1. Home
  2. article
  3. Plastics, the environment and human health: current consensus and future trends

Plastics, the environment and human health: current consensus and future trends

Plastics have transformed everyday life; usage is increasing and annual production is likely to exceed 300 million tonnes by 2010. In this concluding paper to the Theme Issue on Plastics, the Environment and Human Health, we synthesize current understanding of the benefits and concerns sur-rounding the use of plastics and look to future priorities, challenges and opportunities. It is evident that plastics bring many societal benefits and offer future technological and medical advances. However, concerns about usage and disposal are diverse and include accumulation of waste in landfills and in natural habitats, physical problems for wildlife resulting from ingestion or entanglement in plastic, the leaching of chemicals from plastic products and the potential for plastics to transfer chemicals to wildlife and humans. However, perhaps the most important over-riding concern, which is implicit throughout this volume, is that our current usage is not sustainable. Around 4 per cent of world oil production is used as a feedstock to make plastics and a similar amount is used as energy in the process. Yet over a third of current production is used to make items of packaging, which are then rapidly discarded. Given our declining reserves of fossil fuels, and finite capacity for disposal of waste to landfill, this linear use of hydrocarbons, via packaging and other short-lived applications of plastic, is simply not sustainable. There are solutions, including material reduction, design for end-of-life recyclability, increased recycling capacity, development of bio-based feedstocks, strategies to reduce littering, the application of green chemistry life-cycle analyses and revised risk assessment approaches. Such measures will be most effective through the combined actions of the public, industry, scientists and policymakers. There is some urgency, as the quantity of plastics produced in the first 10 years of the current century is likely to approach the quantity produced in the entire century that preceded.


Many of the current applications and the predicted benefits of plastic follow those outlined by Yarsley and Couzens in the 1940s. Their account of the benefits that plastics would bring to a person born nearly 70 years ago, at the beginning of this ‘plastic age’, was told with much optimism:

It is a world free from moth and rust and full of colour, a world largely built up of synthetic materials made from the most universally distributed substances, a world in which nations are more and more indepen-dent of localised naturalised resources, a world in which man, like a magician, makes what he wants for almost every need out of what is beneath and around him (Yarsley & Couzens 1945, p. 152).

One contribution of 15 to a Theme Issue ‘Plastics, the environment and human health.

The durability of plastics and their potential for diverse applications, including widespread use as disposable items, were anticipated, but the problems associated with waste management and plastic debris were not. In fact the predictions were ‘how much brighter and cleaner a world [it would be] than that which preceded this plastic age’ (Yarsley & Couzens 1945, p. 152).

This paper synthesizes current understanding of the benefits and concerns surrounding the use of plastics and looks to challenges, opportunities and priorities for the future. The content draws upon papers submitted to this Theme Issue on Plastics, the Environment and Human Health together with other sources. While selected citations are given to original sources of information, we primarily refer the reader to the discussion of a particular topic, and the associ-ated references, in the Theme Issue papers. Here, we consider the subject from seven perspectives: plastics as materials; accumulation of plastic waste in the natu-ral environment; effects of plastic debris in the

environment and on wildlife; effects on humans; production, usage, disposal and waste management solutions; biopolymers, degradable and biodegradable polymer solutions; and policy measures.


Plastics are inexpensive, lightweight, strong, durable, corrosion-resistant materials, with high thermal and electrical insulation properties. The diversity of poly-mers and the versatility of their properties are used to make a vast array of products that bring medical and technological advances, energy savings and numerous other societal benefits (Andrady & Neal 2009). As a consequence, the production of plastics has increased substantially over the last 60 years from around 0.5 million tonnes in 1950 to over 260 million tonnes today. In Europe alone the plastics industry has a turnover in excess of 300 million euros and employs 1.6 million people (Plastics Europe 2008). Almost all aspects of daily life involve plastics, in transport, tele-communications, clothing, footwear and as packaging materials that facilitate the transport of a wide range of food, drink and other goods. There is considerable potential for new applications of plastics that will bring benefits in the future, for example as novel medi-cal applications, in the generation of renewable energy and by reducing energy used in transport (Andrady & Neal 2009).

