down of bigger plastics
- Some estimates put dry land micro plastic pollution levels at 4 to 23 times higher than ocean micro plastic pollution around some areas and regions on land
- Micro plastic particles have been found in soil, and fresh water sources like rivers and lakes
- Microplastics have also been found in tap water, bottled water, food supplies, and even in the air in our households (which come from various sources like textiles and plastic objects like furniture). Through these sources, humans can both ingest and inhale micro plastics
- Micro plastics come from many different sources, including but not limited synthetic plastic fibres in textiles and clothing, cosmetic and personal care products, items flushed down the toilet and washed down sinks, car tyres, road markings, plastic pellets and additives in asphalt, plastic pellets at waste water plants, artificial turf, shoe soles, agricultural plastics, the lids and caps of bottled water, and more
- Micro plastics are transferred around by air, sewage sludge used for fertilizer, waste water and storm water, run off from land and roads
- The general consensus (right now) is likely that there isn’t any solid evidence to prove that micro plastics have any type of serious effect on humans at current exposure levels
- Several sources agree though that there needs to be more testing and assessment, and better testing and assessment of the full short and long term effects of plastic pollution on land (including micro plastics)
- Recent studies suggest plastic could be at least having some type of effect on wild life and micro organisms
- One major solution proposed for addressing plastic pollution on land is better systematized filtering of drinking water (that would help remove micro plastics from drinking water)
- But realistically, reducing microplastics at their source (the plastic products we use, and the waste we generate every day) is where important solutions present themselves too
- Macro (bigger plastic pieces) plastic pollution on land is also part of the land based plastic pollution problem
- Macro plastic pollution occurs via littering, and plastic being inadequately disposed of via waste disposal and dumping/landfill sites
- It’s also possible for chemicals and additives to leach from certain plastics into soil or water sources on land. Chlorinated plastic might be one plastic that has the ability to do this. But, most plastics contain chemicals, additives and fillers, and plastics are even able to absorb organic pollutants like pesticides that stick to the plastic and get transported around wherever the plastic goes
Read more about plastic pollution on land in this guide.
Causes Of Plastic Pollution
We can see above that there are some specific causes for both ocean and land plastic pollution.
But, the general root causes for both are:
- Plastic As A Material (It’s Chemistry & Makeup) – plastic is a synthetic material made to be extremely durable, and made with synthetic chemicals, additives, fillers and substances. It’s not biodegradable or a natural, organic material made from natural resources
- The Rate & Quantity Of Plastic Production – the sheer quantity of plastic we use for different applications. Plastic production has increased significantly in the last 50 years, and is only expected to increase in the future
- The Rate & Quantity Of Plastic Waste – some plastics have a high waste rate, such as single use and disposable plastics. Plastic packaging is one example of a plastic that becomes waste often within second, minutes or days of being used. More waste means more littering, and more inadequate plastic waste management as a by product
- The Rate & Quantity Of Plastic Littering – assumed to be about 2% of a country’s total plastic waste generation
- Inadequate Disposal Of Plastic – either dumping into the ocean, dumping on land on open dumping sites with no waste containment, or dumping at landfills that have inadequate systems to contain plastic from being leaked into the environment
- Plastic Breaking Down Into Micro & Nano Plastics – bigger bits of plastic break down via photo degradation and mechanical abrasion. Micro plastics and nano plastics are found everywhere
- Plastic Can’t Be Recycled Infinitely – unlike metal for example. Plastic eventually has to be down-cycled, or sent to landfill or incineration once it can’t be recycled any longer
Sources Of Plastic Pollution
Sources of plastic pollution might be broken down by the types of plastics, and where pollution is happening …
Types Of Problem Plastics:
- Plastic packaging
- Single use and highly disposable plastics
- Plastics commonly found littered on land, on beaches and in rivers
- Toxic plastics
- Non recyclable plastics
- Fishing plastics
- Plastics that commonly are responsible for micro plastics (outlined in the ‘Plastic On Land’ guide)
- + more
Where Pollution Is Happening & Coming From:
- Land based plastic pollution, particularly micro plastic pollution, happens everywhere
- Littering happens in most countries
- Ocean plastic pollution is heavily linked to lower income countries where inadequate waste management sites are in place, as well as Asia, China & other countries and regions where mismanaged plastic or total plastic waste generation is higher.
- Certain rivers are also far more polluted in certain parts of the world than others
- Ocean plastic pollution is heavily linked with parts of the ocean that are most heavily fished or where there is the most sea traffic
- Specific industries responsible for the most plastic waste – the plastic packaging industry for example
- Businesses and companies that use the most plastic and produce the most plastic waste
Effects/Impact Of Plastic Pollution
Plastic pollution can have an impact on all areas of society such as the environment (water, land, air), humans and human health, wildlife, and the economy.
We’ve outlined some of the potential effects of plastic pollution in the ocean and land plastic pollution guide.
But, you can also read a list of the ’21 Potentially Harmful Effects Of Plastic’ in this guide.
Solutions To Plastic Pollution (How To Reduce It, Or Stop It)
We’ve listed potential solutions to plastic pollution the ocean and land plastic pollution guides.
But, as a summary of some of the major ways to reduce and stop plastic pollution:
- Introduce initiatives or penalties to reduce littering of plastic
- Have effective waste management systems in every city and region across the world. A good start would be landfill sites that don’t let plastic leak or leach
- Introduce initiatives or penalties to reduce marine plastic waste
- Make it a priority to address high waste plastics like plastic packaging, and other problematic types of plastic that contribute to plastic pollution
- Make it a priority to work with the countries and regions that produce or use the most plastic, that generate the most plastic waste, that mismanage the most plastic, that inadequately dispose of the most plastic, and that are most responsible for river and ocean plastic pollution. Note – inadequate disposal can also extend out to cities with landfills with poor leachate management systems, and with plastic incineration plants that don’t have air pollution and air emission control and capture technology
- Make it a priority to work with the organizations and businesses, and industries most responsible for plastic waste
- Make it a priority to provide more comprehensive and definitive research for land based plastic pollution and the impact of micro plastics
Some further guides on solutions to plastic problems and pollution are:
- Is This The Most Effective Way To Solve & Stop/Reduce Ocean Plastic Pollution?
- Solutions To Ocean Plastic Pollution (How To Stop/Reduce It, & How To Clean It Up)
- Solutions To Plastic Problems: How To Solve Plastic Pollution, & How To Manage Plastic In Society In The Future
Future Projections For Plastic Pollution
Some estimates point to a ‘projected four-fold increase in production tonnage by 2050’ (darrinqualman.com)
This increase is also going to result in some type of increase in plastic waste generation, and ultimately plastic pollution on land and in the ocean (if current waste management processes and systems aren’t improved)
Additionally, it will result in increased fossil fuels required for plastic material production, and the energy required to produce plastic.
Stats On Plastic Pollution
Read about some of the key stats and numbers on plastic production, use, waste, and pollution in this guide.
1. Hannah Ritchie and Max Roser (2018) – “Plastic Pollution”. Published online at OurWorldInData.org. Retrieved from: ‘https://ourworldindata.org/plastic-pollution’ [Online Resource]