Plastic has the potential to both positively and negatively impact society.
In this guide, we specifically list the potential negative effects plastic might have on the environment, wildlife, resource management, humans and human health, and the economy.
Summary – List Of 21 Potentially Harmful Effects Of Plastic
Potentially Harmful Effects
A summarised list of the potentially harmful effects outlined in the guide below are:
– Human health concerns from BPA in plastic
– Human health concerns from phthalates in plastic
– Plastic can leach and release other chemicals (other than BPA and phthalates)
– Microplastics and microbeads in the ocean, environment and ecosystems
– Plastics usually take a long time to break down compared to other materials – 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 require refining, and the plastic production process uses energy and other resources, and produces waste
– Plastic pollution and waste can lead to lost money and lost value in other industries and other areas of society and the economy
– Plastic can degrade natural resources via leaching
– Plastic can attract organic pollutants and toxins, & transport them around. the environment
– Plastic may be responsible for more greenhouse gases than first thought
Weighing Up Potentially Harmful Effects Of Plastic, Against The Uses & Benefits Of Plastic
It’s worth noting that whilst the use of plastic can lead to some problems, plastic also has some critical uses across society, and benefits society is a number of key ways.
So, the pros and cons of plastic should be weighed up 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 society. So, these individuals plastics and plastic products need to be assessed separately instead of generalising plastic as a whole.
Onto the potentially harmful effects of plastic …
1. Human Health Concerns From BPA In Plastics
BPA is short for Bisphenol A, and it’s found in some types of plastics.
There’s several studies and reports on BPA, and it’s potential impact on humans
On one hand, some reports indicate that it is safe in low levels, or, at the level humans are exposed to it currently in society.
On the other hand, other reports might question it’s impact on babies/infants and young children.
These reports might also question whether BPA has the ability to mimic estrogen and other hormones in the body of adults, along with other potential effects in the human body.
There can also be some debate about what the current level of exposure and absorption of BPA by wider society actually is.
Some reports indicate that it leaches into various food and water supplies, and humans are widely exposed to it in general.
Some organisations indicate that the consensus might be that current exposure levels across society aren’t a concern.
It might be accurate to say that there are at least questions about the real exposure level of BPA, and what the real short and long term impact of BPA on the human body might be.
BPA might 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.
Some reports also indicate that a BPA alternative, BPS, may be equally as questionable in terms of it’s potential impact on human health. BPS might be found in plastics and plastic products labelled as ‘BPA free’
Read more about BPA and plastics in the medicalnewstoday.com, mayoclinic.org, wikipedia.org and greenlifestylemag.com.au resources
These resources may also help you identify BPA in plastic products – the sciencestruck.com, wikipedia.org, greenmatters.com and qualitylogoproducts.com resources
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
[BPA is used] in the clear, hard polycarbonate plastic (code 7) used in some water bottles.
[A major study linked low levels of BPA exposure to some health impacts for humans].
[Some national food regulators say] BPA poses no significant health risks at the low levels that migrate from plastic packaging into food and drink.
[As a solution to BPA concerns -] 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 [as …] Recent research has shown a ‘common BPA replacement, bisphenol S (BPS), may be just as harmful’
… 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.
Some of these health issues include chromosomal and reproductive abnormalities, early puberty, childhood obesity, and increased blood pressure.
The result of this lack of hard causal evidence is part of the reason there remains no FDA regulation setting a limit of microplastic contamination in bottled water.
… We have shown that our drinking water supply is heavily contaminated with microplastics.
We have shown that those who have been exposed to certain forms of plastic contamination have a higher likelihood of developing certain serious health issues.
We have even shown that these plastic chemicals directly cause these health impacts in lab animals.
Given all this circumstantial evidence, the lack of proof for direct causation seems to be a pretty week argument for delaying regulation.
2. Human Health Concerns From Phthalates In Plastics
Phthalates are 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.
There’s different types of phthalates.
High phthalates are commonly used in a lot of different types of building and construction material
Low phthalates are used in different types of consumer products like medical devices, general purpose PVC, adhesives, inks, and cosmetics.
On one hand, some reports indicate 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]’ (chemicalsafetyfacts.org)
On the other hand, other reports indicate they can easily leach out and be absorbed by humans in various ways, and there is ‘widespread general population exposure’ (niehs.nih.gov)
Some reports also question whether phthalates have the potential to be an endocrine disruptor, amongst other health effects.
So, there might be questions over the real level of exposure to humans, and the real impact phthalates are having.
Read more about phthalates in plastics in the chemicalsafetyfacts.org, wikipedia.org, webmd.com, silentspring.org, sciencedirect.com and ecocenter.org resources
Some information on potential ways to avoid phthalates in plastics can be found in the huffPost.com, and niehs.nih.gov resources
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
Some sources suggest low phthalates should be replaced with high phthalates, whilst others say phthalates should be replaced by non-phthalate plasticizers
3. PVC Plastic Might Be Uniquely Toxic Or Harmful
PVC is one type of plastic, and is used in many products such as children’s toys, pipes, electrical cables, construction products, signs, clothing, health products, flooring, and wire rope.