Virgin plastic polymers are rarely used by them-selves and typically the polymer resins are mixed with various additives to improve performance. These additives include inorganic fillers such as carbon

and silica that reinforce the material, plasticizers to render the material pliable, thermal and ultraviolet stabilizers, flame retardants and colourings. Many such additives are used in substantial quantities and in a wide range of products (Meeker et al. 2009). Some additive chemicals are potentially toxic (for example lead and tributyl tin in polyvinyl chloride, PVC), but there is considerable controversy about the extent to which additives released from plastic products (such as phthalates and bisphenol A, BPA) have adverse effects in animal or human populations. The central issue here is relating the types and quantities of additives present in plastics to uptake and accumula-tion by living organisms (Andrady & Neal 2009; Koch & Calafat 2009; Meeker et al. 2009; Oehlmann et al. 2009; Talsness et al. 2009; Wagner & Oehlmann 2009). Additives of particular concern are phthalate plasticizers, BPA, brominated flame retardants and anti-microbial agents. BPA and phethalates are found in many mass produced products including medical devices, food packaging, perfumes, cosmetics, toys, flooring materials, computers and CDs and can represent a significant con-tent of the plastic. For instance, phthalates can constitute a substantial proportion, by weight, of PVC (Oehlmann et al. 2009), while BPA is the monomer used for production of polycarbonate plastics as well as an additive used for production of PVC. Phthalates can leach out of products because they are not chemically bound to the plastic matrix, and they have attracted particular attention because of their high production volumes and wide usage (Wagner & Oehlmann 2009; Talsness et al. 2009).

Phthalates and BPA are detectable in aquatic environments, in dust and, because of their volatility, in air (Rudel et al. 2001, 2003). There is considerable concern about the adverse effects of these chemicals on wildlife and humans (Meeker et al. 2009; Oehlmann et al. 2009). In addition to the reliance on finite resources for plastic production, and concerns about additive effects of different chemicals, current patterns of usage are generating global waste management problems. Barnes et al. (2009) show that plastic wastes, including packaging, electrical equipment and plastics from end-of-life vehicles, are major components of both household and industrial wastes; our capacity for disposal of waste to landfill is finite and in some locations landfills are at, or are rapidly approaching, capacity (Defra et al. 2006). So from several perspectives it would seem that our current use and disposal of plastics is the cause for concern (Barnes et al. 2009; Hopewell et al. 2009).



Substantial quantities of plastic have accumulated in the natural environment and in landfills. Around

  • per cent by weight of the municipal waste stream is plastic (Barnes et al. 2009) and this will be con-sidered later in §۶٫ Discarded plastic also contaminates a wide range of natural terrestrial, freshwater and marine habitats, with newspaper accounts of plastic debris on even some of the highest mountains. There are also some data on littering in the urban environ-ment (for example compiled by EnCams in the UK; http://www.encams.org/home); however, by compari-son with the marine environment, there is a distinct lack of data on the accumulation of plastic debris in natural terrestrial and freshwater habitats. There are accounts of inadvertent contamination of soils with small plastic fragments as a consequence of spreading sewage sludge (Zubris & Richards 2005), of fragments of plastic and glass contaminating compost prepared from municipal solid waste (Brinton 2005) and of plastic being carried into streams, rivers and ultimately the sea with rain water and flood events (Thompson et al. 2005). However, there is a clear need for more research on the quantities and effects of plastic debris in natural terrestrial habitats, on agricultural land and in freshwaters. Inevitably, therefore, much of the evidence presented here is from the marine environment. From the first accounts of plastic in the environment, which were reported from the car-casses of seabirds collected from shorelines in the early 1960s (Harper & Fowler 1987), the extent of the problem soon became unmistakable with plastic debris contaminating oceans from the poles to the Equator and from shorelines to the deep sea. Most polymers are buoyant in water, and since items of plas-tic debris such as cartons and bottles often trap air, substantial quantities of plastic debris accumulate on the sea surface and may also be washed ashore. As a consequence, plastics represent a considerable pro-portion (50 –۸۰%) of shoreline debris (Barnes et al. 2009). Quantities are highly variable in time and space, but there are reports of more than 100 000

up to 3 520 000 items km– ۲ at the ocean surface (Yamashita & Tanimura 2007). Gyres and oceanic convergences appear to be particularly contaminated, as do enclosed seas such as the Mediterranean (Barnes et al. 2009; Ryan et al. 2009). Despite their buoyant nature, plastics can become fouled with marine life and sediment causing items to sink to the seabed. For example, shallow seabeds in Brazil were more heavily contaminated than the neighbouring shorelines (OigmanPszczol & Creed 2007), indicating that the seabed may be an ultimate sink even for initially buoyant marine debris (Barnes et al. 2009). In some locations around Europe, it has been suggested that quantities on the seabed may exceed 10 000 items ha– ۱, and debris has even been reported more than a 1000 m below the ocean surface, including accounts of inverted plastic bags passing a deep-sea submersible like an assembly of ghosts (Gregory 2009). Quantitative data on the abundance of debris on the seabed are still very limited, but there are concerns that degradation rates in the deep sea will be especially slow because of darkness and cold (Barnes et al. 2009; Ryan et al. 2009).

