Plastic pollution

Plastic pollution in Ghana, 2018
A stream in the Madagascar district in Douala flooded with plastics
The pathway by which plastics enters the world's oceans

Plastic pollution is the accumulation of plastic objects and particles (e.g. plastic bottles, bags and microbeads) in the Earth's environment that adversely affects wildlife, wildlife habitat, and humans. Plastics that act as pollutants are categorized into micro-, meso-, or macro debris, based on size. Plastics are inexpensive and durable, and as a result levels of plastic production by humans are high. However, the chemical structure of most plastics renders them resistant to many natural processes of degradation and as a result they are slow to degrade. Together, these two factors have led to a high prominence of plastic pollution in the environment.

Plastic pollution can afflict land, waterways and oceans. It is estimated that 1.1 to 8.8 million tonnes of plastic waste enters the ocean from coastal communities each year. It is estimated that there is a stock of 86 million tons of plastic marine debris in the worldwide ocean as of the end of 2013, with an assumption that 1.4% of global plastics produced from 1950 to 2013 has entered the ocean and has accumulated there. Living organisms, particularly marine animals, can be harmed either by mechanical effects, such as entanglement in plastic objects, problems related to ingestion of plastic waste, or through exposure to chemicals within plastics that interfere with their physiology. Effects on humans include disruption of various hormonal mechanisms.

As of 2018, about 380 million tonnes of plastic is produced worldwide each year. From the 1950s up to 2018, an estimated 6.3 billion tonnes of plastic has been produced worldwide, of which an estimated 9% has been recycled and another 12% has been incinerated. This large amount of plastic waste enters the environment, with studies suggesting that the bodies of 90% of seabirds contain plastic debris. In some areas there have been significant efforts to reduce the prominence of free range plastic pollution, through reducing plastic consumption, litter cleanup, and promoting plastic recycling. As of 2020, the global mass of produced plastic exceeds the biomass of all land and marine animals combined.

Some researchers suggest that by 2050 there could be more plastic than fish in the oceans by weight.


The trade in plastic waste has been identified as "a main culprit" of marine litter. Countries importing the waste plastics often lack the capacity to process all the material. As a result, the United Nations has imposed a ban on waste plastic trade unless it meets certain criteria.

Types of plastic debris

There are three major forms of plastic that contribute to plastic pollution: microplastics as well as mega- and macro-plastics. Mega- and micro plastics have accumulated in highest densities in the Northern Hemisphere, concentrated around urban centers and water fronts. Plastic can be found off the coast of some islands because of currents carrying the debris. Both mega- and macro-plastics are found in packaging, footwear, and other domestic items that have been washed off of ships or discarded in landfills. Fishing-related items are more likely to be found around remote islands. These may also be referred to as micro-, meso-, and macro debris.

Plastic debris is categorized 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.


Microplastics in the surface ocean

Microdebris are plastic pieces between 2 mm and 5 mm in size. Plastic debris that starts off as meso- or macrodebris can become microdebris through degradation and collisions that break it down into smaller pieces. Microdebris is more commonly referred to as nurdles. Nurdles are recycled to make new plastic items, but they easily end up released into the environment during production because of their small size. They often end up in ocean waters through rivers and streams. Microdebris that come from cleaning and cosmetic products are also referred to as scrubbers. Because microdebris and scrubbers are so small in size, filter-feeding organisms often consume them.

Nurdles enter the ocean by means of spills during transportation or from land based sources. The Ocean Conservancy reported that China, Indonesia, Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam dump more plastic in the sea than all other countries combined. It is estimated that 10% of the plastics in the ocean are nurdles, making them one of the most common types of plastic pollution, along with plastic bags and food containers. These micro-plastics can accumulate in the oceans and allow for the accumulation of Persistent Bio-accumulating Toxins such as bisphenol A, polystyrene, DDT, and PCB's which are hydrophobic in nature and can cause adverse health affects.

Amounts, locations, tracking and correlations of the microdebris

A 2004 study by Richard Thompson from the University of Plymouth, UK, found a great amount of microdebris on the beaches and waters in Europe, the Americas, Australia, Africa, and Antarctica. Thompson and his associates found that plastic pellets from both domestic and industrial sources were being broken down into much smaller plastic pieces, some having a diameter smaller than human hair. If not ingested, this microdebris floats instead of being absorbed into the marine environment. Thompson predicts there may be 300,000 plastic items per square kilometre of sea surface and 100,000 plastic particles per square kilometre of seabed. International pellet watch collected samples of polythene pellets from 30 beaches from 17 countries which were then analysed for organic micro-pollutants. It was found that pellets found on beaches in America, Vietnam and southern Africa contained compounds from pesticides suggesting a high use of pesticides in the areas. In 2020 scientists created what may be the first scientific estimate of how much microplastic currently resides in Earth's seafloor, after investigating six areas of ~3 km depth ~300 km off the Australian coast. They found the highly variable microplastic counts to be proportionate to plastic on the surface and the angle of the seafloor slope. By averaging the microplastic mass per cm3, they estimated that Earth's seafloor contains ~14 million tons of microplastic – about double the amount they estimated based on data from earlier studies – despite calling both estimates "conservative" as coastal areas are known to contain much more microplastic. These estimates are about one to two times the amount of plastic thought – per Jambeck et al., 2015 – to currently enter the oceans annually.


Macroplastics in the surface ocean

Plastic debris is categorized as macrodebris when it is larger than 20 mm. These include items such as plastic grocery bags. Macrodebris are often found in ocean waters, and can have a serious impact on the native organisms. Fishing nets have been prime pollutants. Even after they have been abandoned, they continue to trap marine organisms and other plastic debris. Eventually, these abandoned nets become too difficult to remove from the water because they become too heavy, having grown in weight up to 6 tonnes.

Plastic production

Decomposition of plastics

Average estimated decomposition times of typical marine debris items. Plastic items are shown in blue.

