Plastic Pollution

This section looks at a plastic pollution definition, causes of plastic pollution, effects of plastic pollutionsolutions for plastic pollution and plastic pollution facts. The latest plastic pollution news is included at the foot of the page.

Plastic pollution definition: plastic pollution involves the accumulation of plastic products in the environment that adversely affects wildlife, habitat or humans. 

Causes of plastic pollution

100% of plastic pollution is attributable to humans. 100% human. At the heart of the problem is one of plastic’s most valued properties: its durability. Combined with the throwaway culture that has grown up around plastic products, this means that we are using materials that are designed to last, but for short-term purposes. About 50% of plastic is used for single-use disposable applications, such as packaging, agricultural films and disposable consumer items. The increasingly short lifetime of products that use plastic, especially electronic goods, means that more plastic waste is being produced in today’s upgrade-and-dispose culture. A key example of this is the mobile phone: its plastic components contain several toxic substances known to be harmful to human health.

Section credit: Science for Environment Policy | In-depth Reports | Plastic Waste: Ecological and Human Health Impacts November 2011

Types of plastic pollution

Plastic waste can be categorised under a variety of approaches.


Plastic debris can be categorised as either primary or secondary. Primary plastics are in their original form when collected. Examples of these would be bottle caps, cigarette butts, and microbeads. Secondary plastics, on the other hand, account for smaller plastics that have resulted from the degradation of primary plastics.


Another commonly-used categorisation  is to distinguish between pre- and post-consumer plastic waste. Pre-consumer plastic waste is produced during manufacturing or converting processes, while post-consumer plastic waste is produced after a product is consumed or used. Pre-consumer plastic waste often consists of small pellets that are used to make larger plastic objects.


At sea, plastic waste is often categorised into macro- (over 20mm diameter), meso- (5-20mm diameter) and micro- (under 5mm diameter) plastics.  


Macroplastics can be further categorised according to type of object, for example, bottle, bag or lid.


Microplastics are a significant issue in plastic waste, partly because they are more difficult to monitor, and partly because they may have greater impacts at a chemical and physical level on ecosystems and human health, owing to their size and large volume-to-surface area ratio.


In the ocean as well as on land, plastics tend to fragment into smaller particles. This can be aided by the action of ultraviolet (UV) radiation, waves and wind. In landfills, acidity and chemicals can break down plastics. In the sea, water absorbs and scatters UV so plastics floating near the surface will break down more rapidly than those at depth. For those on the seabed, breakdown is significantly slower since there is no UV radiation and temperatures are colder.


Recent scientific reviews have raised the concept of nanoplastics. These are engineered plastic nanoparticles derived from post-consumer waste via degradation. Although they have not been quantified yet the reviews suggest there is little doubt that weathering of plastic can produce nanoscale particles, which could potentially be easily absorbed by phytoplankton and zooplankton. The potential to spread throughout the food chain then becomes a certainty – including humans.


How is plastic made? 

Plastics are made from carbon-based compounds. The materials used in the production of plastics are natural products such as cellulose, coal, natural gas, salt and crucially, crude oil. Crude oil itself being a highly complex mix of thousands of different compounds.


The production of plastic begins with a distillation process in an oil refinery

The distillation process involves the separation of heavy crude oil into lighter groups called fractions. Each fraction is a mixture of hydrocarbon chains (chemical compounds made up of carbon and hydrogen), which differ in terms of the size and structure of their molecules. One of these fractions, naphtha, is the crucial element for the production of plastics.

The two major processes used to produce plastics are called polymerisation and polycondensation, and they both require specific catalysts. In a polymerisation reactor, monomers like ethylene and propylene are linked together to form long polymers chains. Each polymer has its own properties, structure and size depending on the various types of basic monomers used.

There are many different types of plastics, and they can be grouped into two main polymer families:

  • Thermoplastics (which soften on heating and then harden again on cooling)
  • Thermosets (which never soften when they have been moulded)

Human activity driving plastic pollution

Sources of plastic waste are plentiful and the nature and extent of plastic polution varies considerably by region across the world. For example, the shipping and fisheries industries are significant contributors in the East Asian Seas region and the southern North Sea, whereas tourism is a major source of plastic pollution in the Mediterranean region.


Although it is important to try and determine sources of plastic waste for developing and monitoring prevention actions and policy, it should be remembered that the distinction between land-based and sea-based sources is irrelevant for prevention, as all plastic is produced on land. If we are to reduce overall amounts of plastic waste, the land is where the greatest efforts need to be made i.e. we need to tackle the root of the problem.


