In this guide, we outline the potential impact of plastic on:
– Human health
– The environment
– Wildlife and marine life
(*Note that this is a general information guide, and none of the information is professional advice. See a suitably qualified health expert for a professional opinion on your health.)
Summary – Impact Of Plastic On Human Health, The Environment, & Wildlife & Marine Life
Factors That May Contribute To Plastic’s Impact
In the guide below, we’ve listed some of the main factors that may contribute to plastic’s impact on the different areas of society.
These factors mainly come from this separate guide we put together on the 21 negative effects plastic may have on the different areas of society.
Impact On Human Health
Some of the main ways that plastic might have the potential to impact human health might be through:
– BPA (and BPS)
– The leaching of additives, and other substances from plastic (that are used to make plastic)
– The breakdown of plastic into micro plastics and nano plastics, which humans can ingest or inhale in various ways
We list the potential impact of plastic on human health in the guide below
Impact On The Environment
Plastic may have the ability to impact various aspects of the environment.
Plastic might impact land and soil, freshwater sources like rivers and lakes, beaches and coastlines, the ocean, the air and atmosphere, natural resources, ecosystems, and more.
Leaching, emissions and air pollutants, carrying organic pollutants, and micro plastics and nano plastics may all have the potential to impact the environment.
We outline how plastic may impact the different aspects of the environment below
Impact On Wildlife & Marine Life
Plastic may potentially impact aquatic, land and air wild life species (amongst other species).
Ingestion of plastic, entanglement by plastic, abrasion by plastic, and suffering toxic or contamination related effects from plastic may be some the main ways that dry land species and marine life species are negatively impacted by plastic.
We go into deeper details about each of these in the guide below
We outline the economic impact of plastic in this guide.
It’s worth noting that whilst the use of plastic can lead to some problems across the different areas of society and the environment, plastic also has some critical uses, and benefits society is a number of key ways.
So, the pros and cons of plastic should be weighed up against each other to get an accurate idea of the net benefit or net drawback to using plastic.
Additionally, each individual type of plastic and each individual plastic product may have a different potential impact on people and society. So, they need to be assessed separately instead of generalising plastic as a whole.
List Of Factors That Contribute To Plastic’s Impact
There are some common factors that contribute to plastic’s impact across each of the areas outlined in this guide.
We have identified most of the key factors in our separate guide on the 21 potentially harmful effects of plastic.
Some of those main factors include:
– BPA (& BPS)
– Chemicals In Some PVC Plastics
– Other Plastic Additives & Chemicals
– Microplastics & Nanoplastics
– Carrying & Transporting Persistent Organic Pollutants
Impact Of Plastic On Human Health
BPA (& BPS), Phthalates & Other Plastics Additives & Chemicals
The use of certain plastic products may expose humans to BPA & BPS, phthalates, and other additives, chemicals and fillers in plastic.
Chemicals In Some PVC Plastics
When PVC plastics break down in the environment, they may release chemicals into fresh water sources used by humans
Microplastics & Nanoplastics
Microfibres are a type of microplastic, and can break off from products such as clothing containing synthetic fibres during washing. These microfibres can get into fresh water sources used by humans when discharged in waste water
Microbeads are another type of microplastic, and can be washed off from personal care and cosmetic product. This microbead wash off can get into fresh water sources used by humans when discharged in waste water
When plastic gets into the environment as pollution, it can break down into microplastics. These microplastics can get into fresh water sources used by humans, and also can be ingested by animals that are eventually consumed by humans
In general, microplastics can get bottled water, tap water, and also the food supply
Carrying Persistent Organic Pollutants
Polluted plastic may absorb or attract different organic pollutants in the environment, such as pesticides, and contaminate freshwater sources used by humans
Impact Of The Above Factors On Humans Health
On one hand, some of the main publications and organisations might indicate that the current exposure level of BPA, phthalates, microplastics, and other potential plastic risk factors in society aren’t a significant risk to human health
On the other hand, there are publications and organisations that question the real impact of plastic on human health.
Some reports indicate that plastic might impact infants and young children, mimic hormones in adults, and contribute to a range of other health issues.
Some of these reports indicate there is an observable correlation between the presence of plastic substances in the blood (specifically BPA and phthalates) and higher rates of certain health issues
Establishing a causal link between plastic and these health issues can be debated
The actual exposure levels of different plastic risk factors, and also the short term vs long effects can also be debated.
Some reports indicate that at the very least, the impact of plastic risk factors on human health isn’t definitive (or known at all), rather than there being a definitive conclusion one way or the other.
