There’s many ways plastic has the potential to negatively affect society.
In this guide we outline how plastic may affect the environment and ecosystems, wildlife, humans and human health, natural resources, and the economy.
Summary – List Of 21 Potentially Harmful Effects Of Plastic
A condensed list of the potential effects is:
- Human health concerns from BPA in plastic
- Human health concerns from phthalates in plastic
- PVC plastic can be uniquely toxic or harmful
- Plastic can leach and release other chemicals (other than BPA and phthalates)
- Humans ingesting microplastics
- Microplastics and microbeads in the ocean, environment and ecosystems
- Plastics take a long time to break down usually – increases time over which plastic has the potential to do harm
- Plastic recycling can have problems and inefficiencies
- Plastic in landfills can have problems
- Incineration, burning, and waste to energy of plastic can have problems
- Wildlife/animals ingesting plastic
- Wildlife/animals entanglement in plastic
- Environmental interaction with plastic
- Plastic uses oil and other fossil fuels in production – fossil fuels require mining, fracking and other extraction techniques
- Fossil fuels are a potentially finite resource
- Fossil fuels require refining, and the plastic production process uses energy and other resources, and produces waste
- It costs money to clean up plastic in the ocean and environment, and to address plastic pollution/waste
- Plastic pollution and waste can cause lost money in other industries and other areas of society and the economy
- Plastic can degrade natural resources via leaching
- Plastic can attract other chemicals and toxins, build up, and transport them around
- Plastic may be responsible for more greenhouse gases than first thought
*Note – even though plastic has several key potentially harmful effects, plastic also benefits society is a number of key ways. So, the pros and cons of plastic should be weighed up against each other carefully.
1. Human Health Concerns From BPA In Plastics
BPA is Bisphenol A.
There’s many studies on BPA and it’s various potential impacts.
Some studies say it is safer in low levels, whilst other studies outline it’s potential impact on babies/infants and young children. It may also mimic estrogen and other hormones in the body of adults, as well as have other health effects on the human body.
There can be some debate about the current level of exposure and absorption of BPA by wider society. Some sources even say that it leaches into various food and water supplies, and humans are widely exposed to it, even though some official organisations and bodies say otherwise.
It can be found most commonly in polycarbonate plastics made into consumer goods, drink and food containers and storage products, and as an epoxy resin used to coat the inside of various objects and products.
Read more about BPA and plastics at:
These resources may also help you identify BPA in plastic products:
On BPA and it’s potential impact on humans:
- Though there is growing evidence that BPA can cause harm to humans, experts are not certain how exactly BPA affects the body, nor do they know the levels at which the chemical becomes harmful (livescience.com)
So, there can be some uncertainty with BPA that it looks like we need further clarification from in the future from more study and research.
On BPA and where it is usually used and not used in regards to water bottles:
- [BPA is used] in the clear, hard polycarbonate plastic (code 7) used in some water bottles.
- PP (code 1) and PET (code 5) plastic do not contain BPA and have no known health hazards. If you are concerned about BPA, a number of brands now make ‘BPA-free’ plastic reusable bottles.
Something else that is worth noting is that some plastic products are marketed as ‘BPA free’. You may need to be careful with that, and investigate the BPA substitute/alternative being used in the plastic:
- Recent research has shown a ‘common BPA replacement, bisphenol S (BPS), may be just as harmful’ (scientificamerican.com)
2. Human Health Concerns From Phthalates In Plastics
Phthalates are substances added to plastics to increase their flexibility, transparency, durability, and longevity. They are mainly used to soften PVC type plastic, and are referred to as plasticizers.
High phthalates are commonly used in a lot of different types of building and construction material, while low phthalates are used in different types of consumer products like medical devices, general purpose PVC, adhesives, inks, and cosmetics.
PVC plastics are typically used for various containers and hard packaging, medical tubing, and bags, and are labelled “Type 3” for recycling reasons. PETE type plastic does not use phthalates as plasticizers (wikipedia.org).
One of the claimed main health effects of phthalates is as an endocrine disruptor, but there are other claimed health effects too.
Some studies and reports say that phthalates are not able to easily migrate out of the product they are added to and pose a very low level risk to humans because exposure is very low (via chemicalsafetyfacts.org), whilst others say they can easily leach out and be absorbed by humans in various ways, and there is ‘widespread general population exposure’ (niehs.nih.gov). So, there is is debate as to the level of exposure humans are currently subject to in society.
