By Giulia Saladino and Rutger Muller of Bepakt

  1. Microfibers
  2. Microbeads
  3. Packaging & Landfill
  4. The Garbage Patch(es)
  5. Effects on animal welfare
  6. Effects on human health: from packaging to food & through fish into our plates & microplastics in drinking water
  7. The economics of plastic
  8. Looking for more inspiration…?

Image: the chain of negative effects that plastics have on the planet and people
(contains CC0 licensed images


Plastic is an all-purpose material, light in weight, strong, and often transparent. Due to all these characteristics, in 2016 plastic production amounted to 335 million tons, 1.4 times more than in 2005 and 215 times more than in 1950 [Plastics Europe (2016), (2017)] and still it is constantly growing. Plastics are everywhere and this is mainly due to the fact that the plastic value chain is linear – meaning that it is produced, used, consumed and thrown away (recycling only happens in very low rate). For instance, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (2016) estimated that specifically plastic packaging has an average life-time  of less than one year. Such linear (and often short) life-cycle has led plastic to be one of the causes of the worst environmental crisi of our times.

More than one third of the total amount of plastics produced is used for packaging [Andrady (2011)], where the food and beverage sector use around 56% of such amount [ALL4PACK (2016)]. Plastic is also in the fabrics of the clothes we wear – microfiber, nylon, acrylic; and in the cosmetics and detergents we use – in the form of microbeads, etc… And, what is worse is that plastics existence does not cease to be once it is thrown away. Instead, plastics keep existing on the planet, due to its decomposition time ranging between 100 and 500 years [Le Guern Lytle (2017)]. 

“Plastic pieces in the centre of our ocean’s gyres outnumber live marine plankton, and are passed up the food chain to reach all marine life”
– C.J. Moore et al., 2001. “A Comparison of Plastic and Plankton…”


When synthetic clothing (nylon, acrylic, polyester, etc.) is washed, it releases tiny (micro and nano sized) plastic fibers into the drainage. These fibers arrive at sewage treatment plants, where they aren’t properly filtered out.  The amount of microfibers released by washing 100,000 fleece jackets is similar to the plastic pollution caused by 11,900 plastic bags [University of California Santa Barbara (2016)] [Patagonia (2016)] [Guppy Friend (2016)].

Sewage treatment plants filter out 98% of the incoming plastic fragments. But, up to 40% of incoming microfibers, about 65 million pieces, are sent out via watersheds, running into rivers, lakes and oceans [University of California Santa Barbara (2016)]. Freshwater and ocean water appear to hold the same concentration of fiber pollution [Global Microplastics Initiative (2016)] [The Guardian (2016)].

Also, microfibers can get caught in environmental sludge, which can be found in fertilizers [American Chemical Society (2016)].  Microfibers made up 85% of human made debris in shorelines around the world. [University of South Wales, Australia (2011)].

Due to the irregular shape of microfibers, they pose an even larger risk to smaller organisms than the round shaped plastic microbeads (see next chapter). This way,  plastic pollution may enter the (human) food chain in higher concentrations [Patagonia (2016)]. See paragraph 6 below to know more about it.


Microbeads are plastic grains used in hundreds of personal care products (tooth paste, face wash), cosmetics and household products (detergents, cleaning products). Similar to microfibers, they are not properly filtered out of waste water, and escape directly into the environment.

An estimated minimum of 471 million microbeads are flushed down – daily – by an average household in San Francisco Bay [Rochmann (2015)]. 80,000 microbeads can escape per day from a single waste water treatment facility [New York University (2015)]. Over 450,000 microbeads were found in every square kilometer of the Great Lakes of North America [Marine Pollution Bullentin (2013)]. Microbeads might be the cause of starving coral reef [ARC centre of excellence for coral reef studies at James Cook University (2015)] [Huffington Post (2015)].

In December 2015, U.S. president Obama signed a law to ban microbeads in personal care products from mid 2017. Microbeads will still be allowed in detergents, sandblasting materials and cosmetics that can be left on the skin [Huffington Pos (2016)]. In the Netherlands, the Beat the Microbead campaign was launched in 2012 by the Plastic Soup Foundation and Stichting De Noordzee (North Sea Foundation), resulting in the government banning microbeads from 2017, and pushing for an EU wide ban [Beat The Microbead].


