For clarity, let’s split the damage caused by plastic waste into two sections:
- Large amounts of plastic trash end up in the oceans, affecting all life on earth. Causes of this pollution can be roughly divided in [A]landfills (or lack thereof), [B]microfibers, [C]microbeads. All of these causes are further described in the next chapter.
- Plastic food containers (including BPA-free ones) possibly disrupt our endoctrine (hormonal) systems. This could cause a wide range of serious health problems, especially for babies and children. Read more about this at: [WebMD] [Wikipedia: Endocrine Disruptor] [Huffington Post (2015)] [Mother Jones (2014)] [National Geographic (2008)]
This page aims to give a short summary of environmental problems caused by (consumer) plastic waste. If you want to go into more details, we recommend:
The core problem of plastic is that a great deal of it still ends as waste in the oceans, despite our growing efforts to recycle and re-use. Ocean plastics make up the majority of our “ocean trash” (marine debris): 80% of it is plastic, of which 80% came from land. [Sheavly, S. B.; Register, K. M. (2007) & Alan Weisman (2007) via Wikipedia: Marine Debris]
“Plastic pieces in the center of our ocean’s gyres outnumber live marine plankton, and are passed up the food chain to reach all marine life.” -C.J. Moore et al.
It is estimated that ocean plastics grow by 7 or 8 billion kilograms per year. [Jambeck et al., (2015) via The Ocean Cleanup]. So far this resulted in 5.25 trillion pieces of ocean plastics [Marcus Eriksen (2014) via PLOS], weighing over 150 billion kilograms [Knight (2012) via Wikipedia: Ocean Pollution]
Plastic does not degrade in water, instead it breaks down into smaller pieces, causing ocean plastics to swirl around in 5 massive ocean gyres (spirals) [CNN]. One of these gyres is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which holds 1/3 of all ocean plastics [Cózar et al. (2014) via The Ocean Cleanup].
Cause A: Packaging and Trash
Sources of ocean plastic pollution include litter and runoff from poorly managed landfills. Moved by water and wind, plastic trash can arrive in the oceans. Many of the world’s countries poorly manage their landfills. [The Guardian (2015)]
About 300 billion kilograms of plastic are produced yearly [Plastics Europe (2015)]. The United States accounts for about 30 billion kilograms per year, of which packaging and containers make up 12.7 billion kilograms [United States Environmental Protection Agency (2013)]. Europe produces about 57 billion kilograms of plastic yearly, of which about 40% is packaging [Plastics Europe (2015)].
Consumer waste plays a role, as 93% of Mediterranean ocean plastics were found to be plastic bags [UN report (2005) via Wikipedia: Marine Debris]. In Australia, an estimated 50 million plastic bags are littered per year [Clean Up Australia (2002)].
Many governments are taking measures to reduce or ban plastic (shopping) bag use. For example, in 2003, Denmark started to tax shops for giving out free plastic bags, encouraging them to charge for plastic bags and promote reusable bags. This reduced the use of plastic and paper bags by about 66%. By 2014, Denmark used the smallest amount of plastic bags in Europe: 4 bags per person per year, compared to over 450 bags per person per year in Portugal, Poland and Slovakia [Wikipedia: Phase-out of lightweight plastic bags].
In 2014, the European Parliament aimed to reduce plastic bag use by 50% by 2017 and 80% by 2019. In January of 2016, the Netherlands banned free plastic shopping bags, and since then advices to charge €0.25 per bag. In November 2016, California banned large retailers from handing out plastic bags for free, after which the price of a bag was set around $0.10 [Wikipedia: Phase-out of lightweight plastic bags].
China is one of the leading polluters, leaving between 132 and 353 billion kilograms of plastic in the oceans per year [The Guardian (2015)]. In the United States about 6.5% of trashed plastic gets recycled, and about 7.5% gets burned as fuel. That leaves 85% to the landfill dumps. [New York Times (2011)] [Columbia University (2011)]. In Los Angeles, 10 000 kilograms of plastic fragments are carried into the ocean per day [Center for Biological Diversity (2012?)].