Some sources suggest low phthalates should be replaced with high phthalates, whilst others say phthalates should be replaced by non-phthalate plasticizers (wikipedia.org)
Read more about phthalates in plastics at:
Some resources on potential ways to avoid phthalates in plastics:
3. PVC Plastic Can Be Uniquely Toxic Or Harmful
PVC specifically as a plastic type (read about the other plastic types in this guide), can present unique risks compared to other types of plastic. PVC can be usefully modified by chlorination, and CPVC (chlorinated PVC) can also present risks.
PVC is used in many products such as children’s toys, pipes, electrical cables, construction products, signs, clothing, health products, flooring, and wire rope.
Health and safety risks from PVC might include cancer, immune system damage, and hormone disruption. Risks might arise from the production of PVC, degradation and the accumulation of pollutants on microplastics, the use of plasticizers, the use of lead, the use of vinyl chloride, the release of dioxides when PVC is burnt/combusted, and other activities and factors.
There’s debate over just how much risk PVC might present.
Greenpeace for example says ‘PVC is the most environmentally damaging plastic. The PVC lifecycle — its production, use, and disposal — results in the release of toxic, chlorine-based chemicals. These toxins are building up in the water, air and food chain.’
Thefifthestate.com.au also writes: “100 per cent of the PVC supply chain globally depends on “at least one form of toxic technology” including mercury cells, diaphragms coated with asbestos, or membranes coated with per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS)”
But, other sources suggest the PVC is safe as used in society today.
Consider this from vinyl.org.au about the disposal of PVC in landfill and when sent to incinerators:
- “There is no evidence that PVC products, consisting of resin, additives and other materials, contribute to the toxicity of leachate in landfill”
- “PVC in the waste stream of properly operated incinerators has negligible effect on the amount of dioxin emissions.”
Read more about PVC plastic and health risks in these resources:
Read about how you might identify PVC in products in this resource:
- https://www.motherearthnews.com/green-homes/the-vinyl-debate (PVC plastics are number 3 recyclables, so if you’re wondering whether one of your products contains vinyl, look for a “3” somewhere on the product or packaging)
4. Plastic Can Leach & Release Other Chemicals (Other Than BPA & Phthalates)
You’ll see many resources mention that different plastic types can ‘leach’ harmful chemicals into the environment, and food and water supplies, which can end up being exposed to animals and humans.
This leaching might be referred to as the toxicity of plastic.
Wikipedia.org mentions ‘Pure plastics have low toxicity due to their insolubility in water and because they are biochemically inert, due to a large molecular weight … [But] Plastic products contain a variety of additives, some of which can be toxic … Traces of these compounds can leach out of the product … Whereas the finished plastic may be non-toxic, the monomers used in the manufacture of the parent polymers may be toxic. In some cases, small amounts of those chemicals can remain trapped in the product unless suitable processing is employed.’ Typical additives plastics use are stabilizers, fillers and plasticizers.
Sciencedaily.com mentions ‘The plastic polymers are not regarded as toxic, but there may be toxic residual chemicals, chemical additives and degradation products in the plastic products that can leach out as they are not bound to the plastic polymer.’
It doesn’t help that some sources say that the regulation around chemicals in food containers is weak (vox.com).
It’s worth noting that even though there are studies that confirm plastics can release toxins or mimic hormones, there is also debate over the causal relationship between plastics and human health problems. This is for a range of reasons including but not limited to – the studies have mostly been in relation to animals, and it’s hard to design tests to understand the effects of individual chemicals in plastics.
Read more about what you can do to limit your exposure to plastic leaching at:
Read more about plastic leaching studies at:
5. Humans Ingesting & Inhaling Microplastics
Microplastic are some of the smallest sizes of plastic (tiny pieces ranging from 5 millimetres down to 100 nanometres in diameter) – they occur from the breakdown of larger pieces of plastic.
Microplastics end up almost everywhere – in the water, air, food and drink supplies, and eventually in human stomachs.
