The ubiquity of plastic can be overwhelming to think about. Try to go a day without plastics and you’ll find there are very few things you’re able to do or use or eat or wear: the keys on your laptop, the polyester in your clothes, the coatings and packaging on most grocery store items. Plastic is everywhere. And oftentimes we’ll use it and throw it away without a moment’s pause.
The reasons why plastic is bad for the environment, however, go beyond our propensity to use and lose it. Yes, our current rate of consumption and waste production is alarming and will need to slow down in the fight to mitigate climate change, but the process of making it to begin with is also dirty business.
Plastic as a major user of fossil fuel
“Plastic is made from fossil fuels, and that makes plastic an enormous contributor to the climate change problem, which is something a lot of people don’t realize,” says Melissa Valliant, communications director for Beyond Plastics, an education and advocacy organization aimed at stopping plastic pollution.
Plastic production starts a little something like this: Fossil fuels like ethylene and propylene are extracted from the Earth to get feedstocks for plastic. Nowadays, it’s more common to get these building blocks via natural gas fracking in the United States than from crude oil, but China, Europe, Southeast Asia, and Japan still rely on the sticky goop. Chemicals from these fossil fuels go to refining plants—an energy intensive process. That product can be turned into little plastic pellets called “nurdles.” Nurdles are then shipped, domestically and globally, to other facilities that then transform them into the myriad of plastic products used and sold in every industry worldwide.
Simply put: Plastics is Big Oil’s second act. As countries and cities work to transition away from burning dead dinosaurs in favor of more sustainable energy sources, “the fossil fuel industry is looking for other ways to sell its goods,” says Christy Leavitt, plastics campaign director for Oceana, the world’s largest international advocacy organization for ocean conservation. “And so they’re investing a lot in the production of more and more plastics.”12 Domestically, plastic is projected to outpace coal’s greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, Leavitt adds. If that industry alone were a country, it would be the fifth largest emitter.3
Why is plastic bad for the environment?
The environmental impact of plastics is gigantic. A big issue is that “plastic was designed to last forever,” says Valliant. When we use plastic products, and especially single-use ones, it is often one fleeting moment, after which we throw them away. But those materials continue to impact the environment, making plastic pollution a problem that lasts for hundreds of years. “Because plastic doesn’t break down, it breaks up,” she says. And as it weathers into smaller and smaller pieces that continue to persist—never quite going away—it continually hurts the environment, animals, ecosystems, and our health.
Plastics, which rose to prominence in the middle of the last century, haven’t been around for that long in the grand scheme of human and planetary history. That means scientists have not yet had time to figure out exactly how long different types of plastics will persist in the environment. But we do know that it will take centuries for each plastic product to break down.
Why is plastic bad for the ocean?
The equivalent of two-garbage trucks’ worth of plastic enter the ocean every minute. The ocean’s surface alone hosts up to 51 trillion microplastic particles.4 There are more than 13,000 chemicals associated with plastics—including PFAS, or “forever chemicals”—all of which can leach out and enter into the environment.5 And of those 13,000 chemicals, about 6,000 haven’t been sufficiently studied for environmental and health impacts. Plastics, and the chemicals they release, have also been linked to ocean acidification, which can hurt ecosystems and important species like corals and contribute to climate change.6
How does plastic affect animals and ecosystems?
Researchers have found plastic in plenty of land habitats and animals, as well. In China, plastic waste produced a film that became chemically bonded to nearby rocks.9 Similarly, Brazilian researchers discovered melted plastic intertwined with rocks on a remote island.10 The presence of these plastics means that other wildlife that rely on these habitats will likely come into contact with these materials. Plastics can cause digestive issues and injuries for animals.11 Microplastics have already been found in bear feces. And birds everywhere are nesting amongst the garbage.
Why is plastic bad for soil?
Just as plastic can leach chemicals into water, it can release them into the soil.12 Once plastics—particularly microplastics—reach the soil it’s impossible to clean out. The United Nations Environment Programme says the amount of microplastics entering agricultural land in Europe and North America annually could be as much as 650,000 metric tons. The agency warns that plastic can change the properties of soil, affecting the health of crops and potentially threatening food security.
Negative effects of plastics on human health
At every step of plastic production—fracking, refining, production, recycling, waste management—harmful chemicals and greenhouse gasses are released into the air and atmosphere, putting human health at risk. At fossil fuel extraction sites and production facilities, workers and surrounding communities are exposed to those pollutants, which can cause a whole slew of health effects such as premature births and low birth weights, lung cancer, diabetes and asthma, among other illnesses.13 Simply using plastic can expose people to chemicals like phthalates, which are linked to brain development problems in children,14 and BPA, which is linked to heart attacks and neurological issues.
