Plastics are so much integrated in our daily life and consumption patterns that most of us cannot imagine life possible without the help of these petrol based, flexible, versatile, durable, easy-to-manufacture items. While their uses are continuously diversifying, thus increasing the quantity of manufactured raw plastic and chemical additives, relevant scientific evidence emerges that relates plastic to serious health and environmental problems. According to OSPAR, surveying 609 beaches in 8 countries across Europe, the main plastics found are as follows:

Polystyrene pieces rope // cord // nets cotton buds sticks crisp // sweets packets plastic bottles from drinks industrial packaging // plastic sheeting cigarette butts plastic food containers strapping bands fishing line small plastic bags shopping bags plastic cutlery plastic cups

Although more studies are currently undertaken to establish how the toxicity of plastics is affecting human health, the research available at the present moment states that plastic in the ocean are absorbing high concentration of pollutants (PCBs and pesticides) from their surroundings (Colabuono et al. 2010). These post­consumer plastic fragments, along with pre­ production plastic resin pellets, collected in the Pacific Ocean, tested positive for the presence of persistent organic pollutants such as dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT), polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and aliphatic hydrocarbons (Rios et al. 2007). Many of these pollutants, such as PCBs and DDT, are known endocrine disruptors and developmental toxicants. Exposure to these chemicals during pre­natal or early life can lead to irreversible effects in both wildlife and humans (Colborn et al. 1993). Evidence indicates that chemicals adsorbed onto plastics, as well as those chemicals utilized within the plastic structure, can be incorporated into living tissues. Plastic fragments can pass through some organisms, resulting in little to no accumulation depending upon organism and diet. Evidence is increasing regarding the potential for these chemicals to be released to humans from plastic containers used for food and drinks, plastic in medical applications, and in toys (Koch and Calafat 2009; Lang et al. 2008; Meeker et al. 2009; Talsness et al. 2009), this leading to introduction of legislation on human usage of plastic items containing additives in some countries. C. Rochman et al. 2015 established the presence of anthropogenic debris in fish and shellfish on sale for human consumption, both in Indonesia and USA.

The majority of the plastics available on the market nowadays are part from 6 categories, with a generic 7th that stands for the downcycled plastics of the first 6 categories and other plastics.

Most of the plastic products have a printed number ranging from #1 to #7, surrounded by arrows, which stands for the main polymer contained by that particular plastic product. This system was developed in 1988 by the U.S. Society of Plastics and has become an international standard. The main reason for developing this system is recycling, which cannot be done mixing all different types of plastic due to their different characteristics.

These codes do not guarantee recycling and they do not indicate the level of safety or toxicity.

#1 POLYETHYLENE TEREPHTHALATE (PET/PETE/polyester)

The mostly used in the textile industry and the food and drinks industry.

USES: bottles (water, soft drink, juice, beer, wine, dressings), microwaveable and oven-ready meal trays, cosmetics, detergents and cleaning containers, fabric and clothing, liquid crystal displays, film for capacitors, insulation for wire and insulating tapes, finish for wood products.

TOXICITY: PET may leach antimony (carcinogen, related to respiratory problems, skin irritation, menstrual problems, miscarriages) in the case of long term storage or exposure to high temperatures during the process of storage. Studies also reveal phthalate endocrine disruptors leach from PET. Polyester as textile contains flame retardants, whose effect on human health is currently unknown.

RECYCLING: around 57% in Europe, downcycled in polyester fiber for fleece clothing, tote bags, strapping.

ALTERNATIVEs: Stainless steel/ glass bottles for drinks, stainless steel/ glass/ ceramic containers, natural fabrics for clothing.

#2 HIGH DENSITY POLYETHYLENE (HDPE)

The most used plastic world-wide, with numerous applications.

USES: grocery plastic bags, opaque water, milk and juice containers, bleach, detergent and shampoo bottles, garbage bags, dishes, yogurt and margarine tubs, cereal box liners, medicine bottles, insulation, piping, plastic/ wood composites.