Plastics themselves contribute to approximately 10% of discarded waste. Many kinds of plastics exist depending on their precursors and the method for their polymerization. Depending on their chemical composition, plastics and resins have varying properties related to contaminant absorption and adsorption. Polymer degradation takes much longer as a result of saline environments and the cooling effect of the sea. These factors contribute to the persistence of plastic debris in certain environments. Recent studies have shown that plastics in the ocean decompose faster than was once thought, due to exposure to sun, rain, and other environmental conditions, resulting in the release of toxic chemicals such as bisphenol A. However, due to the increased volume of plastics in the ocean, decomposition has slowed down. The Marine Conservancy has predicted the decomposition rates of several plastic products. It is estimated that a foam plastic cup will take 50 years, a plastic beverage holder will take 400 years, a disposable nappy will take 450 years, and fishing line will take 600 years to degrade.

Persistent organic pollutants

It was estimated that global production of plastics is approximately 250 mt/yr. Their abundance has been found to transport persistent organic pollutants, also known as POPs. These pollutants have been linked to an increased distribution of algae associated with red tides.

Commercial pollutants

In 2019, the group Break Free From Plastic organized over 70,000 volunteers in 51 countries to collect and identify plastic waste. These volunteers collected over "59,000 plastic bags, 53,000 sachets and 29,000 plastic bottles," as reported by The Guardian. Nearly half of the items were identifiable by consumer brands. The most common brands were Coca-Cola, Nestlé, and Pepsico. According to the report of this group in the year 2020, these 3 companies were the biggest plastic polluters in the years 2018–2020. In the year 2020 the biggest amount of plastic was collected by the volunteers. According to the global campaign coordinator of this organization Emma Priestland, the only way to solve the problem is stoping producing single use plastic and move to reusable products instead.

Coca-Cola answered that “more than 20% of our portfolio comes in refillable or fountain packaging”, they are decreasing the amount of plastic in secondary packaging.

Nestlé responded that 87% of their packaging and 66% of their plastic packaging can be reused or recycled and by 2025 they want to make it 100%. By that year they want to reduce the consumption of virgin plastic by one third.

Pepsico responded that they want to decrease "virgin plastic in our beverage business by 35% by 2025” and also expanding reuse and refill practices what should prevent 67 billion single use bottles by 2025.

Major plastic polluter countries

Share of plastic waste that is inadequately managed
Per capita mismanaged plastic waste (in kilograms per person per day)

Mismanaged plastic waste polluters

Top 12 mismanaged plastic waste polluters

  China (27.7%)
  Indonesia (10.1%)
  Philippines (5.9%)
  Vietnam (5.8%)
  Sri Lanka (5.0%)
  Thailand (3.2%)
  Egypt (3.0%)
  Malaysia (2.9%)
  Nigeria (2.7%)
  Bangladesh (2.5%)
  South Africa (2.0%)
  India (1.9%)
  Rest of the world (27.3%)

In 2018 approximate 513 million tonnes of plastics wind up in the oceans every year out of which the 83,1% is from the following 20 countries: China is the most mismanaged plastic waste polluter leaving in the sea the 27.7% of the world total, second Indonesia with the 10.1%, third Philippines with 5.9%, fourth Vietnam with 5.8%, fifth Sri Lanka 5.0%, sixth Thailand with 3.2%, seventh Egypt with 3.0%, eighth Malaysia with 2.9%, ninth Nigeria with 2.7%, tenth Bangladesh with 2.5%, eleventh South Africa with 2.0%, twelfth India with 1.9%, thirteenth Algeria with 1.6%, fourteenth Turkey with 1.5%, fifteenth Pakistan with 1.5%, sixteenth Brazil with 1.5%, seventeenth Myanmar with 1.4%, eighteenth Morocco with 1.0%, nineteenth North Korea with 1.0%, twentieth United States with 0.9%. The rest of world's countries combined wind up the 16.9% of the mismanaged plastic waste in the oceans, according to a study published by Science, Jambeck et al (2015).

All the European Union countries combined would rank eighteenth on the list.

A 2019 study calculated the mismanaged plastic waste, in millions of metric tonnes (Mt) per year:

  • 52 Mt - Asia
  • 17 Mt - Africa
  • 7.9 Mt - Latin America & Caribbean
  • 3.3 Mt - Europe
  • 0.3 Mt - US & Canada
  • 0.1 Mt - Oceania (Australia, New Zealand, etc.)

Total plastic waste polluters

Around 275 million tonnes of plastic waste is generated each year around the world; between 4.8 million and 12.7 million tonnes is dumped into the sea. About 60% of the plastic waste in the ocean comes from the following top 5 countries. The table below list the top 20 plastic waste polluting countries in 2010 according to a study published by Science, Jambeck et al (2015).

All the European Union countries combined would rank eighteenth on the list.

In a study published by Environmental Science & Technology, Schmidt et al (2017) calculated that 10 rivers: two in Africa (the Nile and the Niger) and eight in Asia (the Ganges, Indus, Yellow, Yangtze, Hai He, Pearl, Mekong and Amur) "transport 88–95% of the global plastics load into the sea.".

The Caribbean Islands are the biggest plastic polluters per capita in the world. Trinidad and Tobago produces 1.5 kilograms of waste per capita per day, is the biggest plastic polluter per capita in the world. At least 0.19 kg per person per day of Trinidad and Tobago's plastic debris end up in the ocean, or for example Saint Lucia which generates more than four times the amount of plastic waste per capita as China and is responsible for 1.2 times more improperly disposed plastic waste per capita than China. Of the top thirty global polluters per capita, ten are from the Caribbean region. These are Trinidad and Tobago, Antigua and Barbuda, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Guyana, Barbados, Saint Lucia, Bahamas, Grenada, Anguilla and Aruba, according to a set of studies summarized by Forbes (2019).


Effects on the environment

The distribution of plastic debris is highly variable as a result of certain factors such as wind and ocean currents, coastline geography, urban areas, and trade routes. Human population in certain areas also plays a large role in this. Plastics are more likely to be found in enclosed regions such as the Caribbean. It serves as a means of distribution of organisms to remote coasts that are not their native environments. This could potentially increase the variability and dispersal of organisms in specific areas that are less biologically diverse. Plastics can also be used as vectors for chemical contaminants such as persistent organic pollutants and heavy metals.

