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 (including take-away containers), strapping bands, fishing line, small plastic bags, shopping bags, plastic cutlery, plastic cups.

Plastics & Human Health (types, uses, toxicity, recycling, alternatives)

Plastics & Environment

Plastics & Economy

Plastics & Human Health (types, uses, toxicity, recycling, alternatives)


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) - mostly used in the textile industry and the food and drinks industry.

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#2 HIGH DENSITY POLYETHYLENE (HDPE) - most used plastic world-wide, with numerous applications.

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#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).

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#4 LOW DENSITY POLYETHYLENE (LDPE) - mainly used for packaging.

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#5 POLYPROPYLENE (PP) - mainly used in the food industry for storing hot processed food.

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#6 POLYSTYRENE (PS) - commonly associated with the trade name Styrofoam, it is mainly used for food containers and packaging (expanded PS/EPS).

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#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).

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

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#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.

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#LATEX (Synthetic Rubber)

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#MELAMINE RESIN - mainly used in household consumer goods and construction applications, this plastic is formed through the polymerization of melamine and formaldehyde.

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#NEOPRENE (polychloroprenes) - synthetic rubbers formed by the polymerization of chloroprene, which is obtained from chlorine and butadiene.

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#POLYAMIDES (Nylon, Kevlar) - used for numerous consumer and industrial products.

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#POLYTETRAFLOURETHYLENE (PTFF/ Teflon) - mainly used for cookware equipment (Teflon) and waterproof, breathable fabric (Gore-Tex).

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#POLYURETHANES (Spandex/ Lycra)

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#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.

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

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Plastics & Environment

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 800 years), but it does differ from one type of plastic to another, as well as the environmental conditions that affect the item.

In the table below some examples are provided (source NOAA).

Plastic product Degradation period (years)

Plastic grocery bag


Cigarette Butt


Plastic beverage holder (ring)


Styrofoam cup


Fishing line


Plastic bottle


Plastics & Economy

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%).