TOXICITY: although a relatively stable plastic, it may leach nonylphenol when exposed to ultraviolet light/ sunlight, as well as other additives with estrogen-mimicking activity.

RECYCLING: about 10-15% in Europe, downcycled in bottles for non-food items, plastic lumber and furniture, piping, recycling bins, fencing, floor tile, buckets, crates, flower pots, garden edging, film and sheeting.

ALTERNATIVEs: reusable bags from cotton/ hemp for grocery shopping, glass bottles/ jars, stainless steel/ bamboo containers.

#3 POLYVINYL CHLORIDE (V or Vinyl or PVC)

The use of PVC has decreased due to serious health and environmental pollution issues associated with its production process, use and disposal. The toxicity issues related to PVC are given by the presence of chloride, which can and is combined to multiple toxic additives (phthalates).

USES: toys, take-away containers for food, non-food packaging, squeeze bottles, shampoo bottles, mouthwash bottles, cooking oil bottles, detergent and window-cleaner bottles, shower curtains, blood bags and medical tubing, clothing, wire and cable insulation, carpet backing and flooring, blister packs, clamshell packaging, credit cards, piping, vinyl siding, window frames, fencing, decking, multiple construction materials.

TOXICITY: may leach chloride (carcinogen), bisphenol A (BPA), phthalates (endocrine disruptors linked to asthma, allergic symptoms, ADHD, different types of cancer), lead, dioxins, mercury, cadmium.

RECYCLING: about 20% in Europe, has the potential of contaminating the recycling stream. Recycled in packaging, binders, decking, paneling, insulation, mud flaps, film and sheet, flooring, garden hoses.

ALTERNATIVEs: glass/stainless steel reusable bottles and food storage containers, non-plastic food wrapping, recycled paper, cellulose wadding, compostable cornstarch peanuts or paper bits for packaging, natural materials for shower curtains (hemp, cotton), rubber hoses.

#4 LOW DENSITY POLYETHYLENE (LDPE)

Mainly used for packaging.

USES: grocery bags, dry cleaning bags, bread packaging, frozen foods bags, news papers/magazines packaging, garbage bags, plastic wraps, coating for paper milk cartons, hot & cold beverage cups, squeezable bottles, food storage containers, container lids, wire & cable covering.

TOXICITY: May leach nonylphenol (additive) and other additives with estrogen-mimicking activity.

RECYCLING: Low, difficult to recycle. Recycled into compost bins, paneling, plastic lumber.

ALTERNATIVEs: Glass/stainless steel reusable bottles, stainless steel/bamboo containers, cloth reusable bags.

#5 POLYPROPYLENE (PP)

Mainly used in the food industry for storing hot processed food.

USES: food containers (ketchup, yogurt, cottage cheese, margarine, syrup, take-away), medicine containers, straws, bottle caps, Britta filters, opaque plastic containers, baby bottles, diapers & sanitary pad liners, thermal vests, appliance parts, car parts (bumpers, carpets, fixtures).

TOXICITY: may leach plastic additives (agent oleamide).

RECYCLING: low, difficult to sort. Recycled into brooms, brushes, bins pallets, auto battery cases, flower pots.

ALTERNATIVEs: glass jars, paper, cardboard.

#6 POLYSTYRENE (PS)

Commonly associated with the trade name Styrofoam, it is mainly used for food containers and packaging (expanded PS/EPS).

USES EPS: food containers, egg cartons, disposable cups & bowls, take-out food containers, hot food plates, packaging, packaging peanuts, bike helmets.

USES PS: disposable cutlery, razors, CD & DVD cases, hangers, smoke detectors, license plate frames, medicine bottles, test tubes, petri dishes, model assembly kits.

TOXICITY: can leach styrene (human carcinogen, considered a brain & nervous system toxicant). Animal testing have showed gene, lungs, liver and immune system alterations. Styrene leaching increases when the food contained is hot and oily.

RECYCLING: very low, difficult to recycle. Recycled into packaging and thermal insulation.

ALTERNATIVEs: own take-away containers (glass, ceramic, stainless steel), reusable dishes & cutlery (stainless steel, bamboo).