Plastic pollution as a cause of climate change

In 2019 a new report "Plastic and Climate" was published. According to the report, in 2019, production and incineration of plastic will contribute greenhouse gases in the equivalent of 850 million tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO
) to the atmosphere. In current trend, annual emissions from these sources will grow to 1.34 billion tonnes by 2030. By 2050 plastic could emit 56 billion tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions, as much as 14 percent of the earth's remaining carbon budget. By 2100 it will emit 260 billion tonnes, more than half of the carbon budget. Those are emission from production, transportation, incineration, but there are also releases of methane and effects on phytoplankton.

Effects of plastic on land

Plastic pollution on land poses a threat to the plants and animals – including humans who are based on the land. Estimates of the amount of plastic concentration on land are between four and twenty three times that of the ocean. The amount of plastic poised on the land is greater and more concentrated than that in the water. Mismanaged plastic waste ranges from 60 percent in East Asia and Pacific to one percent in North America. The percentage of mismanaged plastic waste reaching the ocean annually and thus becoming plastic marine debris is between one third and one half the total mismanaged waste for that year.

Chlorinated plastic can release harmful chemicals into the surrounding soil, which can then seep into groundwater or other surrounding water sources and also the ecosystem of the world. This can cause serious harm to the species that drink the water.

Plastic pollution in tap water

A 2017 study found that 83% of tap water samples taken around the world contained plastic pollutants. This was the first study to focus on global drinking water pollution with plastics, and showed that with a contamination rate of 94%, tap water in the United States was the most polluted, followed by Lebanon and India. European countries such as the United Kingdom, Germany and France had the lowest contamination rate, though still as high as 72%. This means that people may be ingesting between 3,000 and 4,000 microparticles of plastic from tap water per year. The analysis found particles of more than 2.5 microns in size, which is 2500 times bigger than a nanometer. It is currently unclear if this contamination is affecting human health, but if the water is also found to contain nano-particle pollutants, there could be adverse impacts on human well-being, according to scientists associated with the study.

However, plastic tap water pollution remains under-studied, as are the links of how pollution transfers between humans, air, water, and soil.

Plastics effect on flooding

Plastic waste clogs drains and in many cities increasing flood damage.

Effects of plastic on oceans

Pacific Ocean currents have created 3 "islands" of debris.
Model results for the count density of planktonic plastic particles (red is more dense)

Plastic waste entering the seas is increasing each year with much of the plastic entering the seas is in particles smaller than 5 millimetres. As of 2016 it was estimated that there was approximately 150 million tonnes of plastic pollution in the world's oceans, estimated to grow to 250 million tonnes in 2025. Another study estimated that in 2012, it was approximately 165 million tonnes. In 2020 a study found that the Atlantic Ocean contain approximately 10 times more plastic than was previously thought.

The Ocean Conservancy reported that China, Indonesia, Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam dump more plastic in the sea than all other countries combined.

One study estimated that there are more than 5 trillion plastic pieces (defined into the four classes of small microplastics, large microplastics, meso- and macroplastics) afloat at sea. In 2020, new measurements found more than 10 times as much plastic in the Atlantic Ocean than previously estimated to be there.

The litter that is being delivered into the oceans is toxic to marine life, and humans. The toxins that are components of plastic include diethylhexyl phthalate, which is a toxic carcinogen, as well as lead, cadmium, and mercury.

Plankton, fish, and ultimately the human race, through the food chain, ingest these highly toxic carcinogens and chemicals. Consuming the fish that contain these toxins can cause an increase in cancer, immune disorders, and birth defects.[failed verification]

The majority of the litter near and in the ocean is made up of plastics and is a persistent pervasive source of marine pollution. In many countries improper management of solid waste means there is little control of plastic entering the water system. According to Dr. Marcus Eriksen of The 5 Gyres Institute, there are 5.25 trillion particles of plastic pollution that weigh as much as 270,000 tonnes (2016). This plastic is taken by the ocean currents and accumulates in large vortexes known as ocean gyres. The majority of the gyres become pollution dumps filled with plastic.

Sources of ocean-based plastic pollution

In October 2019, when research revealed most ocean plastic pollution comes from Chinese cargo ships, an Ocean Cleanup spokesperson said: "Everyone talks about saving the oceans by stopping using plastic bags, straws and single use packaging. That's important, but when we head out on the ocean, that's not necessarily what we find."

Almost 20% of plastic debris that pollutes ocean water, which translates to 5.6 million tonnes, comes from ocean-based sources. MARPOL, an international treaty, "imposes a complete ban on the at-sea disposal of plastics". Merchant ships expel cargo, sewage, used medical equipment, and other types of waste that contain plastic into the ocean. In the United States, the Marine Plastic Pollution Research and Control Act of 1987 prohibits discharge of plastics in the sea, including from naval vessels. Naval and research vessels eject waste and military equipment that are deemed unnecessary. Pleasure crafts release fishing gear and other types of waste, either accidentally or through negligent handling. The largest ocean-based source of plastic pollution is discarded fishing gear (including traps and nets), estimated to be up to 90% of plastic debris in some areas.

Continental plastic litter enters the ocean largely through storm-water runoff, flowing into watercourses or directly discharged into coastal waters. Plastic in the ocean has been shown to follow ocean currents which eventually form into what is known as Great Garbage Patches. Knowledge of the routes that plastic follows in ocean currents comes from accidental container drops from ship carriers. For example, in May 1990 The Hansa Carrier, sailing from Korea to the United States, broke apart due to a storm, ultimately resulting in thousands of dumped shoes; these eventually started showing up on the U.S western coast, and Hawaii.

Plastic waste generation exceeds amount of plastic pollution being expelled from the ocean.