Microplastics can accumulate in the body after being ingested or inhaled. Particles have been found everywhere in the human body from the lungs, the placenta, breast milk, and blood. While we don’t yet fully know the full extent of how these microplastics may affect our health, studies in mice suggest that it’s not good: The plastic particles can likely release chemicals and cause inflammation and hormone disruptions.15
How much plastic waste is produced each year?
Plastic waste will typically get incinerated, moved to landfills, or shipped to another country to be incinerated or dumped in a landfill there. Incineration creates greenhouse gasses and other toxic air emissions that can affect the health and lives of communities living around those facilities, which are most often poorer communities or communities of color. Plastics sitting in landfills will continue to release greenhouse gasses as they are exposed to sunlight.
What percentage of plastic is recycled?
There is some variation in just how much plastic actually gets recycled, but everyone agrees it’s not a lot. Scientists have found that, as of 2015, only 9% of all plastics ever produced up to that point had been recycled.18 In the U.S., reports estimate anywhere from 5 percent to 32 percent of plastic waste is recycled annually, compared to Europe’s rate of 46 percent.192021
But Beyond Plastics’ Valliant notes that “recyclability of plastics is not like the recyclability of glass or aluminum.” Glass and aluminum can be “recycled infinitely,” she says, meaning those materials can iterate through cycles and cycles of new products. But “even the most recyclable types of plastic will likely not be recycled more than two times.” A plastic bottle can become a new plastic bottle about twice, but then the plastic can’t maintain enough integrity, eventually ending up as something like carpeting, which cannot be recycled. So with recycling plastics, you’re really “just delaying the inevitable rather than solving the problems,” says Valliant. Plus, every product made with “recycled” plastic will likely contain at least some new plastic, and the plastic recycling process also emits greenhouse gasses.
How plastics move around the world
Countries like the U.S. and European nations will sell and ship their plastic waste—sometimes illegally—off to other countries, usually in Asia. Oftentimes this exchange is done with the expectation that these countries will recycle this plastic. But given the lack of tracking and regulation, much of the time this plastic is just dumped or incinerated.
Microplastic particles, meanwhile, can circulate all on their own. They’ve been found in the deepest parts of the sea floor like the Marianas trench, and at the highest and most remote spots on Earth, including Mount Everest and the North and South Poles.
Microplastics travel through water via rivers and ocean currents. They can be blown through the air and wind, and also transported through the atmosphere as air cycles through its natural currents.22
- Shale gas and new U.S. chemical industry investment: $164 billion and counting, American Chemistry Council, Apr. 2016. ↩︎
- Fueling plastics: Untested assumptions and unanswered questions in the
plastics boom, Center for International Environmental Law, Sept. 2017. ↩︎
- Strategies to reduce the global carbon footprint of plastics, Nature, Apr. 2019. ↩︎
- A global inventory of small floating plastic debris, Environmental Research Letters, Dec. 2015. ↩︎
- Chemicals in plastics–a technical report, United Nations Environmental Programme, May 2023. ↩︎
- Abiotic plastic leaching contributes to ocean acidification, Science of the Total Environment, Jan. 2023. ↩︎
- Quantitative overview of marine debris ingested by marine megafauna, Marine Pollution Bulletin, Feb. 2020. ↩︎
- Microplastic ingestion ubiquitous in marine turtles, Global Change Biology, Dec. 2018. ↩︎
- Plastic waste found chemically bonded to rocks in China, Nature, Apr. 2023 ↩︎
- Plastic debris forms: Rock analogues emerging from marine pollution, Marine Pollution Bulletin, Sept. 2022. ↩︎
- Ruminal impaction due to plastic materials–An increasing threat to ruminants and its impact on human health in developing countries, Veterinary World, Sept. 2018. ↩︎
- Plastic planet: How tiny plastic particles are polluting our soil, United Nations Environment Programme, Dec. 2021. ↩︎
- The Minderoo-Monaco Commission on Plastics and Human Health, Annals of Global Health, Mar. 2023. ↩︎
- Phthalates and their impacts on human health, Healthcare (Basel), May 2021. ↩︎
- Polyethylene microplastics affect the distribution of gut microbiota and inflammation development in mice, Chemosphere, Apr. 2020. ↩︎
- Global Plastics Outlook, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Jun. 2021. ↩︎
- The United States’ contribution of plastic waste to land and ocean, Science Advances, Oct. 2020. ↩︎
- Production, use, and fate of all plastics ever made, Science Advances, Jul 2017. ↩︎
- Circular Claims Fall Flat Again, Greenpeace, Oct. 2022. ↩︎
- Advancing sustainable materials management: Facts and figures report, United States Environmental Protection Agency, Dec. 2020. ↩︎
- Waste Recycling in Europe, European Environment Agency, Nov. 2022. ↩︎
- Atmospheric transport is a major pathway of microplastics to remote regions, Nature Communications, Jul. 2020. ↩︎