Europe is relatively progressive, as many of its countries have banned landfills. 34% of its plastic waste gets recycled and 35% is burned for energy (recovery). That stil leaves 31% to be dumped in landfills [Plastics Europe (2015)]. Even in countries without landfills, like The Netherlands, plastic litter ends up in the ocean, for example via the canals in Amsterdam, see: PlasticWhale.org, who have made it into a “public sport” to fish plastic litter out of the canals.
Cause B: Micro Fibers
When synthetic clothing (nylon, acrylic, polyester, etc.) is washed, it releases tiny (micro and nano sized) plastic fibers into the drainage. These fibers arrive at sewage treatment plants, where they aren’t properly filtered out. The amount of microfibers released by washing 100,000 fleece jackets is similar to the plastic pollution caused by 11,900 plastic bags [University of California Santa Barbara (2016)] [Patagonia (2016)] [Guppy Friend (2016)].
Sewage treatment plants filter out 98% of the incoming plastic fragments. But, up to 40% of incoming microfibers, about 65 million pieces, are sent out via watersheds, running into rivers, lakes and oceans [University of California Santa Barbara (2016)]. Freshwater and ocean water appear to hold the same concentration of fiber pollution [Global Microplastics Initiative (2016)] [The Guardian (2016)].
Also, microfibers can get caught in environmental sludge, which can be found in fertilisers [American Chemical Society (2016)]. Microfibers made up 85% of human made debris in shorelines around the world. [University of South Wales, Australia (2011)].
Due to the irregular shape of microfibers, they pose an even larger risk to smaller organisms than the round shaped plastic microbeads (see next chapter). This way, plastic pollution may enter the (human) food chain in higher concentrations [Patagonia].
Cause C: Microbeads
Microbeads are plastic grains used in hundreds of personal care products (tooth paste, face wash), cosmetics and household products (detergents, cleaning products). Similar to microfibers, they are not properly filtered out of waste water, and escape directly into the environment.
An estimated minimum of 471 million microbeads are flushed down – daily – by an average household in San Francisco Bay [Rochmann (2015)]. 80,000 microbeads can escape per day from a single waste water treatment facility [New York University (2015)]. Over 450,000 microbeads were found in every square kilometer of the Great Lakes of North America [Marine Pollution Bullentin (2013)]. Microbeads might be the cause of starving coral reef [Journal of Marine Biology (2015] [Huffington Post (2015)].
In December 2015, U.S. president Obama signed a law to ban microbeads in personal care products from mid 2017. Microbeads will still be allowed in detergents, sandblasting materials and cosmetics that can be left on the skin [Huffington Post (2016)]. In the Netherlands, the Beat the Microbead campaign was launched in 2012 by the Plastic Soup Foundation and Stichting De Noordzee (North Sea Foundation), resulting in the government banning microbeads from 2017, and pushing for an EU wide ban [Beat The Microbead].
Human Health Effects
Toxic chemicals get adsorbed by ocean plastics, increasing their concentration by a million times. When these plastics get eaten by fish (and other aquatic organisms), the concentration of the toxic chemicals rises even higher through bio-accumulation. For these creatures, it can cause creatures gastrointestinal infections and blockages, reproductive problems, and starvation [Guppy Friend]. When we then consume these fish, it can cause cancer, malformation and impaired reproductive ability [The Ocean Cleanup].
Animal Welfare Effects
Every year, over a million seabirds and a hundred thousand marine animals are killed by plastic pollution. Ocean plastics potentially threaten the survival of over 100 animals species. [Gall et al. (2015) via The Ocean Cleanup].
44% of all seabird species, 22% of cetaceans (whales, dolphins, etc.), all sea turtle species, and an increasing list of fish species have been documented with plastic in or around their bodies [5GYRES].
Ocean plastics costs $13 billion per year to the economy (fishing, shipping, tourism and the cleaning of coastlines) [United Nations Environment Programme (2014) via The Ocean Cleanup].
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