What drives the demand for plastic production? The following data was based on a 2008 study of EU countries plus Norway and Switzerland.


Packaging: 63%

Building and construction: 6%

Automotive: 5%

WEEE (waste electrical and electronic equipment): 5%

Agriculture: 5%

Domestic housewares, leisure,sports: 3%

Other: 13%


Plastic waste on land 

There is little information on the amounts, rates, fate or impacts of plastic waste on land, whereas there has been a major effort to quantify impacts on shorelines and sea.


On land, if waste is not recycled or recovered, it is mostly disposed of in landfill sites where, although not visible, it may still come to the surface as ‘debris’. In addition, the conditions within landfill may cause the chemicals contained within plastic to become more readily available to the environment This is a particular concern in developing countries where landfill management is not as closely monitored as in developed nations. 


Plastic pollution from land to sea

It is currently estimated that 80% of plastic waste in the sea is from land-based sources.


The main landbased sources of marine plastic waste include storm water discharge, combined sewer overflows, tourism related litter, illegal dumping, industrial activities e.g. plastic resin pellets, losses from accidents and transport, and blowing from landfill sites.


The ocean-based sources tend to be commercial fishing, recreational boaters, merchant/military/ research vessels, losses from transport, offshore oil and gas platforms.


The final sting in the tail: plastic itself is bad enough but the plastic manufacturing process also introduces many more polluting chemicals into the mix.

These additives inclde:

Colourants: for coloured plastic parts.


Antioxidants: for plastic processing and outside application where weathering resistance is needed.

Foaming agents: for expanded polystyrene cups and building board and for polyurethane carpet underlayment.

Plasticisers: used in wire insulation, flooring, gutters, and some films.
Lubricants: used for making fibers.
Anti-stats: to reduce dust collection by static electricity attraction.
Antimicrobials: used for shower curtains and wall coverings.
Flame retardants: to improve the safety of wire and cable coverings and cultured marble.

Global annual production of plastics

Where is the plastic production happening?

Plastic Pollution Coalition - OPEN YOUR EYES - Overview Narrated by Jeff Bridges (2016)

Effects of plastic pollution

Plastic pollution effects on the environment

Although there is little research on the specific impacts of plastic waste on land-based wildlife, there is concern that incorrectly managed landfills could lead to either the escape of plastic waste or the escape of landfill leachate containing the chemicals associated with plastic. In addition, unofficial recycling methods, particularly in developing countries, can cause the release of chemicals into the environment, for example, the burning of plastic coated wires to extract metal.


Plastic waste accumulates in certain areas of the sea, such as gyres, which are large rotating currents, which have lower sea levels near their centres. There are five major gyres in the world: the North Pacific, the South Pacific, the Indian Ocean, the North Atlantic and the South Atlantic. These act as accumulation zones for marine debris, which is forced into the centre where winds and currents are weaker.


Currents, wave action, and the nature of the continental shelf and seafloor also affect the distribution of plastic waste. Harbours and estuaries near urban areas tend to attract large amounts of plastic waste from recreation and land-based sources, while more remote beaches tend to be littered with fishing debris.


Increasing attention has been paid to plastic waste by policymakers, scientists and the media and probably one of the most influential factors was the discovery of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch by Charles Moore in the late 1990s.


This is a layer of rubbish floating between California and Hawaii that has been estimated to span about 3.43 million km2 (the size of Europe). It is mostly plastic and contains everything from large abandoned fishing nets to plastic bottles to tiny particles of plastic (or ‘microplastics’).


This type of mass in the seas can be known as ‘plastic soup’ and there are concerns that Europe hosts similar patches, in areas such as the Mediterranean and the North Sea. As such, marine litter and plastic waste is a priority on the EU policy agenda.

Plastic pollution effects on non-human lifeforms

Transportation of invasive species

As well as transporting pollutants, plastic waste can also be a mode of transport for species, potentially increasing the range of certain marine organisms or introducing species into an environment where they were previously absent. This in turn can cause subsequent changes in the ecosystem.


Entanglement risks

Wildlife entanglement in plastic can happen in several ways and the results can be devastating. The research in this area tends to be limited to certain species and certain locations and it is difficult to understand changing rates of entanglement.