With this being the case, some reports indicate that more research and definitive data might need to be provided to understand the real impact of plastic on human health
Read more about the potential impact of plastic on human health in this guide.
Impact Of Plastic On Environment
Plastics Additives & Chemicals
Plastic may leach or release toxic chemicals and substances when plastic pollution breaks down in the environment, when plastic breaks down in landfills without adequate leachate management and landfill barriers, and when plastic is incinerated.
Chemicals In Some PVC Plastics
The same principles applies here, except it’s chemicals specific to PVC plastics.
Microplastics & Nanoplastics
Microplastics and nanoplastics can be spread to soil, fresh water sources, and marine environments like the ocean.
Emissions & Air Pollutants
Plastic may impact the air and atmosphere in two ways:
Greenhouse gases from the lifecycle of plastic – some of the newest studies indicate plastics might be responsible for about 3.8% of greenhouse gases
Carrying Persistent Organic Pollutants
Polluted plastic may absorb or attract different organic pollutants in the environment, such as pesticides, and contaminate fresh water sources and the ocean.
Impact Of The Above Factors On The Environment
Plastic can impact soil, fresh water sources, the ocean, and the air.
The true extent and impact of plastic pollution on dry land may not be known, but some reports indicate the extent is much larger than ocean plastic pollution, and the impact could be the same or greater.
One of the claimed effects of plastic pollution on dry land is that microplastics could be a long term stress factor on the environment.
Another effect of plastic pollution on the environment is the negative aesthetic/visual impact it has.
Impact Of Plastic On Wildlife & Marine Life
There’s a range of potential effects that plastic pollution may have on living organisms on dry land, with microplastics impacting earthworm health being one example.
Wildlife may also ingest plastic (macroplastics or microplastics), or live in a habitat such as an aquatic habitat, that plastic contaminates.
Marine Life Specifically
Marine life may swallow or ingest macroplastics and microplastics
Ingestion of 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, including all marine turtle species, more than one-third of seal species, 59% of whale species, and 59% of seabirds.
Ingestion by 92 species of fish and 6 species of invertebrates has also been recorded
Some marine life species may get tangled in plastics like fishing line
The entrapping, encircling or constricting of marine animals by plastic debris.
Entanglement cases have been reported for at least 344 species to date, including all marine turtle species, more than two-thirds of seal species, one-third of whale species, and one-quarter of seabirds.
Entanglement by 89 species of fish and 92 species of invertebrates has also been recorded
Marine life may come into contact with sharp plastics
4. Contamination & Toxic Effects
Plastics may leach toxic chemicals and substances into marine environments, or, they may carry persistent organic pollutants from dry land sources into marine environments.
Marine life may be impacted by these toxic chemicals and substances in the water.
Below we’ve included what some other publications have outlined about the impact of plastic and plastic pollution on marine species.
As a summary:
Estimates vary, but around 700 to 800 marine species are impacted by marine debris in the ocean per year (and most of that debris is plastic)
Turtles, seals, whales, dolphins, sea lions, seabirds, fish, and invertebrates are all among some of the species impacted
Some estimates say around 100,000 marine mammals die every year as a result of plastic pollution
Some estimates also say that 1 million sea birds also die from plastic per year
100,000 marine creatures a year die from plastic entanglement and these are the ones found.
Approximately 1 million sea birds also die from plastic.
At least two thirds of the world’s fish stocks are suffering from plastic ingestion.
Globally, 100,000 marine mammals die every year as a result of plastic pollution. This includes whales, dolphins, porpoises, seals and sea lions.
There are two principle ways that encountering marine debris can be fatal for these creatures: ingestion (eating) or entanglement in plastic-based fishing gear.
… plastic pollution affects at least 700 marine species, while some estimates suggest that at least 100 million marine mammals are killed each year from plastic pollution
[Turtles, seals and sea lions, seabirds, fish, and whales and dolphins are some of the marine animals most affected]
According to the United Nations, at least 800 species worldwide are affected by marine debris, and as much as 80 percent of that litter is plastic (pewtrusts.org)
… plastic impacts nearly 700 species from our ocean
Plastic has been found in more than 60% of all seabirds and in 100% of sea turtles species, that mistake plastic for food.
And when animals ingest plastic, it can cause life-threatening problems, including reduced fitness, nutrient uptake and feeding efficiency
Once a turtle had 14 plastic items in its gut, there was a 50% likelihood that it would die.
Globally it’s estimated that approximately 52% of all sea turtles have eaten plastic.
6. Hannah Ritchie and Max Roser (2019) – “Plastic Pollution”. Published online at OurWorldInData.org. Retrieved from: ‘https://ourworldindata.org/plastic-pollution’ [Online Resource]