The impact of microplastic and macroplastic into the ocean is not subjected to infiltration directly by dumping of plastic into marine ecosystems, but through polluted rivers that lead or create passageways to oceans across the globe. Rivers can either act as a source or sink depending on the context. Rivers receive and gather majority of plastic but can also prevent a good percentage from entering the ocean. Rivers are the dominant source of plastic pollution in the marine environment contributing nearly 80% in recent studies. The amount of plastic that is recorded to be in the ocean is considerably less than the amount of plastic that is entering the ocean at any given time. According to a study done in the UK, there are "ten top" macroplastic dominant typologies that are solely consumer related (located in the table below). Within this study, 192,213 litter items were counted with an average of 71% being plastic and 59% were consumer related macroplastic items. Even though freshwater pollution is the major contributor to marine plastic pollution there is little studies done and data collection for the amount of pollution going from freshwater to marine. Majority of papers conclude that there is minimal data collection of plastic debris in freshwater environments and natural terrestrial environments, even though these are the major contributor. The need for policy change in production, usage, disposal, and waste management is necessary to decrease the amount and potential of plastic to enter freshwater environments.

Land-based sources of ocean plastic pollution

Estimates for the contribution of land-based plastic vary widely. While one study estimated that a little over 80% of plastic debris in ocean water comes from land-based sources, responsible for 800,000 tonnes (880,000 short tons) every year. In 2015, Jambeck et al. calculated that 275 million tonnes (303 million short tons) of plastic waste was generated in 192 coastal countries in 2010, with 4.8 to 12.7 million tonnes (5.3 to 14 million short tons) entering the ocean – a percentage of only up to 5%.

In a study published by Science, Jambeck et al (2015) estimated that the 10 largest emitters of oceanic plastic pollution worldwide are, from the most to the least, China, Indonesia, Philippines, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Egypt, Malaysia, Nigeria, and Bangladesh.

A source that has caused concern is landfills. Most waste in the form of plastic in landfills are single-use items such as packaging. Discarding plastics this way leads to accumulation. Although disposing of plastic waste in landfills has less of a gas emission risk than disposal through incineration, the former has space limitations. Another concern is that the liners acting as protective layers between the landfill and environment can break, thus leaking toxins and contaminating the nearby soil and water. Landfills located near oceans often contribute to ocean debris because content is easily swept up and transported to the sea by wind or small waterways like rivers and streams. Marine debris can also result from sewage water that has not been efficiently treated, which is eventually transported to the ocean through rivers. Plastic items that have been improperly discarded can also be carried to oceans through storm waters.

Garbage patches

A garbage patch is a gyre of marine debris particles caused by the effects of ocean currents and increasing plastic pollution by human populations. These human-caused collections of plastic and other debris, cause ecosystem and environmental problems that effect marine life, contaminate oceans with toxic chemicals, and contribute to greenhouse gas emissions.

The best known of these is the Great Pacific garbage patch which has the highest density of marine debris and plastic, visible from space in certain weather conditions. Other identified patches include the North Atlantic garbage patch between North America and Africa, the South Atlantic garbage patch located between eastern South America and the tip of Africa, the South Pacific garbage patch located west of South America, and the Indian Ocean garbage patch found east of south Africa listed in order of decreasing size.

Garbage patches are rapidly growing because of widespread loss of plastic from human trash collection systems. It is estimated that approximately "100 million tons of plastic are generated [globally] each year", and about 10% of that plastic ends up in the oceans. The United Nations Environmental Program recently estimated that "for every square mile of ocean" there are about "46,000 pieces of plastic."
In the Pacific Ocean
North Pacific Subtropical Convergence Zone

In the Pacific Gyre, specifically 20°N-40°N latitude, large bodies with floating marine debris can be found. Models of wind patterns and ocean currents indicate that the plastic waste in the northern Pacific is particularly dense where the Subtropical Convergence Zone (STCZ), 23°N-37°N latitude, meets a southwest–northeast line, found north of the Hawaiian archipelago.

In the Pacific, there are two mass buildups: the western garbage patch and the eastern garbage patch, the former off the coast of Japan and the latter between Hawaii and California. The two garbage patches are both part of the great Pacific garbage patch, and are connected through a section of plastic debris off the northern coast of the Hawaiian islands. It is approximated that these garbage patches contain 90 million tonnes (100 million short tons) of debris. The waste is not compact, and although most of it is near the surface of the pacific, it can be found up to more than 30 metres (100 ft) deep in the water.

Research published in April 2017 reported "the highest density of plastic rubbish anywhere in the world" on remote and uninhabited Henderson Island in South Pacific as a result of the South Pacific Gyre. The beaches contain an estimated 37.7 million items of debris together weighing 17.6 tonnes. In a study transect on North Beach, each day 17 to 268 new items washed up on a 10-metre section. The study noted that purple hermit crabs (Coenobita spinosus) make their homes in plastic containers washed up on beaches.

Effects on animals

Plastic pollution has the potential to poison animals, which can then adversely affect human food supplies. Plastic pollution has been described as being highly detrimental to large marine mammals, described in the book Introduction to Marine Biology as posing the "single greatest threat" to them. Some marine species, such as sea turtles, have been found to contain large proportions of plastics in their stomach. When this occurs, the animal typically starves, because the plastic blocks the animal's digestive tract. Sometimes Marine mammals are entangled in plastic products such as nets, which can harm or kill them.


Sea turtle entangled in a ghost net

Entanglement in plastic debris has been responsible for the deaths of many marine organisms, such as fish, seals, turtles, and birds. These animals get caught in the debris and end up suffocating or drowning. Because they are unable to untangle themselves, they also die from starvation or from their inability to escape predators. Being entangled also often results in severe lacerations and ulcers. In a 2006 report known as Plastic Debris in the World's Oceans, it was estimated that at least 267 different animal species have suffered from entanglement and ingestion of plastic debris. It has been estimated that over 400,000 marine mammals perish annually due to plastic pollution in oceans. Marine organisms get caught in discarded fishing equipment, such as ghost nets. Ropes and nets used to fish are often made of synthetic materials such as nylon, making fishing equipment more durable and buoyant. These organisms can also get caught in circular plastic packaging materials, and if the animal continues to grow in size, the plastic can cut into their flesh. Equipment such as nets can also drag along the seabed, causing damage to coral reefs.