Once an animal is entangled it can drown, incur wounds or be less able to catch food or avoid predators. In 1976, it was estimated that up to 40,000 fur seals were being killed a year by plastic entanglement. There have been numerous sightings of whales towing masses of tangled rope and other debris, including crayfish pots and buoys. Major sources of the plastic responsible for entanglement are abandoned or lost fishing nets and pots (also known as ‘ghost fishing’), plastic packing loops, six-pack carriers and plastic rope.


Ingestion risks

Ingestion of plastic waste has been documented in a number of species. For some species, almost all individuals contain ingested plastic including sea birds, fish, turtles, mussels and mammals. Clearly different species ingest different types and sizes of plastic debris.

Harm to wildlife caused by ingested plastic will vary, depending on their digestive system, the amount and type of plastic ingested and the developmental stage of the animal.


Many animals mistake plastic waste for prey, for example, fish can confuse plastic pellets for plankton, birds may mistake pieces of plastic for cuttlefish or other and sea turtles can confuse plastic bags for jellyfish. Young birds typically contain more plastic than adults, probably because they cannot discriminate between suitable food items, and sometimes parents will accidently feed plastic to offspring.


Other animals may ingest plastic that is present in their prey, for example, pelagic fish (those that live between the sea bottom and the surface) are thought to consume plastic particles and these fish are then eaten by fur seals. Recent research on plankton-eating (and pelagic) fish in the North Pacific Gyre has indicated that 35 per cent had ingested plastic.


Evidence shows that many species of marine creatures ingest and breakdown plastic pollution. Digestive processes then convert the waste into microplastics and are distributed with the movements of the ingesting creatures. The specific impacts of microplastics is a growing concern - these smaller particles have greater potential for accumulation in the tissues of organisms.


A study performed in 2011 found that fulmars (a type of seabird) reduce the size of plastic particles in their muscular stomach and excrete them back into the environment in the form of microplastics. They estimate that fulmars reshape and redistribute about 630 million plastic particles every year, representing about six tons in plastic mass.

Plastic pollution effects on humans

Plastic is not inert, but contains several chemicals with toxic potential. It also has the potential to transport contaminants. Although much is known about the impact of actual chemicals themselves, there remain many questions about the role of plastic and plastic waste in exposing humans and wildlife to these chemicals.


Polymers are composed of repeating subunits, or ‘monomers’, and some of the major plastics (for example, PVC and polystyrene) have been found to release toxic monomers linked to cancer and reproductive problems. Often, during plastic production, polymerisation reactions are not complete and the unreacted monomers can be found in the final material. Polymers can also be broken up into monomers by heat, UV radiation, mechanical action and other chemicals.


Plastic contains chemicals or additives to give it certain properties. There is a wide range of additives, but probably the most relevant to ecology and human health are the following:


Bisphenol A is a monomer that is used to make the hard, clear plastic in polycarbonate food and beverage containers, CD cases and many other consumer products. It is an endocrine disruptor and acts like the female hormone oestrogen. It leaches in variable amounts and for different lengths of time, depending on the product and conditions, i.e. it is released more easily at higher temperatures and with changes in acidity. Early development appears to be particularly sensitive to its effects, with a growing body of evidence for associations with chronic disease, including cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes and with hormonal changes in adults.


Phthalates are a group of industrial chemicals used as plasticisers, which make plastics, such as PVC, more flexible or resilient. They are extremely widespread and are found in items including toys, food packaging, hoses, raincoats, shower curtains and vinyl flooring. High-molecular weight phthalates are primarily used as plasticisers, but the low-molecular weight phthalates are used as solvents in personal care products. This means the sources of phthalates in the environment are numerous.


Certain phthalates have been shown to function as endocrine disruptors, and to have anti-androgenic activity. They can easily leach out of products to contaminate the environment. There is experimental evidence of negative impacts on reproductive systems of animals and these resemble human reproductive disorders, especially testicular dysgenesis syndrome, indicating a possible link between phthalate exposure and human disease.


Brominated Flame Retardants are deemed necessary in plastics for safety reasons. They are added to a variety of consumer products, including textiles and thermoplastics used in electronics, e.g. televisions and computers. Studies indicate that the retardants have hormone-disrupting effects, in particular on oestrogen and thyroid hormones, and that exposure can impair development of the reproductive and nervous system.


There has been some concern about heavy metals, such as cadmium, in plastic especially in children’s toys and in plastic crates and pellets. Waste plastic components of mobile phones have also been found to contain lead, cadmium, nickel and silver.