Different studies indicate humans ingest different amounts of microplastics at different rates, ranging from:
- 203 and 312 bits of plastic every day, and 98,000 to 121,000 bits of plastic every year (businessinsider.com.au)
- [humans might be] consuming anywhere from 39,000 to 52,000 microplastic particles a year. With added estimates of how much microplastic might be inhaled, that number is more than 74,000. (nationalgeographic.com)
- People across the world unwittingly consume roughly 5 grams of plastic each week in the course of daily life, or about the weight of a credit card, according to Australian researchers. That’s about 250 grams per year—more than a half-pound of plastic every 12 months. … over the course of seven days, the average person consumes 2,000 tiny plastic particles and fibers, 1,769 of which come from drinking water alone. (qz.com)
- Over the course of a meal, you’re most likely consuming around 100 bits of microplastic and, over the course of a year, closer to 70,000 pieces. (globalcitizen.org)
Some sources indicate bottled water drinkers consume far more microplastics than tap drinkers (businessinsider.com.au)
There’s also studies that report on humans inhaling microplastics in addition to ingesting them (from accuweather.com):
- Although recent studies have shown that microplastics have been found in our bottled and tap water, additional research now reveals that the majority of microplastics in our bodies comes from the air we inhale each day
- The fragmentation through friction, heat or light of plastic objects found indoors can introduce microplastics into the air inside
- Research shows that most of the microplastics found in the air indoors comes from plastic fibers released from synthetic clothes as well as textiles used in furniture
It’s not 100% clear what impact microplastics in particular have on human health (it doesn’t look like there is enough clear evidence to tell), but there are indications of what plastic can do to human health from studies on BPA, phthalates, additives etc. Also, some evidence indicates microplastics hurt sea life and slow down growth and reproduction rates in fish (businessinsider.com.au)
More resources on microplastics can be read at:
- https://theconversation.com/youre-eating-microplastics-in-ways-you-dont-even-realise-97649 (how much microplastics different foods might contain)
6. Microplastics (& Microbeads) In The Ocean, Environment & Ecosystems
Larger plastic floats on the surface of the water, where it starts to degrade and break up into smaller microplastic.
Microplastic can sink to the deeper sea, but can also be carried around by ocean currents, or eaten and transported and excreted around the sea by small marine organisms and marine life.
Microbeads can also end up in the ocean from personal care products.
Micro plastics in the environment leads to other problems like ingestion by wildlife, and plastic accumulating organic pollutants and toxic substances.
Read more about microplastics and microbeads in these guides:
7. Plastic Takes A Long Time To Break Down – Increases Time Over Which Plastic Can Do Harm
Different types of plastic waste take different amounts of time to decompose in the environment, or in disposal sites like landfill.
For example, in landfill, a plastic bottle may take 450 years, and 10-1000 years for a plastic bag (thebalancesmb.com)
In the environment, fishing line may take up to 600 years to break down and decompose.
If you consider all of the potential negative effects plastic can have, the longer it is around, the longer it has to do this harm. So, it’s durability is a con in this instance.
Read more about plastic decomposition of different plastic items and products:
8. Plastic Recycling Can Have Problems & Inefficiencies
There can be several problems with recycling plastic, including but not limited to:
- Not all plastic types and products can be recycled
- Some plastic types and products can be inefficient to sort and recycle
- Plastic isn’t always economical or profitable to recycle – especially when oil prices dip
- There can be contamination and other issues that prevent plastic being recycled
- A lot of plastic that gets sent to recycling ends up in land fill at this point in time
Read more about some of these issues in these guides:
- What Plastics Can, & Cannot Be Recycled? (& How To Know/Find Out In Your Area)
- The Reasons Why Some Plastic Can’t Be Recycled
- How Many Times Can You Recycle Different Materials? (Plastic, Paper, Metal, Glass etc.)
- Is Recycling Profitable & Economically Viable?
- Of the 300 million tonnes of plastic produced each year globally, only 9% is recycled and the remaining 91% enters the air, land and water as waste
9. Plastic In Landfill Can Have Problems
As mentioned above in the plastic break down section – plastic takes a long time to decompose in both landfills, and in the environment.
In addition to this, although plastic may not emit methane like organic matter while in landfills, it does have other potential problems.
Plastic in landfill is still at risk of breaking down and letting loose micro plastics, and in developing countries and even middle income countries, bigger bits of plastic can leak from open or uncontained landfill sites.
In addition to this, specific plastic types like PVC may ‘leach chemicals such as additives and plasticiser compounds … if landfills are [not] equipped with adequate liner and leachate treatment’ (ourworldindata.org)
10. Incineration, Burning & Waste To Energy Of Plastic Can Have Problems
The burning/incineration of plastic in waste to energy plants may or may not increase greenhouse gas emissions depending on what energy source would have been used in plastic’s place.
Air pollution from the burning of plastic is dependent on the air and environmental controls and technology the incineration plant has in place. Higher income countries tend to have regulations in place and the financing to afford better air pollution control. But, some incineration plants do not, and air contaminants and air pollution can be a problem in this instance.