Marine animals
An exhibit at the Mote Marine Laboratory that displays plastic bags in the ocean that look similar to jellyfish.

Sea turtles are affected by plastic pollution. Some species are consumers of jelly fish, but often mistake plastic bags for their natural prey. This plastic debris can kill the sea turtle by obstructing the oesophagus. Baby sea turtles are particularly vulnerable according to a 2018 study by Australian scientists.

So too are whales. Large amounts of plastics have been found in the stomachs of beached whales. Plastic debris started appearing in the stomach of the sperm whale since the 1970s, and has been noted to be the cause of death of several whales. In June 2018, more than 80 plastic bags were found inside a dying pilot whale that washed up on the shores of Thailand. In March 2019, a dead Cuvier's beaked whale washed up in the Philippines with 88 lbs of plastic in its stomach. In April 2019, following the discovery of a dead sperm whale off of Sardinia with 48 pounds of plastic in its stomach, the World Wildlife Foundation warned that plastic pollution is one of the most dangerous threats to sea life, noting that five whales have been killed by plastic over a two-year period.

Some of the tiniest bits of plastic are being consumed by small fish, in a part of the pelagic zone in the ocean called the Mesopelagic zone, which is 200 to 1000 metres below the ocean surface, and completely dark. Not much is known about these fish, other than that there are many of them. They hide in the darkness of the ocean, avoiding predators and then swimming to the ocean's surface at night to feed. Plastics found in the stomachs of these fish were collected during Malaspina's circumnavigation, a research project that studies the impact of global change on the oceans.

A study conducted by Scripps Institution of Oceanography showed that the average plastic content in the stomachs of 141 mesopelagic fish over 27 different species was 9.2%. Their estimate for the ingestion rate of plastic debris by these fish in the North Pacific was between 12,000 and 24,000 tonnes per year. The most popular mesopelagic fish is the lantern fish. It resides in the central ocean gyres, a large system of rotating ocean currents. Since lantern fish serve as a primary food source for the fish that consumers purchase, including tuna and swordfish, the plastics they ingest become part of the food chain. The lantern fish is one of the main bait fish in the ocean, and it eats large amounts of plastic fragments, which in turn will not make them nutritious enough for other fish to consume.

Another study found bits of plastic outnumber baby fish by seven to one in nursery waters off Hawaii. After dissecting hundreds of larval fish, the researchers discovered that many fish species ingested plastic particles. Plastics were also found in flying fish, which are eaten by top predators such as tunas and most Hawaiian seabirds.

Deep sea animals have been found with plastics in their stomachs.

Northern gannet on Helgoland, trapped in their own nests, build only of old nets and other plastic waste.

Plastic pollution does not only affect animals that live solely in oceans. Seabirds are also greatly affected. In 2004, it was estimated that gulls in the North Sea had an average of thirty pieces of plastic in their stomachs. Seabirds often mistake trash floating on the ocean's surface as prey. Their food sources often has already ingested plastic debris, thus transferring the plastic from prey to predator. Ingested trash can obstruct and physically damage a bird's digestive system, reducing its digestive ability and can lead to malnutrition, starvation, and death. Toxic chemicals called polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) also become concentrated on the surface of plastics at sea and are released after seabirds eat them. These chemicals can accumulate in body tissues and have serious lethal effects on a bird's reproductive ability, immune system, and hormone balance. Floating plastic debris can produce ulcers, infections and lead to death. Marine plastic pollution can even reach birds that have never been at the sea. Parents may accidentally feed their nestlings plastic, mistaking it for food. Seabird chicks are the most vulnerable to plastic ingestion since they can't vomit up their food like the adult seabirds.

After the initial observation that many of the beaches in New Zealand had high concentrations of plastic pellets, further studies found that different species of prion ingest the plastic debris. Hungry prions mistook these pellets for food, and these particles were found intact within the birds' gizzards and proventriculi. Pecking marks similar to those made by northern fulmars in cuttlebones have been found in plastic debris, such as styrofoam, on the beaches on the Dutch coast, showing that this species of bird also mistake plastic debris for food.

An estimate of 1.5 million Laysan albatrosses, which inhabit Midway Atoll, all have plastics in their digestive system. Midway Atoll is halfway between Asia and North America, and north of the Hawaiian archipelago. In this remote location, the plastic blockage has proven deadly to these birds. These seabirds choose red, pink, brown, and blue plastic pieces because of similarities to their natural food sources. As a result of plastic ingestion, the digestive tract can be blocked resulting in starvation. The windpipe can also be blocked, which results in suffocation. The debris can also accumulate in the animal's gut, and give them a false sense of fullness which would also result in starvation. On the shore, thousands of birds corpses can be seen with plastic remaining where the stomach once was. The durability of the plastics is visible among the remains. In some instances, the plastic piles are still present while the bird's corpse has decayed.

Similar to humans, animals exposed to plasticizers can experience developmental defects. Specifically, sheep have been found to have lower birth weights when prenatally exposed to bisphenol A. Exposure to BPA can shorten the distance between the eyes of a tadpole. It can also stall development in frogs and can result in a decrease in body length. In different species of fish, exposure can stall egg hatching and result in a decrease in body weight, tail length, and body length.

Effects on humans

Compounds that are used in manufacturing pollute the environment by releasing chemicals into the air and water. Some compounds that are used in plastics, such as phthalates, bisphenol A (BRA), polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE), are under close statute and might be very hurtful. Even though these compounds are unsafe, they have been used in the manufacturing of food packaging, medical devices, flooring materials, bottles, perfumes, cosmetics and much more. The large dosage of these compounds are hazardous to humans, destroying the endocrine system. BRA imitates the female's hormone called estrogen. PBD destroys and causes damage to thyroid hormones, which are vital hormone glands that play a major role in the metabolism, growth and development of the human body. Although the level of exposure to these chemicals varies depending on age and geography, most humans experience simultaneous exposure to many of these chemicals. Average levels of daily exposure are below the levels deemed to be unsafe, but more research needs to be done on the effects of low dose exposure on humans. A lot is unknown on how severely humans are physically affected by these chemicals. Some of the chemicals used in plastic production can cause dermatitis upon contact with human skin. In many plastics, these toxic chemicals are only used in trace amounts, but significant testing is often required to ensure that the toxic elements are contained within the plastic by inert material or polymer. Children and women during their reproduction age are at most at risk and more prone to damaging their immune as well as their reproductive system from these hormone-disrupting chemicals.