Sources of ocean plastic pollution include litter and runoff from poorly managed landfills. Moved by water and wind, plastic trash eventually reaches the oceans. Many of the world’s countries poorly manage their landfills. [The Guardian (2015)]. Jambeck et al. (2015) found mismanagement and lack of proper waste infrastructures to be the main reasons for plastic to enter the ocean. They conducted a worldwide study to calculate the amount of plastic-mass ready to enter the ocean, on the basis of data on solid waste produced, population size and density and economic status of 192 countries. In particular, they found that 20 countries contributed to the 83% of the total mismanaged plastic in 2010, with China and Indonesia being respectively first and second contributors (ibidem). Moreover, 16 out of the 20 main contributors to marine plastic pollution are fast-growing economies, where plastic production and consumption has risen extremely fast, not being counterbalanced by proper waste management systems. Therefore, they concluded that, if economic growth in these countries does not happen in parallel with the development of proper waste management infrastructures, “the cumulative quantity of plastic waste available to enter the ocean from land is predicted to increase by an order of magnitude by 2025“ [Jambeck et al., p.768, (2015)].

[image from Jambeck et al. (2015)]

Also in developed economies, though, plastic waste is a BIG problem! About 300 billion kilograms of plastic are produced yearly [Plastics Europe (2015)]. The United States accounts for about 30 billion kilograms per year, of which packaging and containers make up 12.7 billion kilograms [United States Environmental Protection Agency (2013)]. Europe produces about 57 billion  kilograms of plastic yearly, of which about 40% is packaging [Plastics Europe (2015)].

Consumer waste plays a role, as 93% of Mediterranean ocean plastics were found to be plastic bags [UN report (2005) via Wikipedia: Marine Debris]. In Australia, an estimated 50 million plastic bags are littered per year [Clean Up Australia (2002)].

China is one of the leading polluters, leaving between 132 and 353 billion kilograms of plastic in the oceans per year [The Guardian (2015)]. In the United States about 6.5% of trashed plastic gets recycled, and about 7.5% gets burned as fuel. That leaves 85% to the landfill dumps. [New York Times (2011)] [Columbia University (2011)]. In Los Angeles, 10 000 kilograms of plastic fragments are carried into the ocean per day [Center for Biological Diversity (2012?)].

Europe is relatively progressive, as many of its countries have banned landfills. 34% of its plastic waste gets recycled and 35% is burned for energy (recovery). That stil leaves 31% to be dumped in landfills [Plastics Europe (2015)]. Even in countries without landfills, like The Netherlands, plastic litter ends up in the ocean, for example via the canals in Amsterdam, see:, who have made it into a “public sport” to fish plastic litter out of the canals.


It was the mid-1990s when Captain Moore discovered and introduced to the public the “North Pacific Garbage Patch” – a huge amount of concentrated plastic debris floating in the Pacific Ocean [Rochman (2016)]. This is the result of all the tons of plastics that every minute end up in the ocean despite our growing efforts to recycle and re-use it.

It is impossible to calculate the amount of plastics that actually persists in the ocean due to the fact that the majority of it sinks as it is unable to float – since its specific weight becomes lower than the water’s one [Andrady (2011)]. Hence, only surface measurements are employed to measure the quantity [Jambeck et al. (2015)].

However, we know that plastics make up the 80% of the “ocean trash” – marine debris [Gall & Thompson (2015)], of which 18% comes from fishing nets and the fishing industry in general [Hinojosa and Thiel, (2009)), and the remaining amount came from land.  [Sheavly & Register (2007) & Weisman (2007) via Wikipedia: Marine Debris].

It is estimated that ocean plastics grow by 7 or 8 billion kilograms per year. [Jambeck et al., (2015) via The Ocean Cleanup]. So far this resulted in 5.25 trillion pieces of ocean plastics [Marcus Eriksen (2014) via PLOS], weighing over 150 billion kilograms [Knight (2012) via Wikipedia: Ocean Pollution].

Erik van Sebille (Utrecht University) declared to The Guardian (2018) that “the 99% of all plastics in the ocean is not on the surface anymore. The problem is that we don’t know where that 99% of plastic is. Is it on beaches, the seafloor, in marine organisms?”

Plastic does not degrade in water, instead it breaks down into smaller pieces (eventually becoming microplastics), causing ocean plastics to swirl around in 5 massive ocean gyres (spirals – see picture below) [CNN].  One of these gyres is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which holds 1/3 of all ocean plastics [Cózar et al. (2014) via The Ocean Cleanup].

[image from The Ocean Cleanup. The 5 Ocean Gyres. The North Pacific Gyre is the largest.]


Due to its non-biodegradability, plastics in the ocean represent “one of the major perceived threats to marine biodiversity” [Gray (1997)] especially due to two main phenomena – entanglement and ingestion – affecting marine fauna. Although data on these two phenomena exist (are presented below), these problems might be highly underestimated because of the difficulty to study a field as vast as the ocean and due to the fact that many affected animals either sink or are captured by their predators [Murray (2009)].

