There’s several ways you could classify or rank plastic as problematic or harmful.
So, what we’ve done in this guide is identified the different ways that plastic can be problematic or harmful, and identified the types of plastic to aware of in each case.
Summary – Most Problematic Or Harmful Types Of Plastic
We’ve categorised them in the following ways:
- Most Littered Plastic, & Most Commonly Found During Cleanups
- High Waste Plastic, & Plastic With Short ‘In-Use’ Lifetime
- Non Recyclable Plastic
- Plastics That Take The Longest To Break Down & Degrade
- Plastics That Leach Chemicals, Or Are Made With Problem Additives & Substances
- Plastic Most Prevalent In Land Pollution
- Plastic Most Prevalent In Ocean Pollution
Most Littered Plastic, & Most Commonly Found Plastics During Land Cleanups
Littered plastic waste and waste found on land and on beaches (as well as in rivers) contributes to plastic pollution problems.
There’s a few guides we’ve written about these types of plastic and general waste:
- Most Common Plastic Waste Found On Beaches, On Land & In Oceans
- Most Commonly Littered Items In Society
- Most Common Types Of Waste Found In Oceans, & On Beaches
As a summary of plastics to be aware of in this category:
- Cigarette butts
- Plastic food wrappers
- Plastic beverage bottles,
- Plastic bottle caps and lids
- Plastic grocery bags and other types plastic bags
- Plastic straws and stirrers
- Plastic containers
- Plastic cutlery (forks, spoons, knives, plates)
- Plastic cups
- Styrofoam cups
- Many of the same items found on beaches
- Cigarette butts
- Plastic bottles and bottle caps
- Plastic food packaging
- Plastic bags
High Waste Plastic, & Plastic With Short ‘In-Use’ Lifetime
Plastic that becomes waste quicker than others is going to contribute to plastic waste management and plastic waste pollution problems more than others (amongst other issues).
Plastic packaging produces the most total plastic waste, and has one of the shortest ‘in-use’ lifetimes among different plastic types.
From OurWorldInData.org: “Packaging, for example, has a very short ‘in-use’ lifetime (typically around 6 months or less). This is in contrast to building and construction, where plastic use has a mean lifetime of 35 years”
Many people refer to different types of plastic packaging as ‘single use plastics’ or ‘disposable plastics’ – such as plastic shopping bags and plastic food wrappers, just as two of many examples.
But, plastic packaging doesn’t just used on the consumer side, it also gets used for transport and delivery of products to store (plastic bags, plastic cushioning, plastic ties and fastening material, plastic containers and boxes, and so on.
Non Recyclable Plastic
What can and can’t be recycled in terms of plastics depends on the city, and the recycling services and capabilities they offer.
But typically, plastics #1 (PET) and #2 (HDPE) are recycled widely. These plastics tend to be hard plastics like plastic bottles, jugs, containers etc.
Soft plastics tend not to be recycled as widely (although, some cities do offer individual soft plastic recycling).
It should be noted, non recyclable plastics are only more of an issue when recycling is the best disposal option for plastics, and not say landfill or incineration.
Plastics That Take The Longest To Break Down & Degrade
The longer plastics spend in landfills, or out in the environment, the more opportunity they have to cause a range of problems.
The reality is that all plastics can take a long time to break down and degrade, but some plastics take longer than others, such as fishing line, diapers, toothbrushes, plastic cups and bottles, plastic 6 rings, and straws, just to name a few.
Plastics That Leach Chemicals, Or Are Made With Problem Additives & Substances
There are conflicting studies and reports regarding the impact of BPAs and Phthalates in common consumer goods that contain plastic, as well as the impact that certain plastic types like PVC have at various stages of their life cycle.
Specifically, there are human health concerns with plastics that contain BPAs and Phthalates, and there are toxicity concerns (amongst other concerns) with some types of PVC.
Plastic Most Prevalent In Land Pollution
Plastic on land comes from many sources.
One of the major sources of plastic in soil, rivers, water and bottled water supplies, food, and so on, is thought to be from plastic fibres in the clothes we wear and the textiles we use.
But, in reality, plastic pollution on land happens in many ways.
Read more about plastic on land in this guide:
Plastic Most Prevalent In Ocean Pollution
Plastic in the ocean mainly comes from land based plastic (about 70 to 80% of the total plastic in the ocean is from land based sources), and the rest comes from marine sources (about 20-30%).
Plastic from land can come from plastic packaging and other types of plastic, and marine based plastic can come from fishing vessels and other sea vessels (marine plastic can include fishing gear and equipment like nets and fishing lines, and dumped waste and gear from ships)
Read more about plastic in the ocean in this guide:
Other Factors To Consider With Problem Plastics
Certain countries and regions of the world may be responsible for more plastic production, plastic waste generation, mismanaged plastic, and polluted plastic going in rivers and the ocean than others.
You can read more about those countries and regions at https://ourworldindata.org/plastic-pollution
4. Hannah Ritchie and Max Roser (2019) – “Plastic Pollution”. Published online at OurWorldInData.org. Retrieved from: ‘https://ourworldindata.org/plastic-pollution’ [Online Resource]