It can also affect humans because it may create an eyesore that interferes with enjoyment of the natural environment.

Clinical significance

Due to the pervasiveness of plastic products, most of the human population is constantly exposed to the chemical components of plastics. 95% of adults in the United States have had detectable levels of BPA in their urine. Exposure to chemicals such as BPA have been correlated with disruptions in fertility, reproduction, sexual maturation, and other health effects. Specific phthalates have also resulted in similar biological effects.

Thyroid hormone axis

Bisphenol A affects gene expression related to the thyroid hormone axis, which affects biological functions such as metabolism and development. BPA can decrease thyroid hormone receptor (TR) activity by increasing TR transcriptional corepressor activity. This then decreases the level of thyroid hormone binding proteins that bind to triiodothyronine. By affecting the thyroid hormone axis, BPA exposure can lead to hypothyroidism.

Sex hormones

BPA can disrupt normal, physiological levels of sex hormones. It does this by binding to globulins that normally bind to sex hormones such as androgens and estrogens, leading to the disruption of the balance between the two. BPA can also affect the metabolism or the catabolism of sex hormones. It often acts as an antiandrogen or as an estrogen, which can cause disruptions in gonadal development and sperm production.

Reduction efforts

Household items made of various types of plastic.
Waste generation, measured in kilograms per person per day

Efforts to reduce the use of plastics and to promote plastic recycling have occurred. Some supermarkets charge their customers for plastic bags, and in some places more efficient reusable or biodegradable materials are being used in place of plastics. Some communities and businesses have put a ban on some commonly used plastic items, such as bottled water and plastic bags. Some non-governmental organizations have launched voluntary plastic reduction schemes like certificates that can be adapted by restaurants to be recognized as eco-friendly among customers.

In January 2019 a "Global Alliance to End Plastic Waste" was created by companies in the plastics industry. The alliance aims to clean the environment from existing waste and increase recycling, but it does not mention reduction in plastic production as one of its targets.

Biodegradable and degradable plastics

The use of biodegradable plastics has many advantages and disadvantages. Biodegradables are biopolymers that degrade in industrial composters. Biodegradables do not degrade as efficiently in domestic composters, and during this slower process, methane gas may be emitted.

There are also other types of degradable materials that are not considered to be biopolymers, because they are oil-based, similar to other conventional plastics. These plastics are made to be more degradable through the use of different additives, which help them degrade when exposed to UV rays or other physical stressors. yet, biodegradation-promoting additives for polymers have been shown not to significantly increase biodegradation.

Although biodegradable and degradable plastics have helped reduce plastic pollution, there are some drawbacks. One issue concerning both types of plastics is that they do not break down very efficiently in natural environments. There, degradable plastics that are oil-based may break down into smaller fractions, at which point they do not degrade further.

A Parliamentary committee in the United Kingdom also found that compostable and biodegradable plastics could add to marine pollution because there is a lack of infrastructure to deal with these new types of plastic, as well as a lack of understanding about them on the part of consumers. For example, these plastics need to be sent to industrial composting facilities to degrade properly, but no adequate system exists to make sure waste reaches these facilities. The committee thus recommended to reduce the amount of plastic used rather than introducing new types of it to the market.


Up to 60% of used plastic medical equipment is incinerated rather than deposited in a landfill as a precautionary measure to lessen the transmission of disease. This has allowed for a large decrease in the amount of plastic waste that stems from medical equipment. If plastic waste is not incinerated and disposed of properly, a harmful amount of toxins can be released and dispersed as a gas through air or as ash through air and waterways. Many studies have been done concerning the gaseous emissions that result from the incineration process.


Agencies such as the US Environmental Protection Agency and US Food and Drug Administration often do not assess the safety of new chemicals until after a negative side effect is shown. Once they suspect a chemical may be toxic, it is studied to determine the human reference dose, which is determined to be the lowest observable adverse effect level. During these studies, a high dose is tested to see if it causes any adverse health effects, and if it does not, lower doses are considered to be safe as well. This does not take into account the fact that with some chemicals found in plastics, such as BPA, lower doses can have a discernible effect. Even with this often complex evaluation process, policies have been put into place in order to help alleviate plastic pollution and its effects. Government regulations have been implemented that ban some chemicals from being used in specific plastic products.

In Canada, the United States, and the European Union, BPA has been banned from being incorporated in the production of baby bottles and children's cups, due to health concerns and the higher vulnerability of younger children to the effects of BPA. Taxes have been established in order to discourage specific ways of managing plastic waste. The landfill tax, for example, creates an incentive to choose to recycle plastics rather than contain them in landfills, by making the latter more expensive. There has also been a standardization of the types of plastics that can be considered compostable. The European Norm EN 13432, which was set by the European Committee for Standardization (CEN), lists the standards that plastics must meet, in terms of compostability and biodegradability, in order to officially be labeled as compostable.

Voluntary reduction efforts failing

Major plastic producers continue to lobby governments to refrain from imposing restrictions on plastic production and to advocate for voluntary corporate targets to reduce new plastic output. However, the world's top 10 plastic producers, including The Coca-Cola Company, Nestle SA and PepsiCo have been failing to meet even their own minimum targets for virgin plastic use.

Institutional arrangements in Canada

The Canadian federal government formed a current institution that protects marine areas; this includes the mitigation of plastic pollution. In 1997, Canada adopted legislation for oceans management and passed the Oceans Act. Federal governance, Regional Governance, and Aboriginal Peoples are the actors involved in the process of decision-making and implementation of the decision. The Regional Governance bodies are federal, provincial, and territorial government agencies that hold responsibilities of the marine environment. Aboriginal Peoples in Canada have treaty and non-treaty rights related to ocean activities. According to the Canadian government, they respect these rights and work with Aboriginal groups in oceans management activities.