Ourworldindata.org: ‘The burning of plastics can produce several toxic gases: incomplete combustion of Polyethylene (PE), Polypropylene (PP) and Polystyrene (PS) can release carbon monoxide (CO) and noxious emissions, while polyvinyl chloride (PVC) can produce dioxins’
11. Wildlife/Animals Ingesting Plastic
Wildlife can ingest large plastic, and microplastic.
Ingestion of regular plastic can occur unintentionally, intentionally, or indirectly through the ingestion of prey species containing plastic and it has now been documented for at least 233 marine species (ourworldindata.org)
We often see videos of wildlife like sea turtles getting plastic straws trapped in their breathing passages, just as one example.
Aquatic life and birds can mistake smaller plastic like microplastics for food and eat them.
As mentioned above – some evidence indicates microplastics hurt sea life and slow down growth and reproduction rates in fish (businessinsider.com.au). Other sources indicate they can impact reproduction of filter feeders and oysters (blog.nationalgeographic.org)
Other side effects might include slower metabolic rates, reduced growth and development, and reduced energy storage (ourworldindata.org).
There’s debate about how much microplastic humans ingest from sea food as plastic may be discarded in the digestive system of sea life.
Read more about the impact of plastic on wildlife:
- https://ourworldindata.org/plastic-pollution (under the ‘impacts on wildlife’ section)
12. Wildlife/Animals Entanglement In Plastic
This is ‘The entrapping, encircling or constricting of marine animals by plastic debris’. Entanglement cases have been reported for at least 344 species to date (ourworldindata.org).
Commonly, seals, turtles, dolphins, whales, birds and other animals get tangled in fishing lines and other forms of durable tough plastics.
This can lead to restricted movement, cutting off of circulation, skin abrasions, and even death.
13. Environmental Interaction With Plastic
Interaction with plastic includes contact with plastic debris that causes damage or harm.
For example, coral reefs and other marine structures and environmental objects may come into contact with fishing gear that is dumped and be damaged.
14. Plastic Uses Oil & Other Fossil Fuels In It’s Production – Fossil Fuels Require Mining, Fracking & Other Extraction Techniques
Mining is a necessity in society – there’s no doubt about that.
Plastic uses oil as a main feedstock for it’s production, and oil is a fossil fuel that needs to be mined. Natural gas is also used in the US.
The question may be asked what environmental impact would be at the material sourcing stage if other feedstocks (other than fossil fuels) were used to make different types of plastic, or if substitute materials could be used for different uses of plastic.
- Although crude oil is a source of raw material (feedstock) for making plastics, it is not the major source of feedstock for plastics production in the United States. Plastics are produced from natural gas, feedstocks derived from natural gas processing, and feedstocks derived from crude oil refining.
- Most plastics are made from petrochemicals, meaning that fossil feedstocks are used in their production.
- However, there is a growing interest in the use of biomass as a feedstock and the global bioplastic production reached 2.1 million tonnes in 2018
15. Plastic Uses Fossil Fuels, & Fossil Fuels Are A Potentially Finite Resource
Adding onto the previous point, fossil fuels are seen as a potentially finite resource in that there may only be a limited supply of each left.
Even though plastic only uses a small amount of fossil fuels compared to other industries like energy generation and transport, it still uses fossil fuels.
Some estimates of oil use for plastic production are:
- Estimates vary by source, but tend to converge on a range between 4 to 8 percent of global oil consumption. 6 percent of global oil consumption is taken as the mid-range estimate
- … 4% of the world’s fossil resources are used in plastics production.
- In Europe, it is estimated that between 4–6% of oil and gas is used for producing plastics
- According to estimates, every year we use approximately 1.6 million barrels of oil just for producing plastic water bottles.
16. Fossil Fuels Require Refining, & The Plastic Production Process Uses Energy & Other Resources, & Produces Waste
In addition to the above points, fossil fuels require refining, and the plastic production process uses energy, along with other resources like water. It also produces waste, and can dump waste out into the environment.
If bioplastics or alternative materials can be used in the future, the question can be asked – how much more environmentally friendly would the production process be, and how much more efficient would it be?
17. It Costs Money To Clean Up Plastic In The Ocean & Environment, & To Address Plastic Waste/Pollution
There is a cost to clean up and process all the plastic waste that we produce on land, and that gets into the ocean.
Often, it is not an economically feasible exercise.
Although, some may argue that the benefits of plastic in many industries may outweigh these end of lifecycle clean up and disposal costs.