Some reports indicate that PVC might present more risk in certain instances compared to other types of plastic.
VC in PVC is potentially the most toxic plastic for our health and environment according to some reports.
Some of the claimed 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 relating to PVC.
There can also be issues incinerating PVC or sending it to some landfills because of the lead, mercury, phthalamites and chlorine involved in a PVC product’s creation (although, it should be noted that more economical and easier ways to recycle PVC are becoming available)
Other reports though say that the risk of PVC in society is not significant.
PVC can also be modified by chlorination, and CPVC (chlorinated PVC) may also present risks (some leaching studies report that PVC nor CPVC should be used for drinking water).
Read more about PVC plastic and health risks in the wikipedia.org, greenpeace.org, motherearthnews.com, state.nj.us and ecowatch.com resources
Read about how you might identify PVC in products in the motherearthnews.com resource. They indicate that 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
Greenpeace indicates that ‘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)”
Vinyl chloride ‘from older PVC piping and has been found in the drinking water of a small number of communities across [the US’ (nrdc.org)
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.”
4. Plastic Might Leach & Release Other Chemicals (Other Than BPA & Phthalates)
Different reports indicate that plastic may ‘leach’ chemicals.
These chemicals may include additives in plastic such as stabilizers, fillers and plasticizers.
Other chemicals that give plastic their rigidity or flexibility (flame retardants, bisphenols, & other chemicals) can have toxicity concerns when they potentially leach out from the product that contains them.
These chemicals may end up in the environment, in the food and water supply, and exposed to animals and humans.
The overall toxicity of plastic might be assessed by the level to which it leaches chemicals.
It’s worth noting that even though there are reports that indicate that plastics can release toxins or have potential effects such as mimicking hormones, there’s also questions over the causal relationship between plastic and human health problems.
One of the reasons for this might be that 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 in the vox.com resource
Read more about plastic leaching studies in the vox.com, npr.org, science daily.com and biomasspackaging.com resources
‘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.’
‘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)
5. Humans Ingesting & Inhaling Microplastics
We’ve since put a separate guide together specifically about microplastics.
But, some information about microplastics …
Microplastics are tiny pieces plastic ranging from 5 millimetres down to 100 nanometres in diameter
Microplastics come from various sources such as breaking off from existing plastic products (like clothes and textiles made from plastic or synthetic fibres), or, from the breakdown of plastic in the environment
Microplastics can end up almost everywhere – in freshwater sources, in the food and drink supply, in the air, in the ocean, on coastlines, and inside animals and humans.
Some reports indicate that microplastics aren’t a risk to humans at current exposure levels, or, that there’s a lack of causal evidence linking microplastics to health impacts in humans.
Putting it another way, there might be a lack of reliable or sufficient information at this time that would suggest any overt health concerns associated with microplastic particles … and there’s low concern for human health
There might not be any firm conclusions on what plastics do to the human body … but, right now, it’s thought plastics are inert when ingested and pass through our bodies without uptake.
Some reports though question what impact the ingesting and inhalation of microplastics might have on humans, based on reports indicating that microplastics have the ability to impact the health of certain wildlife and animals.
For example, some unofficial potential risks of microplastics in the human body outlined by some independent reports might be toxicity of the particles, plastic additives, pollutants that accumulate on the plastic, biofilms, and the spread of pathogens and antimicrobial resistance.
More information on microplastics can be read in the businessinsider.com.au, nationalgeographic.com, qz.com, theconversation.com and globalcitizen.org resources
The theconversation.com resource outlines how much microplastics different foods might contain
Some of the different data on how much microplastics humans ingest, and at what rate, includes …
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.
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
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)
Where microplastics might come from …
Some sources indicate bottled water drinkers consume far more microplastics than tap drinkers (businessinsider.com.au)
From 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
Potential impact of microplastics on humans …
[Potential risks from microplastics in the human body are toxicity of the particles, plastic additives, pollutants that accumulate on the plastic, biofilms, and the spread of pathogens and antimicrobial resistance]
[Right now, it is considered there is insufficient information to make firm conclusions on what plastics do to the human body … but, right now, it’s thought plastics are inert when ingested and pass through our bodies without uptake]
[There appears to be] no reliable information at this time that would suggest any overt health concerns associated with microplastic particles … and there low concern for human health
6. Microplastics In The Ocean, Environment & Ecosystems
Larger pieces of plastic float on the surface of the water, where it starts to degrade and break up into smaller microplastic.
Microbeads and plastic wash off can also end up in the ocean from personal care products when they get into waste water and water run off.
It’s not known 100% what happens to all microplastic in the ocean.
Some of it is carried around by ocean currents, and/or eaten, transported around and excreted by small marine organisms and marine life.
Although microplastics that wildlife ingest might get into their digestive tract, which humans don’t consume, some reports question whether microplastic impact animals in other ways, which could indirectly impact humans that consume these animals.