With the Oceans Act made legal, Canada made a commitment to conserve and protect the oceans. The Ocean Acts' underlying principle is sustainable development, precautionary and integrated management approach to ensure that there is a comprehensive understanding in protecting marine areas. In the integrated management approach, the Oceans Act designates federal responsibility to the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans Canada for any new and emerging ocean-related activities. The Act encourages collaboration and coordination within the government that unifies interested parties. Moreover, the Oceans Act engages any Canadians who are interested in being informed of the decision-making regarding ocean environment.

In 2005, federal organizations developed the Federal Marine Protected Areas Strategy. This strategy is a collaborative approach implemented by Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Parks Canada, and Environment Canada to plan and manage federal marine protected areas. The federal marine protected areas work with Aboriginal groups, industries, academia, environmental groups, and NGOs to strengthen marine protected areas. The federal marine protected areas network consists of three core programs: Marine Protected Areas, Marine Wildlife Areas, and National Marine Conservation Areas. The MPA is a program to be noted because it is significant in protecting ecosystems from the effects of industrial activities. The MPA guiding principles are Integrated Management, ecosystem-based management approach, Adaptive Management Approach, Precautionary Principle, and Flexible Management Approach. All five guiding principles are used collectively and simultaneously to collaborate and respect legislative mandates of individual departments, to use scientific knowledge and traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) to manage human activities, to monitor and report on programs to meet conservation objectives of MPAs, to use best available information in the absence of scientific certainty, and to maintain a balance between conservation needs and sustainable development objectives.

Collection or recycling

The two common forms of waste collection include curbside collection and the use of drop-off recycling centers. About 87 percent of the population in the United States (273 million people) have access to curbside and drop-off recycling centers. In curbside collection, which is available to about 63 percent of the United States population (193 million people), people place designated plastics in a special bin to be picked up by a public or private hauling company. Most curbside programs collect more than one type of plastic resin, usually both PETE and HDPE. At drop-off recycling centers, which are available to 68 percent of the United States population (213 million people), people take their recyclables to a centrally located facility. Once collected, the plastics are delivered to a materials recovery facility (MRF) or handler for sorting into single-resin streams to increase product value. The sorted plastics are then baled to reduce shipping costs to reclaimers.

There are varying rates of recycling per type of plastic, and in 2017, the overall plastic recycling rate was approximately 8.4% in the United States. Approximately 2.7 million tonnes (3.0 million short tons) of plastics were recycled in the U.S. in 2017, while 24.3 million tonnes (26.8 million short tons) plastic were dumped in landfills the same year. Some plastics are recycled more than others; in 2017 about 31.2 percent of HDPE bottles and 29.1 percent of PET bottles and jars were recycled.

In 21 May 2019, a new service model called "Loop" to collect packaging from consumers and reuse it, began to function in the New York region, US. Consumers drop packages in special shipping totes and then a pick up collect them. Partners include Procter & Gamble, Nestlé, PepsiCo, Unilever, Mars Petcare, The Clorox Company, The Body Shop, Coca-Cola, Mondelēz, Danone and other firms. It has begun with several thousand households, but there are 60,000 on the waiting list. The target of the service is not only stop single use plastic, but to stop single use generally by recycling consumer product containers of various materials.

Ocean cleanup

The organization "The Ocean Cleanup" is trying to collect plastic waste from the oceans by nets. There are concerns from harm to some forms of sea organisms, especially Neuston.

Non-usage and reduction in usage

European Union

In 2015 The European Union adopted a directive, that require a reduction in the consumption of single use plastic bags per person, to 90 by the year 2019 and to 40 by the year 2025. In April 2019, the European Union adopted a law banning almost all types of single use plastic, except bottles, from the beginning of the year 2021.


In 2020 China published its plan to cut 30% of plastic waste in 5 years. As part of this plan, single use plastic bags and straws will be banned


The government of India decided to ban single use plastics and take a number of measures to recycle and reuse plastic, from 2 October 2019

The Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation, Government of India, has requested various governmental departments to avoid the use of plastic bottles to provide drinking water during governmental meetings, etc., and to instead make arrangements for providing drinking water that do not generate plastic waste. The state of Sikkim has restricted the usage of plastic water bottles (in government functions and meetings) and styrofoam products. The state of Bihar has banned the usage of plastic water bottles in governmental meetings.

The 2015 National Games of India, organised in Thiruvananthapuram, was associated with green protocols. This was initiated by Suchitwa Mission that aimed for "zero-waste" venues. To make the event "disposable-free", there was ban on the usage of disposable water bottles. The event witnessed the usage of reusable tableware and stainless steel tumblers. Athletes were provided with refillable steel flasks. It is estimated that these green practices stopped the generation of 120 tonnes of disposable waste.

The city of Bangalore in 2016 banned the plastic for all purpose other than for few special cases like milk delivery etc.

The state of Maharashtra, India effected the Maharashtra Plastic and Thermocol Products ban 23 June 2018, subjecting plastic users to fines and potential imprisonment for repeat offenders.


In July 2018, Albania became the first country in Europe to ban lightweight plastic bags. Albania's environment minister Blendi Klosi said that businesses importing, producing or trading plastic bags less than 35 microns in thickness risk facing fines between 1 million to 1.5 million lek (€7,900 to €11,800).


In Bali, a pair of two sisters, Melati and Isabel Wijsen, have gone through efforts to ban plastic bags in 2019. Their organization Bye Bye Plastic Bags has spread to 28 locations around the world.

United States

In 2009, Washington University in St. Louis became the first university in the United States to ban the sale of plastic, single-use water bottles.

In 2009, District of Columbia required all businesses that sell food or alcohol to charge an additional 5 cents for each carryout plastic or paper bag.