Other chemicals may also contaminate plastic debris. This can happen in a number of ways. Plastic particles from hand cleaners, cosmetic preparations and air blast cleaning may all have collected chemicals. In air blasting technology, polyethylene particles are used to strip paint from metallic surfaces and clean engine parts. These can be used up to ten times before they are discarded, which means they can become significantly contaminated by heavy metals.


Many will find their way into marine waters where they could be transferred to filter-feeding organisms and other invertebrates, eventually reaching species higher up in the food chain. Plastic can also pick up contaminants that are present in water, particularly those that are hydrophobic (repel or unable to mix with water). This includes many highly dangerous chemicals as well as organo-chlorine pesticides, such as DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane).


Chemicals with this level of toxicity have a wide range of chronic effects, including endocrine disruption, mutation and cancer, liver damage, breathing problems, asthma-like symptoms, and lung function abnormalities, and repeated contact with skin may induce skin inflammation.


Economic impact

Research in 2009 into the impact of marine litter in the North Atlantic region estimated substantial economic losses caused by plastic pollution – 90% of floating marine litter is estimated to come from plastic sources.


For example, costs associated with removing beach litter each year for local municipalities is approximately €18 million in the UK, and €10.4 million in the Netherlands and Belgium. In terms of fishing, the estimated cost of marine litter to the Scottish fishing fleet was between €11.7 - 13 million on average per year, which is the equivalent of 5 per cent of the total revenue of affected fisheries. This is mainly because marine litter restricts and contaminates catch, and nets become caught on debris.


On land, plastic litter is a major eyesore and a societal hot issue. Evidence suggests that tourism and leisure industries suffer financially when ambient litter levels increase.

Solutions for plastic pollution

Government actions to reduce plastic pollution

There is a wide range of policy responses to marine litter, but there are also some more specifically aimed at plastic waste.


Responses can be at the international level, such as Annex V to International Convention for Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL), the UNEP Global Programme of Action for Protection of the Marine Environment from Land-based activities and the EU Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD). The Basel Convention on the control of transboundary movements of hazardous wastes and their disposal was adopted in 1989.


Plastic waste prevention is preferable to clean-up, which is very difficult to implement. Prevention can work at the level of production of plastic in terms of redesigning products to use less plastic, design for reuse and recycling and reduced packaging material.


For these to be successful interventions, there may need to be a value placed on disposable products to encourage their reuse and encourage manufacturers to design them for reuse and recycling.


Prevention can also work at the level of plastic becoming waste with the use of targets, taxes and bans but these must be carefully implemented.


There is also a need for better public education and awareness around plastic waste at a national and international level.


Waste management is highly important in addressing the issues of plastic waste. The systems differ from country to country and region to region. In general, there needs to be better integration of marine planning with terrestrial planning.


Several market-based instruments have been explored such as deposit schemes to encourage the return and multi-use of plastics, and taxation on single-use plastics that do not fit into deposit return systems.


However there has been little widespread application of these instruments and more research is needed to maximise their effectiveness.


Plastic waste has the additional complication of spanning many policy areas, such as marine management, coastal management, waste management and the regulation of chemicals.

Personal actions to reduce plastic pollution

First and foremost, do you need plastic wrapping at all? Given a choice in the matter, simply refuse the plastic.


Choose to reuse when it comes to shopping bags and bottled water.


Cloth bags and metal or glass reusable bottles are available locally at great prices.

Refuse single-serving packaging, excess packaging, straws and other "disposable" plastics.


Carry reusable utensils in your purse, backpack or car to use at bbq's, potlucks or take-out restaurants.

Reduce everyday plastics such as sandwich bags and juice cartons by replacing them with a reusable lunch bag/box that includes a thermos.

Bring your to-go mug with you to the coffee shop, smoothie shop or restaurants that let you use them, which is a great way to reduce lids, plastic cups and/or plastic-lined cups.

Go digital! No need for plastic cds, dvds and jewel cases when you can buy your music and videos online.

Seek out alternatives to the plastic items that you rely on.

Avoid plastic bags and polystyrene foam as both typically have very low recycling rates.

Volunteer at a beach cleanup. 

Support plastic bag bans, polystyrene foam bans and bottle recycling bills.

Spread the word. Talk to your family and friends about why it is important to reduce plastic in our lives and the nasty impacts of plastic pollution.


Recycle. If you must use plastic, try to choose #1 (PETE) or #2 (HDPE), which are the most commonly recycled plastics.