Entanglement in plastics floating in the ocean

In 1997, Laist identified more than 250 species affected by the entanglement phenomena – 86% of all sea turtles, 44% of all seabird, and 43% of all marine mammal species, 22% of all cetaceans [Murray, (2009)]. Entanglement can have very serious consequences and can even be deadly for its victims. When animals get stuck in plastic materials they are very likely to report skin lesions (with related risks, such as infection) that will make them weaker predators for their preys – eventually leading to starvation – and easier victims for their predators [Murray (2009) & Derraik (2002)]. Moreover, for many individuals, it can be difficult to escape entanglement, causing, other than general debilitation and starvation, the animal to drown [Murray (2009) & Derraik (2002)]. Entanglement is reported to be mainly caused by the presence of nettings, ropes and monofilament lines, all “residues” of commercial fishing activities [Murray (2009)]. Especially dangerous is the presence of drift nets, which can lead to the so called ‘ghost fishing’ phenomenon, that happens not only on the surface but also in deeper water. This is due to masses of lost or abandoned but relatively intact derelict, nets and ropes, that continue capturing fish and other species for long periods of time, with consequent high mortality and catch losses [Murray (2009)].

[Image by NOAA Marine Debris Program]

Ingestion of plastics floating in the ocean

Past studies demonstrated how some seabirds and fish species select specific plastic shapes and colours in that they mistake them for their usual preys [Murray (2012) & Foekema et al. (2013)]. This phenomenon is referred to as ‘selective ingestion’.

[image by Thinglink Oy]
(This image went viral on the internet to raise awareness
about the phenomenon of selective ingestion)

The effects of ingestion can vary among different species, with some being very common: internal and external wounds, blockage of digestive tract followed by satiation, starvation and general debilitation (often with deadly consequences) and reduction in quality of life and reproductive capacity [Murray (2009) & Derraik (2002)].

Moreover, it has been found out that plastic debris absorbs all those Permanent Organic Pollutants (POPs), which are present worldwide in the oceans, and which concentrate in these micro-pieces of plastic in a ratio many orders of magnitude higher compared to the normal concentration in seawater. Once these pollutants are absorbed by the plastics they become bioavailable to all those organisms who ingest plastic. As a consequence of ingestion of contaminated plastic, POPs enter the marine food chain, with effects on marine fauna that have not been studied in detail yet [Andrady (2011)].

From packaging to food

Plastic food containers (including BPA-free ones) possibly disrupt our endocrine (hormonal) systems. This could cause a wide range of serious health problems, especially for babies and children. Read more about this at: [WebMD]  [Wikipedia: Endocrine Disruptor] [Huffington Post (2015)] [Mother Jones (2014)] [National Geographic (2008)]

Through fish into our plates

Toxic chemicals (Permanent Organic Pollutants – POPs) are present in all seawaters, everywhere in the world. These are absorbed and concentrate in the micro-pieces of plastic floating in the ocean in a ratio many orders of magnitude higher compared to the normal concentration in seawater [Andrady (2011)]. Once these pollutants are absorbed, two things may happen: either microplastic density increases, making it heavier and eventually moving below the water surface (ibidem); or, these microplastics are ingested by fishes and sea animals, and eventually enter the human food chain through fish ingestion by men.

Even though there is still a considerable knowledge gap on the topic [Choy and Drazen (2013) & Van Cauwenberghe and Janssen (2014)], the Rochman Lab is advancing in investigating the connection between the presence of plastic in fish gut and its effects on human health. They started from investigating whether those fish, which absorbed plastic debris, are actually available for human consumption and found out that one out of four fish bought in the fish market, specifically in Indonesia and in the USA, contained anthropogenic debris in their guts in the form of plastic fragments or fibers [Rochman et al. (2015)]. Moreover, as mentioned earlier, plastic carries all the POPs, which are eventually also consumed by humans. Thus, as declared by Engler (2012), plastic in the ocean actually contributes to the persistent accumulation of toxic substances in the human diet. This constitutes a major risk especially in those countries where the food chain is highly dependent on fish consumption [Rochman et al. (2015)].

Microplastics in drinking water

A study by Orb Media (March 2018), a non-profit journalism organization based in Washington DC, conducted a study on bottled water which led to scary results. “Tests on more than 250 bottles from 11 brands reveal contamination with plastic including polypropylene, nylon, and polyethylene terephthalate (PET)”. Their findings concluded that people who live on one liter of bottled water a day might ingest tens of thousands of microplastic particles each year. Moreover, in 2017  Orb Media (2017) already showed though a previous study how also tap water is not microplastics-free! Still, the effects of microplastics on human health are not clearly known. To read more on the issue have a look at the articles by Orb Media (On bottled water 2018; on tap water 2017).


Ocean plastics costs $13 billion per year to the economy (fishing, shipping, tourism and the cleaning of coastlines) [United Nations Environment Programme (2014) via The Ocean Cleanup].

(to be continued…)

This page aims to give a short summary of environmental problems caused by (consumer) plastic waste. If you want to go into more details, we recommend: