Plastic doesn't sound very sustainable to many people, and that's correct: plastic has a massive impact on the environment. In this article, we provide all the background knowledge for you. What is plastic? Why is it bad for the environment? And how can you be more sustainable with plastic?
What is Plastic?
Plastic is the overarching term for a group of synthetic materials created by humans. Chemically, plastics consist of polymers—long chains of identical (or very similar) molecules that form chains together.
These types of chains also naturally occur in other materials, such as wood or cotton. Plastics are artificial polymers, with most being derived from petroleum. The first human-made polymer was Parkesine or celluloid, developed in the 1850s and 60s. The first truly synthetic polymer, bakelite, was created in 1907. Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) was the first "modern plastic." Currently, about 10% of all extracted petroleum is used to produce plastic.
The molecules forming polymers are connected to each other, and the type of molecule and bonding determine the properties of the resulting plastic. There are three groups of plastics:
Thermoplastics:These are long polymers without side branches, where the molecules are loosely connected. As a result, these plastics melt when heated. The connections between the molecules shift easily, making the plastic versatile in shaping various forms. Thermoplastics are also easily recyclable. Examples of thermoplastics include PVC, polyethylene (PE), polystyrene (PE), and polyethylene terephthalate (PET).
Thermosetting plastics: Thermosetting plastics. In this type of plastic, the molecules are strongly bonded, making movement of the chains difficult. This type of plastic is hard and challenging to deform. When heated, it burns, and recycling is difficult. Examples of thermosetting plastics include polyester and epoxy.
Elastomers: This type of plastic can be stretched/bent, but when the external force is removed, the molecules will spring back to their original form and sequence. As the name suggests, the material is elastic and thus suitable for making items like shoe soles or car tires. An example of an elastomer is synthetic rubber.
Most plastics are made from fossil fuels, but there are also other types of plastics, such as bioplastics. Lateron you will read more about this.
The ease and effectiveness of possible recycling varies depending on the type of plastic. Of possible recycling, we say, because globally, just about 9% of all plastic waste is currently recycled. The remaining plastic ends up in nature, landfills, or undergoes processes such as incineration or treatment similar to non-recyclable waste.
The graph below shows the shares of Global plastic waste that is recycled, landfilled, incinerated and mismanaged, 2019.
What is plastic used for?
In short, plastic is used for almost everything. It is present in a large portion of the products used in daily life, as well as in various applications like medical equipment, vehicles, public spaces, or agriculture. The following list provides a glimpse, but it is far from exhaustive.
- Polyethylene (PE): Plastic bags, milk and soda bottles, toys, food storage containers.
- Polypropylene (PP): Coffee cups, bottle caps, plastic containers, medical bottles.
- Polyvinyl chloride (PVC): Pipes, credit cards, cable insulation, window profiles, toys.
- Epoxy resin: Used in composites, coatings, glue, and electronic components.
- Phenol-formaldehyde (Bakelite): Electric switches, tool handles, household items.
- Polyurethane: Foam rubber, coatings, sealants, elastic fibers.
- Natural rubber: Car tires, rubber bands, gloves, seals.
- Synthetic rubber: Water shoes, wetsuits, hoses.
- Styrene-butadiene rubber (SBR): Car tires, shoe soles, conveyor belts, insulation material.
The enormous plastic production
Due to its broad applicability, plastic has been a highly popular material for manufacturers for many years. Plastics have been produced and utilized on a large scale for a little over 70 years. In terms of volume, this material ranks among the top materials produced by humans.
Since 1950, the total global production of so-called "virgin" or "primary" plastic has been consistently growing, almost every year, with an average increase of 8.3% compared to the previous year. In 1950, the total production was only 1.7 million tons, and by 2017, it had surged to a staggering 348 million tons. This figure only pertains to "new plastic" produced for initial applications, and recycled plastic is not included.
If this growth trend continues in this manner, plastic production is projected to reach a magnitude of 1.1 billion tons by the year 2050.
The graph shows the Global primary plastic production by industrial sector, 1990 to 2019
Why is packaging often made of plastic?
As you can see in the chart above, the majority of all produced plastic is used to create packaging. This is logical because various sectors utilize packaging. Plastic possesses many positive properties as a packaging material; it is lightweight (saving on transportation costs), cost-effective, versatile for creating various types of packaging (with specific properties), and provides protection to the product.
Plastic, for instance, shields against damage during transportation, as well as protects against water, microorganisms, and other environmental influences. Food, for example, remains fresher for a longer period when wrapped in plastic, helping to combat food waste.
And in the healthcare sector, numerous plastic packagings are employed for disinfecting and sterilizing objects, which are then sealed in plastic. Due to hygiene considerations, many materials are designed for single-use and then discarded. While this practice protects the health of patients and staff, it contributes significantly to the environmental impact, making the healthcare sector a big contributor to our planet's climate challenges.
Plastic and the environment
As mentioned earlier, plastic is largely derived from petroleum, a fossil fuel. This alone gives plastic (and its production) a substantial environmental footprint.
Throughout the lifecycle of plastic products, greenhouse gases are emitted at every stage. The plastic production in 2050 is estimated to constitute 13% of the global carbon budget, which is the amount of CO2 emissions that can be emitted while staying within the 1.5-degree climate change limit set in the Paris Agreement. This carbon budget is 570 billion tons of CO2, with plastic contributing 74.1 billion tons to this total.
Another problem is that plastic is like a "miracle material" that can be used for almost anything. However, many of the properties that make plastic a suitable raw material also contribute to the environmental problem of plastic; it is durable and does not decompose. When plastic ends up in the environment, it stays there. Approximately 12 million tons of plastic waste enter the environment globally every year.
Plastic can now be found in nature and ecosystems all over the world, leading to the death of animals that mistake it for food. They ingest it, and as a result, they die due to blockages in their digestive systems or poisoning from the plastic itself.
Plastic is also a significant issue in oceans and beaches worldwide. You may have heard of the "Plastic Soup," a term used to describe the abundance of plastic present in these areas.
Plastic doesn't disappear; at most, it breaks down into increasingly smaller pieces, "shredded" by weather conditions such as wind, saltwater, or the sun. When plastic breaks down into smaller pieces, greenhouse gases are released, contributing to global warming. For example, a plastic bag tears into progressively smaller pieces until the entire bag has "fallen apart" into countless, minuscule plastic particles; these particles are called microplastics or nanoplastics.
What are micro & nanoplastics?
Microplastics and nanoplastics are tiny plastic particles, with microplastics ranging from 0.05 to 0.5 mm in size. Nanoplastics are even smaller. These particles result from the breakdown of larger plastic items, such as tires or clothing, and enter the environment.
In the Netherlands alone, approximately 17 million kilograms of microplastics enter the environment annually due to tire wear from vehicles. Over the years up untill 2022, there were a total of 291 kilotons of microplastics stored in the soil, water, and ground.
And during a wash of synthetic clothing (5 kilograms), 9 million microfibers are released, which again end up in the environment through our water. And these small particles are actually not filterable from the water. Want to do something about it? Use the Guppyfriend washing bag; we're not affiliates, we just want to save our planet ;)
Sometimes, these plastics are intentionally added to products; in cosmetics or toothpaste, for instance, because the small particles have an abrasive effect. But you can also find microplastics in items like eyeliners, lipsticks, and other skincare products. These particles also find their way into the environment through water.
According to the European Chemicals Agency, a total of 218 kilotons of new microplastics enter the environment in Europe each year.
Effects microplastics on health
Because micro- and nanoplastics are so small and light, they spread quickly and easily. These plastics accumulate in nature, in animals, and in humans. Animals ingest these particles, either mistaking the colorful plastic for food or due to a lack of other available food. Larger animals then consume these animals, allowing the plastic to enter the entire food chain. When humans subsequently consume these larger animals, such as fish, the plastics also end up in the human body.
Plastic particles also attach themselves to crops, which we then eat. Additionally, you can absorb very small pieces of plastic through your skin.
People also involuntarily ingest plastic; tiny plastic particles spread through the air, and we inhale them. Microplastics are present both indoors and outdoors in the air: an average household produces 20 kg of dust per year, of which approximately 6 kg is composed of microplastics.
Plastics, including microplastics, are often made from petroleum, to which various plasticizers, colorants, glossing agents, flame retardants, and other additives are added. Doesn't sound very healthy, does it? Even though we are talking about very small pieces of plastic, these particles end up in our organs and blood. Some leave our bodies, but not all of them. If a woman is pregnant, these particles also reach the unborn child through the placenta.
Research indicates that these microplastics have a negative impact on the respiratory, immune, and digestive systems. The substances are toxic, but the liver (which normally breaks down harmful substances) cannot "neutralize" the plastics. The effect on your health depends on the type, shape, and size of the plastic you are exposed to. However, scientists agree that plastics are harmful to health and are associated with hormonal imbalances (and all their consequences), diabetes, obesity, various forms of cancer, asthma, and other respiratory problems, affecting pregnancy and fertility in both men and women.
Microplastics can also contribute to the spread of diseases; pathogens such as bacteria and viruses adhere to plastic particles and "travel" from one place to another.
What are bioplastics?
There are also plastics made not from petroleum but from biomass (plant material), such as polymers made from fibers and starch from corn, potatoes, seaweed, or sugarcane. These plastics are called biobased plastics, or simply bioplastics, and currently, about 1% of all plastic is biobased.
An advantage of bioplastics is that they use renewable materials instead of petroleum. In that sense, bioplastics are more sustainable than regular plastic.
However, don't be misled; even though these plastics are made from natural materials, they can still be harmful when released into the environment. Many bioplastics closely resemble normal plastics at the molecular level and behave similarly, persisting almost indefinitely.
Bioplastics, contrary to what the name might suggest, are not always biodegradable. Biodegradable means that the material could be broken down into basic elements like CO2 and water by microorganisms. The speed of this process depends on the chemical properties of the material and conditions such as temperature and humidity.
Often, bioplastics require specific conditions to break down: within an industrial facility, under specific temperatures, and over a long duration, such as a stay in a composting machine for at least 12 weeks, whereas typical waste processing in the Netherlands takes 1-4 weeks.
If these non-biodegradable bioplastics end up in nature, they do not disappear but become microplastics, similar to regular plastic. Bioplastics, with all the (added) chemicals, are just as toxic as "normal" fossil plastic. Animals can still die if they (accidentally) ingest bioplastics.
50% of all plastic is single-use
Plastic products can be designed for frequent use, but plastic is also widely utilized to create single-use items – products intended to be used only once and then discarded. This includes packaging for food or, for example, medical utensils.
50% of all produced plastic is single-use plastic. That's half. This plastic is often discarded within a few minutes of purchase; for instance, the average "lifespan" of a plastic bag is only 15 minutes. Globally, 500 billion plastic bags are consumed this way every year. On average, 40% of all plastic items worldwide are thrown away within one month of purchase.
Packaging is also an example of single-use plastic: it protects the product until purchase, only to be discarded afterward. In the Netherlands alone, we throw away 26 billion food packages every year.
Single-use plastic also constitutes a significant portion of the plastic waste found in nature worldwide. These 10 single-use items, for instance, together make up a staggering 70% of all waste found on beaches/in the sea in Europe:
- Cotton swabs
- Utensils, plates, straws, and stirrers
- Balloons and balloon sticks
- Food containers/packaging
- Drink cups
- Beverage containers
- Cigarette butts
- Plastic bags
- Wrappers and packaging
- Wet wipes and hygiene products
Legislation to reduce single-use plastic
Therefore, the EU has instituted the directive on single-use plastics to reduce the usage of these 10 items. Thanks to this directive, it is no longer allowed to market these items if easy and affordable alternatives are possible.
As of July 3, 2021, various single-use plastic items are prohibited. Examples include items made from expanded and extruded polystyrene, commonly known as Styrofoam. Previously, containers for "to-go" food were often made from this material.
Other examples of banned single-use plastics include cotton swabs and straws; these are no longer allowed to be made from plastic. Have you recently noticed that the cap of a plastic bottle is now "attached" to the bottle? According to this directive, this has been mandatory since July 3, 2024.
Since July 1, 2023, consumers in the Netherlands must pay for disposable cups and containers. On-site (in restaurants/cafés, etc.), entrepreneurs often opt for returnable cups/containers with a deposit. And from January 1, 2024, plastic disposable cups/containers are even prohibited if consumers consume food/drinks on-site and do not take them away.
How can we sustainably deal with plastic?
As you have read in this article, plastic poses a significant problem for our planet: production is massive, heavily dependent on fossil resources, and a considerable amount of plastic ends up in nature. This plastic does not degrade but persists in the form of micro & nanoplastics almost indefinitely.
