But, it’s worth pointing out that there are different categories of plastic (beyond the basic types of plastic), and some types of may be more harmful or problematic in different ways compared to others.
In the guide below, we’ve outlined some of the main types of plastic that might be more problematic or harmful, and why.
Summary – Most Problematic Or Harmful Types Of Plastic
We’ve categorised the different types of problematic and harmful plastics as the following:
– Commonly Littered Plastic, & Most Commonly Found Plastic Waste (During Cleanups)
– Plastic With High Waste Rates, & Short Lifetime Plastics
– 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
– Plastics That Are Common Sources Of Microplastics & Nanoplastics
Onto explanations and examples of each type of plastic …
Commonly Littered Plastic, & Most Commonly Found Plastic Waste
Plastic as a material, and plastic items (like bags, bottles, straws, etc) are some of the most commonly littered and mismanaged waste found on land, on beaches, and in the ocean.
As a result, they form a significant part of plastic pollution.
A few relevant guides about littered and commonly found plastic waste include:
A summary list of some of the plastics to be aware of in this category might be:
Plastic food wrappers
Plastic beverage bottles
Plastic bottle caps and lids
Plastic grocery bags and other types plastic bags
Plastic straws and stirrers
Plastic cutlery (forks, spoons, knives, plates)
Many of the same items found on beaches
Plastic bottles and bottle caps
Plastic food packaging
It’s also worth making a specific note about mismanaged plastic waste here, which is slightly different to littered plastic.
In developing countries especially, landfills and other unsecured sites may leak plastic into the environment – this is called mismanaged waste.
It’s different to littered plastic which is intentionally released into the environment.
It would be interesting to see the stats/data on the plastic types and items that are mismanaged the most – it would make sense that plastic packaging might be one of the most common.
High Waste Rate Plastics, & Short Lifetime Plastics
Plastic that has a high waste rate becomes plastic waste quicker than others.
High waste rate plastics usually include plastics that are either single use or highly disposable, or have a short lifetime use.
Some types of plastic packaging might become waste at a higher rate than some other plastics.
On the consumer side, and example might be disposable food wrappers and containers.
On the producer side, transport and freight can use plastic bags, plastic cushioning, plastic ties and fastening material, plastic containers and boxes, and more – all of which might be highly disposable.
High waste plastic are in comparison to re-usuable and longer lifetime use plastics.
Plastic that becomes waste quicker than others places a greater burden on waste management systems, contributes to litter, and plastic waste pollution.
“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”
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 though that non-recyclable plastics are only more of an issue when recycling is the best disposal option for plastics, and not landfill or incineration for example.
Sometimes, recycling isn’t the best waste management option for plastic.
Some businesses may also find it more economically viable and more profitable to produce some plastic bottles new instead of recycling them.
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 might be human health concerns linked with plastics that contain BPAs and Phthalates, and might be 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:
Plastics That Are Common Sources Of Microplastics and Nanoplastics
Just a few examples of common sources might be primary plastics manufactured as microplastics, and plastic based fibres in textiles.
Plastic that is littered or polluted in the environment can also break down into microplastics and nano plastics.
Contribution To ‘Problem’ Plastics
Certain industries and sectors may be responsible for more plastic production and plastic waste generation, and certain countries and regions may be responsible for more mismanaged plastic and and polluted plastic going in rivers and the ocean than others.
On a plastic product level, some countries may be responsible for most plastic bottle use per capita than others too.
Overall, Plastic Also Has Important Uses, & A Range Of Benefits
Despite this guide being about potentially harmful and problematic plastics, it’s important to note that plastic can serve many important uses across society, and can present a range of benefits.
Plastic is like other materials – it has it’s pros and cons to consider.
4. Hannah Ritchie and Max Roser (2019) – “Plastic Pollution”. Published online at OurWorldInData.org. Retrieved from: ‘https://ourworldindata.org/plastic-pollution’ [Online Resource]