Some other assumptions and theories are that microplastics sink and become deep sea sediment, and wash up and are buried on coastlines and beaches.
Read more about microplastics and microbeads in the nationalgeographic.org, greenbiz.com, nationalgeographic.com, and theguardian.com resources
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 break down 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.
In the environment, fishing line may take up to 600 years to break down and decompose.
The longer plastic is around, the longer it might have to contribute to certain problems, especially compared to other materials that break down quicker, and that aren’t made of the same chemistry of plastic.
Read more about plastic decomposition of different plastic items and products in the thebalancesmb.com, telegraph.co.uk, wwf.org.au, and ourworldindata.org resources
8. Plastic Recycling Can Have Potential Problems & Inefficiencies
There can be several potential problems with recycling plastic, including but not limited to:
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 and it’s cheaper to produce new plastic
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:
9. Plastic In Landfill Can Have Potential Problems
Some of the pros worth mentioning are that plastic may not emit methane like organic matter, and it may take up less space than paper.
Some of the potential problems with sending plastic to landfill can include:
Plastic in landfill is still at risk of breaking down and letting loose micro plastics even in landfill
In some regions, plastic can leak from open dumpsites, and landfill sites that aren’t contained or secured.
ourworldindata.org notes that 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 Potential Problems
One of the benefits worth noting is that plastic can be burnt for energy, and can be an energy dense material.
It’s also worth noting too that higher income countries tend to have regulations in place and the financing to afford better air pollution control.
Some of the potential problems with incinerating plastic though can include:
The burning 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. Some incineration plants do not have adequate air pollution and emissions technology in place, 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 Can Ingest Plastic
Wildlife can ingest large plastic, and also microplastic.
The common example of this that has been documented online is sea turtles getting plastic straws trapped in their breathing passages.
Other aquatic species might be at risk ingestion too, but also other wildlife like birds can mistake smaller plastic like microplastics for food and eat them.
Several reports outline that the ingestion of microplastics by animals can have a range of health side effects.
Read more about the impact of plastic on wildlife in the ourworldindata.org resource (under the ‘impacts on wildlife’ section)
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)
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 [of plastic ingestion by animals] might include slower metabolic rates, reduced growth and development, and reduced energy storage (ourworldindata.org).
Read more about the impact of plastic pollution on wildlife in this guide
12. Wildlife/Animals Entanglement In Plastic
Macroplastic like fishing lines, plastic packaging like bottle and can holders, and other plastic can get into the environment, and wildlife can become tangled in it.
This can lead to a range of issues such as partial restriction of movement, complete restriction of movement, loss of blood circulation, and other injury or death.
Commonly, seals, turtles, dolphins, whales, birds and other animals get tangled in fishing lines and other forms of durable tough plastics.
Entanglement cases have been reported for at least 344 species to date (ourworldindata.org).
13. Plastic Damaging The Environment
For example, coral reefs and other marine structures may be damaged by fishing gear that is dumped in the ocean.
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 to get access to materials that are used for critical everyday functions and activities
Plastic is a material that uses petroleum as a feedstock, and oil is a fossil fuel that needs to be mined.
Some plastics also use methane.
Although other products are derived from fossil fuels, plastic plays a part in the mining footprint of these fossil fuels.
A question that might be asked is what the footprint of plastic would be if it could use other feedstock other than fossil fuel feedstock.
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
To build on the previous point about traditional plastics using mined resources …
Fossil fuels are seen as a potentially finite resource i.e. they are not renewable.
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 (thebalancesmb.com)
16. Fossil Fuels Require Refining, & The Plastic Production Process Uses Energy & Other Resources, & Produces Waste
As another point related to the above two 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.
All these things play a part in the sustainability footprint of traditional plastics.
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 & On Land
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.
Read more about the costs to clean up plastic in this guide
18. Plastic Pollution & Waste Can Cause Lost Value In Other Industries & Parts Of Society
Plastic pollution may cost other industries such as the tourism industry.
Some types of plastic waste, like single use plastics, may also be responsible for not fully maximising the value of that piece of plastic.
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.
So, beyond impact human or animal health, there’s a potential impact on the resources we rely on.
20. Plastic Can Attract Organic Pollutants & Toxins, & Transport Them Around The Environment
As plastic material breaks down in the environment, it can attract organic pollutants and toxins.
Plastic pollution in the environment can build up with these pollutants and toxins and carry them or transport them around.
As one example, plastic that might start in an uncontained or open landfill site, leak into a river, get carried from inland to the coast, and end up in the ocean.
Plastic can accumulate organic pollutants and toxic substances during this process.
[Degradation of plastics leads to micro plastic particles that] act like sponges and soak up persistent organic pollutants (POPs) around them
… 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 (theconversation.com)
49. Hannah Ritchie and Max Roser (2019) – “Plastic Pollution”. Published online at OurWorldInData.org. Retrieved from: ‘https://ourworldindata.org/plastic-pollution’ [Online Resource]
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