#7 OTHER (O)

All other plastics, including bioplastics

#POLYCARBONATE (PC)

Mainly used as an alternative to die-cast metal, its usage has decreased due to the fact that it contains bisphenol A (BPA).

USES: baby bottles, sippy cups, water bottles, large water storage containers, metal food can liners, juice and ketchup containers, oven- baking bags, carbonless paper, packaging, eye glass lenses, epoxy resins, dental sealants, CDs, DVDs, lab equipment, gears, snowboards, car parts, cell phones, computers, power tools.

TOXICITY: bisphenol A (BPA) is an endocrine disruptor which may alter cellular function, reproduction, development and behavior. Scientific studies link BPA to numerous health problems including chromosome damage in female ovaries, decreased sperm production, early onset of puberty, various behavioral changes, altered immune function, sex reversal in frogs, impaired brain and neurological functions, cardiovascular system damage, type II diabetes, obesity, resistance to chemotherapy, increased risk of breast cancer, prostate cancer, infertility, metabolic disorder.

RECYCLING: very low. Recycled into plastic lumber.

ALTERNATIVEs: glass/ stainless steel reusable bottle, glass/stainless steel baby bottle, medicinal silicone, opt for music/ films in digital format, natural materials.

#ACRYLICS

Acrilonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS), Acrylonitrile Styrene (AS, SAN), Methacrylates

USES: ABS is used to manufacture toys, dishes, small appliances, luggage, musical instruments, golf head clubs, office equipment, car parts, computers and electronics, helmets, whitewater canoes, furniture edging, Plexiglas, plane window, outdoor signs, aquariums, shower doors.

Methacrylates are used in dental applications.

TOXICITY: ABS and AS/SAN contain styrene, so they are highly toxic. The methacrylates are thought to be toxic to cells, while methyl methacrylate is considered toxic by EPA.

RECYCLING: low, mainly because they are difficult to recover, but also because they are mix with other plastics.

ALTERNTIVEs: stainless steel/ ceramic/ glass dishes, bamboo/ wood toys.

#EPOXIES

Epoxies are a polymer group gathering adhesives, plastics, paints, etc. The most common epoxies are made by combining ephichlorohydrin and besphenol A, both of which are seriously toxic.

USES: lining for food cans, coatings, sealants, adhesives, composite materials, insulators, dental applications.

TOXICITY: ephichlorohydrin is considered a probable human carcinogen in some countries, BPA is related to endocrine disruption. Can cause dermatitis, eye, throat & skin irritations, skin allergies, asthma.

RECYCLING: not recycled.

ALTERNATIVES: eco-friendly/ natural adhesives, coatings, sealants.

#LATEX (Synthetic Rubber)

USES: toys, piping, baby bottle nipples, soothers, gloves, shoes, toys, tires, balls, balloons, carpeting, hot water bottles, disposable diapers, sanitary pads, rubber bands, erasers, swimming goggles, racket handles, motorcycle and bicycle handgrips, condoms, diaphragms, medical equipment.

TOXICITY: Contains nitrosamines (carcinogens). Linked to allergies, dermatitis.

RECYCLING: Low, does occur for tires, but with environmental costs.

ALTERNATIVEs: Natural latex, silicone.

#MELAMINE RESIN

Mainly used in household consumer goods and construction applications, this plastic is formed through the polymerization of melamine and formaldehyde.

USES: dishes, utensils, dry erase boards, high pressure laminates, laminate flooring, cabinets.

TOXICITY: studies link melamine to serious kidney damage, kidney stones formation. Formaldehyde is highly toxic and carcinogen.

RECYCLING: very low.

ALTERNATIVEs: stainless steel/ glass/ ceramic dishware, stainless steel/bamboo utensils, eco-friendly sustainable construction materials.

#NEOPRENE (polychloroprenes)

Synthetic rubbers formed by the polymerization of chloroprene, which is obtained from chlorine and butadiene.