- it costs more than $5 to gather a kilo of plastic from the ocean, while that same plastic will only be valued at – at best – 30 cents. With about 8 billion kilos (8,000 tonnes) of plastic added to the ocean each year, the costs – and losses – involved are huge
- It’s estimated that Americans use over 380 billion plastic bags and wraps a year. Nationwide, litter clean up efforts amount to as much as $11 billion per year. Even though not all of that is from disposable bags, it costs 30 cents to clean up each piece of litter out of our cities, streets, and roadsides.
- The Ocean Cleanup … can collect about five tons of ocean plastic per month
- The total cost of System 001 is about 21 million euros ($24.6 million U.S.)
18. Plastic Pollution & Waste Can Cause Lost Money In Other Industries & Other Areas Of Society & The Economy
In a general sense, polluted areas of land and the ocean can impact other industries like tourism. This is particularly problematic in lower income countries where individuals may depend on tourism for their livelihood.
Other ways plastic waste impacts society and the economy are:
- [plastic] has a wider and harder to quantify economic impact on lost marine life or reduced beach and water quality … These damages, estimated at US$1.25 billion annually, imply that recovering marine plastics is worthwhile. But … research suggests that it might not be financially viable to do so.
- Plastic causes $13 in damages per kilogram per year
- According to a study published in the Marine Pollution Bulletin, plastic pollution in the ocean costs society up to $2.5 trillion a year.
- Plastic waste is also believed to cost up to $33,000 per ton in reduced environmental value
The real costs of plastic to our economy:
- Plastics finding their way into the world’s oceans costs approximately AUD$17.3 billion per year in environmental damage to marine ecosystems.
- Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) estimates that the cost to the tourism, fishing and shipping industries was AUD$1.6 billion in our region alone.
- Local authorities have to bear the cost of cleaning up plastic litter from beaches, maintaining litter traps and bins etc. The cost on local government to manage litter in NSW is a staggering $132 million per annum.
- The total natural capital cost of plastic used in the consumer goods industry is estimated to be more than AUD$99 billion per year. Natural capital is the term used to describe the renewable and non-renewable natural resources that companies rely on to produce goods and deliver services.
19. Plastic Can Leach Chemicals, & Degrade Natural Resources
We mentioned above plastic’s potential to leach different types of chemicals.
This can come from general plastics, or from specific types of plastic like PVC.
Going one step further – plastic leaching can impact natural resources such as soil, water and air.
As one example, a landfill site without an adequate lining or leachate management system may allow leachate (of which plastic like PVC has contributed to) to contaminate clean soil and water resources
20. Plastic Can Attract Other Chemicals & Toxins, Build Up, & Transport Them Around
Plastic as material has the potential as it breaks down to get other pollutants and and toxins stuck to it.
The effect of this is that one piece of plastic can continually pick up more pollutants and toxins already in different parts of the environment and carry them or transport them around. This is especially illustrated in the case of plastic that might start in an uncontained or open landfill site, that leaks into a river, gets carried from inland to the coast, and ends up in the ocean.
- [degradation of plastics leads to microplastic particles that] act like sponges and soak up persistent organic pollutants (POPs) around them
- [and] some plastics accumulate more pollutants than others
21. Plastic May Be Responsible For More Greenhouse Gases Than First Thought
New studies are coming out on the impact plastic is having on greenhouse gas emissions.
Whilst contributions are estimated to be small right now, they may grow as our plastic use increases.
- [plastic, as it is exposed to light] releases methane and ethylene — two of the most problematic greenhouse gases
- Though the gases from degrading plastic probably account for a small percentage of global emissions, it’s likely their contributions will grow
- Newly published research calculates that across their lifecycle, plastics account for 3.8% of global greenhouse gas emissions. That’s almost double the emissions of the aviation sector.
A Few Other Notes On The Potential Negative Impact Of Plastic
- Different plastic items and plastic types can’t be generalised in the same way as just ‘plastic’ – we must talk about the type of plastic or plastic item, and outline exactly what it does – because each plastic items and type of plastic has different potential impacts in different situations
- Consider the benefits in addition to the negative of plastic too – burn for energy, can reduce fuel and oil consumption elsewhere as well as emissions (in transport – 80% of a product’s energy consumption comes after the production and manufacturing phase), can reduce energy use and GHGs compared to plastic alternatives (bpf.co.uk). This is just some of the potential benefits. Plastic in reality helps us do many things in society to provide us a livelihood, keep us safe, keep us healthy, and so on.
49. Hannah Ritchie and Max Roser (2019) – “Plastic Pollution”. Published online at OurWorldInData.org. Retrieved from: ‘https://ourworldindata.org/plastic-pollution’ [Online Resource]