The only way we can sustainably manage plastic is by using as little plastic as possible. However, this is challenging because plastic is widely used for packaging and various products.
What about recycling?
Approximately 9% of all plastic waste is recycled globally; this is a very low percentage. Is a higher share of recycling the solution to all problems around plastic? Recycled plastic is more sustainable than virgin plastic, because no new oil is needed as raw material. It is always more sustainable to pro-long the life-span of a material or product. So, to recycle plastic is more sustainble than to not recycle.
But unfortunately, there are also drawbacks to recycling. The concentration of toxic substances is higher in recycled plastic than in "virgin" plastic. These include toxic substances such as flame retardants, benzene, various carcinogenic compounds, substances affecting the human endocrine system, and those harmful to the environment (such as bromine and chlorinated dioxins).
Graham Forbes, Greenpeace USA: "The toxicity of plastic actually increases during recycling. There is no place for plastic in a circular economy, and it is clear that the only real solution to end plastic pollution involves a massive reduction in plastic production."
And products made of recycled plastics still can end up in our nature as microplastics. Recycled plastic is still plastic. Forbes: "In simple terms, plastic poisons the circular economy and our bodies, contaminating air, water, and food. We should not recycle plastic containing toxic chemicals. Real solutions to the plastic crisis require global control over chemicals in plastic and a significant reduction in plastic production."
Furthermore, a large amount of microplastics is released during the recycling process itself. For example, samples taken from the wastewater of a recycling factory in the United Kingdom showed that as much as 13% of the processed plastic ends up as microplastics in this wastewater. High concentrations of microplastics have also been found in the air around the factory.
Be conscious with your plastic Items
Use your plastic items for as long as possible; this spreads their environmental impact over a longer lifespan. Only buy new plastic items when you truly need them, and try to purchase second-hand items as much as possible.
You don't have to buy everything; some items can be borrowed or exchanged. Every new item you purchase has an environmental impact. Also, check if there are alternative options; perhaps the item you want to buy is available in a material other than plastic.
Limit your use of single-use plastic
As you've read, 50% of all plastic is single-use; it is used once and then discarded. However, it requires a lot of energy and raw materials to produce this plastic. Therefore, limit your use of single-use items; bring your own reusable containers when getting takeout, your own coffee cup for your coffee to go, your own utensils, water bottle, and shopping bag. This may require a bit more planning and thought, but every time you avoid choosing a single-use item, it is a significant gain.
Opt for larger packaging; avoid individually wrapped items like cookies. Try buying produce without packaging. In many supermarkets, reusable bags are available for vegetables, fruit, and bread.
Buy your clothes in-store instead of online. This reduces packaging material.
Watch out for microplastics
Many cosmetics and personal care products contain microplastics. Perhaps your products do too. With the Beat the Microbead app, you can scan packaging to find out if it contains microplastics.
Replace your car tires before they become completely old and worn; this helps prevent the release of fewer microplastics into the environment.
Wash your clothes in a Guppyfriend laundry bag.
Cigarette butts are also plastic
Cigarette filters are made of cellulose acetate; this is a plastic. Many smokers simply throw their cigarette butts on the ground. It's quite strange that this is so "accepted." It is estimated that globally, about 4.5 trillion cigarette butts end up on the ground every year. That's a considerable amount: 4.5 000 000 000 000.
The filters eventually break down into microplastics, releasing toxic substances (such as nicotine, tar (arsenic and lead)) into our environment.
Therefore, do not throw your cigarette butt on the ground, but dispose of it in a trash bin.
Pick up plastic
How often do you see plastic lying on the ground? A bottle, packaging from a chocolate bar, a (piece of) plastic bag... Sometimes it's almost more effort to ignore the plastic than to pick it up, isn't it? ;)
If every Dutch person were to pick up one piece of plastic waste every day for a year, we could collectively prevent 6,205 million pieces of litter from ending up in nature.
(17 million x 365 days = 6,205,000,000).
Let's end with this note; the global plastic production, consumption and occurring amount of waste is just gigantic. Consumers, governments, producers and brands all have to take steps in addressing our plastic addiction and all the problems that arise from this. Every small step counts; every time you make a conscious choice around plastic, that’s a win for our planet.