USES: clothing, sports equipment, laptop sleeves, lunch bags, orthopedic braces, masks and face protection, electrical insulation, liquid sheet applied elastomeric membranes or flashing, automotive fan belts, insulation, gaskets, hoses, adhesives, caulks, corrosion-resistant coatings, padding, weather stripping, flame-resistant cushioning.

TOXICITY: neoprene may cause allergic reactions (dermatitis, eczema), due to the plasticizers (thioureas) added in the formation process; ethylene thiourea is linked to thyroid problems and classified as a carcinogen.

RECYCLING: likely very low due to the fact that neoprene is mixed with other synthetic rubbers, thus making the recycling process difficult.

ALTERNATIVEs: cotton/ wool-insulated/ metal lunch boxes, wool/ cotton clothing.

#POLYAMIDES (Nylon, Kevlar)

Used for numerous consumer and industrial products.

USES nylon: clothing, stockings, textiles and fabrics, wedding veils, rope, instrument strings, tents, toothbrush and hairbrush bristles, combs, carpets, seatbelts, tires, boat propellers, skateboard wheels, tents, military supplies, screws, gears, car parts, fuel lines, fuel tanks.

USES kevlar: heavy duty clothing, shoes, bicycle tires, sports raquet strings, racing sails, body armour, drumheads, audio equipment, non-stick frying pan coating (other than Teflon), rope, cable, sheath coating for fiber optic cable, joints, hoses, car brakes.

TOXICITY: studies link the usage of (carcinogen) additives in synthetic clothing to skin irritations, skin allergies.

RECYCLING: unclear, but likely very low.

ALTERNATIVEs: wool/ cotton clothing.

#POLYTETRAFLOURETHYLENE (PTFF/ Teflon)

Mainly used for cookware equipment (Teflon) and waterproof, breathable fabric (Gore-Tex).

USES: coating for cooking equipment, aerospace and computer applications, sports wear.

TOXICITY: studies link PFOA (perflourooctanic acid) to cancers, endocrine system disorders, immune system, liver & pituitary gland disorders. Considered a toxic carcinogen and high environmental pollutant, PFOA’s production decreased in North America, but increased in China and Japan.

RECYCLING: likely very low.

ALTERNATIVEs: ceramic coating cookware, cotton/wool-insulated clothes.

#POLYURETHANES (Spandex/ Lycra)

USES: mattresses, high-resilience foam seating, rigid insulation panels, spray foam insulation, microcellular foam seals and gaskets, carpet underlay, wheels and tires, car parts, hard plastic parts for electronics, hoses, skateboards wheels, high performance adhesives, surface coatings, varnishes and sealants, coating for silicone breast implants, synthetic fibers.

TOXICITY: Isocynates are linked to asthma and dermatitis. Phosgene is a known poisonous gas used in WWI, but its effects on human health are little researched. Lycra&Spandex are linked to skin irritations, rashes and contact dermatitis. Serious health and environmental concerns are associated with polyurethane spray foam insulations. Polyurethane foam matrasses may release a variety of additive chemicals and flame retardants while used.

RECYCLING: likely very low.

ALTERNATIVEs: wool/cotton clothing, cotton and cellulose insulation, natural organic matrasses, ecofriendly adhesives, coatings, sealants.

#SILICONE

Part of the rubber family, silicone is a hybrid between a synthetic rubber and a synthetic plastic polymer. It is much more temperature resistant and durable than plastic is, having a low reactivity with chemicals.

USES: baby nipples, cookware, utensils, toys, insulation, sealants, adhesives, lubricants, gaskets, filters, medical applications, casing for electronic components.

TOXICITY: no links to health issues, although studies show that silicone can leach synthetic chemicals at low levels (increased by fatty substances). D5 (used as softener in cosmetics) is considered a carcinogen. Some studies link medical equipment made from silicone to local inflammations.

RECYCLABILITY: Low recyclability rate.

#BIOPLASTICS

Biopolymers (cellulose, lignin, chitin, wool, starch, protein, etc) and synthetic polymers (Acetyl cellulose, Alkyd, DECP, PE, PHB, PLA, rayon, starch) are manufactured from biomass.