Know your plastic waste packaging codes: resin identification codes (RIC) have been in operation since 1988. The code is presented as a number surrounded by a triangular border made up from a  solid line or three arrows.


"1" = (PET) Polyethylene Terephthalate.

"2" = (HDPE) High-Density PolyEthylene.

"3" = (PVC) PolyVinyl Chloride. 

"4" = (LDPE) Low-Density PolyEthylene.

"5" = (PP) PolyPropylene.

"6" = (PS) PolyStyrene.

"7" = (Other) Other plastics.


Choosing categories 1 & 2 greatly increases the recycling chances.

Plastic pollution news

For the latest plastic pollution news stories and other environmental news, check out our news page


Plastic pollution news from


Plastic pollution news from


Plastic pollution news, including commentary and archival articles published in The Huffington Post.


Plastic pollution news, including commentary and archival articles published in The Independent.


Plastic pollution news from Zeenews.india.



Plastic pollution facts

500 - 1000 years

The time it takes for most plastics to degrade although some plastics may never degrade. That means that pretty much every piece of plastic ever made is still present in the world's ecosystems (except incinerated plastic).

500 billion plastic bags used annually

This is approximately equivalent to 1 million bags used every minute.

Plastic production is escalating

As the chart at the top of the page shows, more plastic was produced since 2000 than in the whole of human history beforehand.

50% of plastic is only ever used once, only around 6% is recycled

50% is thrown away immediately after use. The amount disposed of in a year would circle the Earth four times.

Ocean plastic pollution facts

Nearly half of all plastics float. 80% of ocean plastic pollution enters from the land. A standard plastic bottle will break down over time into thousands of plastic granules. 


8 million tons dumped into the ocean every year

According to National Geographic.

Billions of pounds (weight) of plastics are currently swirling around the world's oceans accounting for 90% of all floating debris

The current largest plastic floating trash patch the size of Europe located off the coast of California, known as the 'Great Pacific Garbage Patch'.

Plastic pollution impact on sealife: 1 million seabirds and over 100,000 marine mammals are estimated to die each year from plastic pollution

Frighteningly, plastic particles and chemicals are now moving through the aquatic foodchain. Over 40% of seabird species, 20% of whales and ever-increasing numbers of fish species have been found to contain plastic.

Ocean News

#MyOceanChallenge – A “Rubbish” Challenge for a Clean Ocean (Sun, 17 May 2015)
Until World Oceans Day, June 8,  My Ocean Challenge is to do a litter pick everyday and take photos of the rubbish found to raise funds and awareness about the growing marine litter problem! My “Rubbish” Ocean Challenge started a few days ago with a special evening at my daughter’s Scouts group where I was invited to discuss […]
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Out of Sight, Out of Mind? A Visualization of Ocean Trash (Thu, 15 May 2014)
Project AWARE’s new interactive map is the first to visualize nearly three years of ongoing reporting by an international network of scuba divers who remove marine debris they find underwater through the Dive Against Debris programme, a year round global citizen science initiative. Marine litter does not belong underwater however it is estimated that more […]
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#GivingTuesday: The Ocean Gives Us …. (Tue, 03 Dec 2013)
No matter where we live, the ocean touches our lives every day. It gives us food, water, commerce, and recreation. It even provides some of the medicines that heal us and the air we breathe. It gives us oxygen, rain, food, excitement, joy, wonder, mystery and so much more. The most powerful component in ocean conservation is […]
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Just how badly are we overfishing the oceans? (Fri, 01 Nov 2013)
Humans now have the technology to find and catch every last fish on the planet. Trawl nets, drift nets, longlines, GPS, sonar… As a result, fishing operations have expanded to virtually all corners of the ocean over the past century.  That, in turn, has put a strain on fish populations. The world’s marine fisheries peaked in the […]
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The ocean is not broken, but consumer behaviour is (Tue, 29 Oct 2013)
In an emotional article making waves on social media at the moment, yachtsman Ivan Macfadyen reports seeing no marine life at sea, only floating rubbish, while sailing across the Pacific. He concludes that “the ocean is broken”. I understand Ivan’s feelings, as I too have sailed tens of thousands of miles onboard research vessels and […]
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EU Commission launches a #PublicConsultation on Marine Litter (Tue, 29 Oct 2013)
The European Commission has launched a public consultation on marine litter and is asking for opinions on how we can best address this problem. The Consultation will be open until 18th December 2013 and you can find it here. See on Related articles ‘Ghost fishing’ project in North Sea reaches first milestone ( How to […]
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