In 2011 and 2013, Kauai, Maui and Hawaii prohibit non-biodegradable plastic bags at checkout as well as paper bags containing less than 40 percent recycled material. In 2015, Honolulu was the last major county approving the ban.

In 2015, California prohibited large stores from providing plastic bags, and if so a charge of $0.10 per bag and has to meet certain criteria.

In 2016, Illinois adopted the legislation and established “Recycle Thin Film Friday” in effort toe reclaim used thin-film plastic bags and encourage reusable bags.

In 2019 The New York (state) banned single use plastic bags and introduced a 5-cent fee for using single use paper bags. The ban will enter into force in 2020. This will not only reduce plastic bag usage in New York state (23,000,000,000 every year until now), but also eliminate 12 million barrels of oil used to make plastic bags used by the state each year.

The state of Maine ban Styrofoam (polystyrene) containers in May 2019.

In 2019 the Giant Eagle retailer became the first big US retailer that committed to completely phase out plastic by 2025. The first step - stop using single use plastic bags - will begun to be implemented already on January 15, 2020.

In 2019, Delaware, Maine, Oregon and Vermont enacted on legislation. Vermont also restricted single-use straws and polystyrene containers.

In 2019, Connecticut imposed a $0.10 charge on single-use plastic bags at point of sale, and is going to ban them on July 1, 2021.


In 2019, The House of Representatives of Nigeria banned the production, import and usage of plastic bags in the country.


In Israel, 2 cities: Eilat and Herzliya, decided to ban the usage of single use plastic bags and cutlery on the beaches. In 2020 Tel Aviv joined them, banning also the sale of single use plastic on the beaches.

United Kingdom

In January 2019, the Iceland supermarket chain, which specializes in frozen foods, pledged to "eliminate or drastically reduce all plastic packaging for its store-brand products by 2023."

As of 2020, 104 communities achieved the title of "Plastic free community" in United Kingdom, 500 want to achieve it.

After 2 schoolgirls Ella and Caitlin launched a petition about it, Burger King and McDonald's in the United Kingdom and Ireland pledged to stop sending plastic toys with their meals. McDonald's pledged to do it from the year 2021. McDonald's also pledged to use a paper wrap for it meals and books that will be sent with the meals. The transmission will begin already in March 2020.


In August 2017, Kenya has one of the world's harshest plastic bag bans. Fines of $38,000 or up to four years in jail to anyone that was caught producing, selling, or using a plastic bag.


On July 30, 2017, Vanuatu’s Independence Day, made an announcement of stepping towards the beginning of not using plastic bags and bottles. Making it one of the first Pacific nations to do so and will start banning the importation of single-use plastic bottles and bags.


In February 2018, Taiwan restricted the use if single-use plastic cups, straws, utensils and bags; the ban will also include an extra charge for plastic bags and updates their recycling regulations and aiming by 2030 it would be completely enforced.

Obstruction by major plastic producers

The ten corporations that produce the most plastic on the planet, The Coca-Cola Company, Colgate-Palmolive, Danone, Mars, Incorporated, Mondelēz International, Nestlé, PepsiCo, Perfetti Van Melle, Procter & Gamble, and Unilever, formed a well-financed network that has sabotaged for decades government and community efforts to address the plastic pollution crisis, according to a detailed investigative report by the Changing Markets Foundation. The investigation documents how these companies delay and derail legislation so that they can continue to inundate consumers with disposable plastic packaging. These large plastic producers have exploited public fears of the COVID-19 pandemic to work toward delaying and reversing existing regulation of plastic disposal. Big ten plastic producers have advanced voluntary commitments for plastic waste disposal as a stratagem to deter governments from imposing additional regulations.

Deception of the public about recycling

As early as the early 1970s, petrochemical industry leaders understood that the vast majority of plastic they produced would never be recycled. For example, an April 1973 report written by industry scientists for industry executive states that sorting the hundreds of different kinds plastic is "infeasible" and cost-prohibitive. By the late 1980s, industry leaders also knew that the public must be kept feeling good about purchasing plastic products if their industry was to continue to prosper, and needed to quell proposed legislation to regulate the plastic being sold. So the industry launched a $50 million/year corporate propaganda campaign targeting the American public with the message that plastic can be, and is being, recycled, and lobbied American municipalities to launch expensive plastic waste collection programs, and lobbied U.S. states to require the labeling of plastic products and containers with recycling symbols. They were confident, however, that the recycling initiatives would not end up recovering and reusing plastic in amounts anywhere near sufficient to hurt their profits in selling new "virgin" plastic products because they understood that the recycling efforts that they were promoting were likely to fail. Industry leaders more recently have planned 100% recycling of the plastic they produce by 2040, calling for more efficient collection, sorting and processing.

Action for creating awareness

Earth Day

In 2019, the Earth Day Network partnered with Keep America Beautiful and National Cleanup Day for the inaugural nationwide Earth Day CleanUp. Cleanups were held in all 50 states, five US territories, 5,300 sites and had more than 500,000 volunteers.

Earth Day 2020 is the 50th Anniversary of Earth Day. Celebrations will include activities such as the Great Global CleanUp, Citizen Science, Advocacy, Education, and art. This Earth Day aims to educate and mobilize more than one billion people to grow and support the next generation of environmental activists, with a major focus on plastic waste

World Environment Day

Every year, 5 June is observed as World Environment Day to raise awareness and increase government action on the pressing issue. In 2018, India was host to the 43rd World Environment Day and the theme was "Beat Plastic Pollution", with a focus on single-use or disposable plastic. The Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change of India invited people to take care of their social responsibility and urged them to take up green good deeds in everyday life. Several states presented plans to ban plastic or drastically reduce thei use.

Other actions

On 11 April 2013 in order to create awareness, artist Maria Cristina Finucci founded The Garbage Patch State at UNESCO headquarters in Paris, France, in front of Director General Irina Bokova. This was the first of a series of events under the patronage of UNESCO and of the Italian Ministry of the Environment.

See also


Further reading

External links

Uses material from the Wikipedia article Plastic pollution, released under the CC BY-SA 3.0 license.