USES biopolymers: medicine, agriculture, construction, industrial (dispersant, additive, raw material), paper manufacturing, cellophane and rayon, fuel, clothing.

USES synthetic polymers: fibers, coatings, moulds, film for packaging, tissue engineering, pipes, containers, bottles, clothing, medicine, agriculture, cosmetics, 3D printing.

TOXICITY: being relative new, there are no studies about the toxicity of bioplastics. Although, based on existing research, we can easily predict that they do collect toxins and other chemical from the surrounding environment.

RECYCLABILITY: low, people share the misconception that bioplastics are biodegradable, so they do not have to recycle them. In fact, bioplastics only degrade in certain industrial condition.

According to the Honolulu Strategy framework, the environmental negative impacts of plastics refer to entanglement of wildlife, ingestion of plastics in the place of real food, habitat destruction, introduction and spread of invasive species, transport of chemicals and food chain implication, this impact being extended to human health as top predator in the food chain. Here are some examples accompanied by numbers of what the negative impacts refer to:

  • In northern Australia, 290 marine turtles were found entangled in derelict nets within the same 70 square kilometer stretch of beach between 1996 and 2002 (Kiessling 2003).
  • In a trap removal project in the Chesapeake Bay (United States), over 18,000 blue crab traps were removed with over 14.000 trapped animals including ducks, turtles, and fish (Havens et al. 2011).
  • Northern gannets have been shown to utilize plastic debris, primarily synthetic rope, as nest material, which resulted in 525 entanglements over an 8 ­year period (Votier et al. 2010).
  • According to the 1998 U.S. Marine Mammal Commission’s last published report, 136 marine species have been reported in entanglement incidents, including 6 of the 7 species of sea turtles, 51 out of the world’s 312 species of seabirds, and 32 species of marine mammals (Marine Mammal Commission 1999).Of the 120 marine mammal species listed on the IUCN Red List, 54 (45%) were reported to have interacted (ingestion and/or entanglement) with marine debris.
  • In studies of the northern fulmar, 95 % of the 1.295 dead beached birds collected from 2003 to 2007 had plastic in the stomach. The birds’ stomachs contained an average of 35 plastic items, weighing a total of 0.31 grams (van den Brink et al. 2011).
  • Fat in albatrosses from Midway Atoll revealed pollutant levels near or above levels known to cause adverse effects in other fish­eating bird species (Jones et al. 1996). 
  • Another study demonstrated that the amount of plastic ingested by seabirds positively correlated with PCBs found in the seabirds’ fatty tissue (Ryan et al. 1988).
  • Barnes (2002) estimates that plastics at sea have roughly doubled the proliferation of subtropical fauna and more than tripled the propagation of high ­latitude fauna, which speaks to the increased potential for alien species transport. For example, a non­native sea anemone made its way to the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands aboard a piece of ALDFG (Zabin et al. 2003).
  • Introduction of non­native species can have devastating environmental effects including loss of biodiversity, changes to habitat structure, and changes to ecosystem functions (Derraik 2002).

In general, the plastic degradation process is a long one (up to 1.000 years), but it does differ from one type of plastic to another, as well as the environmental conditions that affect the item.

Economic impacts of plastics as 80% of the total marine litter affect the fishing industry (diminishing the available catch, affecting navigation and aquaculture), tourism (degradation of the aesthetics of beaches and shallow waters), seafood industry (high levels of ocean pollution is associated with toxic catch), increase the clean up costs for the costal authorities, affect the social wellbeing and health of costal communities and have important impacts on human health and safety.

Evidence suggests that UK’s fishing industry lost over EUR 33 million per year due to marine debris, in 2002 (Ten Brink et al. 2009), the Scottish Shetland around 45.000 USD/year (Hall 2000) and the US lobster market USD 250 million (Hall 2000). Cleaning costs of harbors were of 23.000 USD/year in the UK, while the costs of fouled propellers amounted to an estimated cost of USD 767.000 to USD 2.202.000 per year (Hall 2000). Estimations suggest that New Jersey economic loss in 1988 due to public closure of beaches was between USD 53 million and USD 224 million, while Sweden lost around USD 30.03 million in revenue due to the occurrence of marine debris (Ten Brink et al. 2009). Manual cleanup of cigarette butts in San Francisco cost the city approximately $6 million per year (Schneider et al. 2009).

