Plastic is a widely used material in society.
Although plastic has some important uses, plastic pollution is also an issue that can arise from its use.
Plastic pollution can have a significant impact on humans, animals, the natural environment, and even the economy.
In this guide we outline what plastic pollution is, the causes, the sources, the effects, and potential solutions to mitigate and reduce plastic pollution.
You can also read more generally about waste pollution in this guide
(NOTE: we have heavily paraphrased OurWorldInData.org in this guide. You can find their full articles here – https://ourworldindata.org/plastic-pollution, and here https://ourworldindata.org/faq-on-plastics)
Summary – Plastic Pollution
- Plastic has a long list of pros and cons, and is a widely used material across a number of sectors
- The way industrialized and even developing countries are currently set up, we probably couldn’t get by without plastic due to the number of important uses it has
- However, the flip side of that, is that plastic also has a significant negative impact on society in a number of ways – and, this is something that needs to be addressed
- The causes of plastic pollution stem firstly from how plastic is made and what it is made of, and then the sheer quantity of plastic we produce and use, along with how we manage and dispose of it
- The sources of plastic pollution stem from certain types of plastic, and specific countries, regions, industries and businesses that are responsible for using, producing or mismanaging the most plastic
- The effects of plastic pollution are wide ranging, from mining of petrochemicals to make plastics (and associated waste, water pollution, and other consequences of mining), the production process of plastic and it’s waste, leaching of chemicals from certain plastics, ingestion, entanglement, and abrasion by mismanaged plastic waste, the impact of plastic on humans and human health, and even the economy
- There are many potential solutions to plastic pollution such as using plastic more effectively, finding ways to re-design and re use or recycle more plastic, finding alternative materials to use that are more natural and biodegradable or reusable, and targeting the specific sources of plastic that cause the most problems, such as types of plastic, and specific regions, countries, businesses and industries
What Is Plastic Pollution?
Plastic pollution has many definitions, but it could generally be defined as the ‘presence in or introduction into the environment of plastic which has harmful or poisonous effects’
Some people restrict these effects to the environment only, but in reality, plastic impacts humans, health, society and the economy on a wider and deeper level as well.
Causes Of Plastic Pollution
Some of the main causes of plastic pollution are:
- The wide use of plastic in society, and the quantity of it that we produce and use … especially single use or short use plastic
- The materials and chemicals that are required to make plastic – petrochemicals are used, and fossil fuels have to be mined
- The manufacturing of plastic produces waste and can use harmful chemicals
- What plastic is made of (it’s chemical make up) – it’s synthetic, unlike natural materials
- How long plastic lasts/how durable it is – it can last forever without fully breaking down
- The way plastic is disposed of – mismanaged and gets into rivers and the ocean, creates gases/emissions in landfill along with leachate, or gets burnt and releases pollutants (gasification and pyrolysis both have issues with using them at scale over waste to energy plants)
- Plastic can only be recycled so many times before it has to be discarded
Sources Of Plastic Pollution
Some of the main sources of plastic pollution are:
- Plastic packaging
- Single use plastics
- Toxic plastics
- Non recyclable plastic
- Recyclable plastic that isn’t actually recycled (and re-directed to landfill)
- Countries and regions that use or produce the most plastic (and import from poor countries, or export it to countries like China to recycle – although China has since stopped taking plastic from other countries)
- Countries and regions that are responsible for the most mismanaged plastic and ocean plastic
- Industries that use the most plastic and produce the most plastic waste
- Businesses and companies that use the most plastic and produce the most plastic waste
Effects 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.
Some specific effects of plastic pollution might be:
- Plastic is made of petrochemicals – so it uses fossil fuels, and involves mining and fracking to source these base chemicals
- The production process of plastic can involve emissions, as well as waste which is dumped into the environment
- Mismanaged plastic gets into rivers, which is carried out to the ocean
- Plastic in the environment leads to ingestion, entanglement, abrasion for animals and organisms of all sizes
- Micro plastics are the result of bigger pieces of plastic breaking down into micro pieces of plastic – they can get into animals and organisms, and possibly into the food supply
- Plastic releases toxic chemicals that can leach into the environment, into soil, into water sources, and even onto human tissue (which may have health related consequences for humans)
- Chlorinated plastic specifically can release harmful chemicals (can seep into soil, groundwater and other water sources)
- Plastic sent to land fills can release emissions as well as leachate
- Plastic recycling isn’t always cost of time efficient, and some plastic can’t be recycled (and may be sent to landfill)
- Incineration waste to energy burning of plastic may release emissions or air contaminants. Gasification and pyrolysis, which may be less environmentally damaging, have some challenges preventing their large scale adoption at the moment
- The economic cost to address plastic pollution in oceans and on land can be significant
Solutions To Plastic Pollution
Some of the main solutions to address plastic pollution might be:
- Redesign plastic to contain more biodegradable, less toxic, and more natural materials (over petrochemicals)
- Redesign plastic to be recyclable and re-usable and contribute to the
- Redesign plastic to not break down into microplastics
- Use alternative materials other than plastic
- Use plastic far more wisely and effectively in lesser quantities and for longer lasting items (that lasts years and decades)
- Target countries and regions that produce or use the most plastic
- Target countries and regions that mismanage and poorly dispose of plastic the most
- Target countries that burn the most plastic and emit the most air pollution and greenhouse gases
- Target countries and regions that are responsible for the most plastic waste in the ocean
- Target organizations and businesses in addition to countries and regions
- Overall, we need to be aware of the cons of using the different types of plastic, and the negative short and long term consequences, and we have to balance that against the pros that plastic provides. We have to look at all areas of society – the social and health, environmental, and economic areas.
More Resources & Guides On Plastic, & Plastic Pollution
1. Hannah Ritchie and Max Roser (2018) – “Plastic Pollution”. Published online at OurWorldInData.org. Retrieved from: ‘https://ourworldindata.org/plastic-pollution’ [Online Resource]