Characterized by buoyancy and durability, plastics have been documented to travel up to 10.000 km over a decade (Barnes et al. 2009). The most visible types of plastic debris are large derelict fishing gears, bottles, bags, and other consumer products, however much of the debris collected during survey trawls consists of tiny particles or “microplastic” (Law et al. 2010 Thompson et al. 2004). Microplastics have accumulated in the water column, on the shoreline and in subtidal sediments (Andrady 2011; Barnes et al. 2009; Thompson et al. 2004; Zarfl et al. 2011). The plastic debris in the open ocean study (Andrés Cózar et. al 2014) states that the frequency of occurrence of plastic debris in the surface samples of the open ocean is of 88 %, with an estimation of surface coverage ranging between 7000 and 35.000 tones. Continental plastic litter enters the ocean largely through storm-water runoff, flowing into watercourses or directly discharged into coastal waters. In the 1970s, the US National Academy of Sciences estimated that the flux of plastic to the world oceans was 45.000 tons per year, equivalent to 0.1% of the global production of plastic. Around 50% of the produced plastic is buoyant, and 60–64% of the terrestrial load of floating plastic to the sea is estimated to be exported from coastal to open-ocean waters.

Characterized by water insolubility and versatility, and being easy to shape for different functions due to the additives, plastics are widely used in the cosmetic industry as well, as ingredients of the following products (and many others): soap, shampoo, deodorant, toothpaste, wrinkle cream, moisturizers, shaving cream, sunscreen, facial masks, makeup, children’s bubble bath soap (Review of Microplastics in Cosmetics, H.A. Leslie). Due to the emerging research and proofs of the threats of microbeads, both on human health and on the environment, the bill to phase-out these tiny toxic plastics until 2018 and ban them afterwards, was signed and approved in USA at the end of 2015.

Characterized by durability and being extracted from limited natural resources, plastics should be widely recycled and reused. Valuing Plastic is an initiative of UNEP through which the plastic footprint of companies using plastics in their manufacturing process is measured. Some findings of the research emphasize that the toy, athletic goods and durable household goods sectors use the most plastic in products per US$1 million revenue. The soft drinks, personal products and pharmaceutical sectors are among the most intensive users of plastic in packaging. The retail, restaurant and tobacco sectors use the most plastic per $1m revenue in their supply chains. The total natural capital cost of plastic used in the consumer goods industry is over $75bn per year, this being the actually amount that these companies ought to pay if they alone would have to deal with all the negative impacts of plastics.

Food companies are the largest contributor to this cost, responsible for 23%
 of the total natural capital cost. Economic, reputational, legislative and other risks, or missing related opportunities, could extract significant value from these businesses if they had to internalize the full cost of their plastic use impacts. These numbers show there is a wide range of positive change that can be done within these companies, in particular, and their representatives sectors, in general.

While scientists and environmentalists try to figure out how big the plastic problem is and how it can be tackled, Plastics-The Facts 2014/2015 report foresees an increase in the amount of plastic produced globally in the coming years (thus exceeding the 2013 quantity of 299 million tones). Although the plastic production has stabilized in Europe since 2013, Europe remains the second biggest producer worldwide (20%), after China (24,8%) and followed by NAFTA (19.4%). 66% of plastic demand in Europe is concentrated in 5 countries: Germany (25,1%), Italy (14,3%), France (9,7%), UK (7,6%) and Spain (7,5%).

In Europe, the plastic packaging sector accounts for 39.6% of the total plastic market (46.3 million tonnes). The packaging sector is followed by building & construction sectors (20,3%), consumer goods, household appliances, furniture, sports, health and safety (21.7%) and automotive (8.9%).

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