Monitoring the abundance of debris is important to establish rates of accumulation and the effectiveness of any remediation measures. Most studies assess the abundance of all types of anthropogenic debris including data on plastics and/or plastic items as a category. In general, the abundance of debris on shorelines has been extensively monitored, in comparison to surveys from the open oceans or the seabed. In addition to recording debris, there is a need to collect data on sources; for plastic debris this should include dis-charges from rivers and sewers together with littering behaviour. Here, the limited data we have suggest that storm water pulses provide a major pathway for debris from the land to the sea, with 81 g m– ۳ of plas-tic debris during high-flow events in the USA (Ryan et al. 2009). Methods to monitor the abundance of anthropogenic debris (including plastics) often vary considerably between countries and organizations, adding to difficulties in interpreting trends. As a consequence, the United Nations Environment Pro-gramme and the OSPAR Commission are currently taking steps to introduce standardized protocols (OSPAR 2007; Cheshire et al. 2009). Some trends are evident, however, typically with an increase in the abundance of debris and fragments between the 1960s and the 1990s (Barnes et al. 2009). More recently, abundance at the sea surface in some regions and on some shorelines appears to be stabilizing, while in other areas such as the Pacific Gyre there are reports of considerable increases. On shorelines the quantities of debris, predominantly plastic, are greater in the Northern than in the Southern Hemisphere (Barnes 2005). The abundance of debris is greater adjacent to urban centres and on more frequented beaches and there is evidence that plastics are accumulating and becoming buried in sediments (Barnes et al. 2009; Ryan et al. 2009). Barnes et al. (2009) consider that contamination of remote habitats, such as the deep sea and the polar regions, is likely to increase as debris is carried there from more densely populated areas. Allowing for variability between habitats and

locations, it seems inevitable, however, that the quantity of debris in the environment as a whole will continue to increase—unless we all change our prac-tices. Even with such changes, plastic debris that is already in the environment will persist for a consider-able time to come. The persistence of plastic debris and the associated environmental hazards are illustrated poignantly by Barnes et al. (2009) who describe debris that had originated from an aeroplane being ingested by an albatross some 60 years after the plane had crashed.


There are some accounts of effects of debris from terrestrial habitats, for example ingestion by the endangered California condor, Gymnogyps californianus (Mee et al. 2007). However, the vast majority of work describing environmental consequences of plastic debris is from marine settings and more work on terrestrial and freshwater habitats is needed. Plastic debris causes aesthetic problems, and it also presents a hazard to mari-time activities including fishing and tourism (Moore 2008; Gregory 2009). Discarded fishing nets result in ghost fishing that may result in losses to commercial fisheries (Moore 2008; Brown & Macfadyen 2007). Floating plastic debris can rapidly become colonized by marine organisms and since it can persist at the sea surface for substantial periods, it may subsequently facilitate the transport of non-native or ‘alien’ species (Barnes 2002; Barnes et al. 2009; Gregory 2009). How-ever, the problems attracting most public and media attention are those resulting in ingestion and entangle-ment by wildlife. Over 260 species, including invertebrates, turtles, fish, seabirds and mammals, have been reported to ingest or become entangled in plastic debris, resulting in impaired movement and feeding, reduced reproductive output, lacerations, ulcers and death (Laist 1997; Derraik 2002; Gregory 2009). The limited monitoring data we have suggest rates of entan-glement have increased over time (Ryan et al. 2009). A wide range of species with different modes of feeding including filter feeders, deposit feeders and detritivores are known to ingest plastics. However, ingestion is likely to be particularly problematic for species that specifi-cally select plastic items because they mistake them for their food. As a consequence, the incidence of inges-tion can be extremely high in some populations. For example, 95 per cent of fulmars washed ashore dead in the North Sea have plastic in their guts, with substan-tial quantities of plastic being reported in the guts of other birds, including albatross and prions (Gregory 2009). There are some very good data on the quantity of debris ingested by seabirds recorded from the car-casses of dead birds. This approach has been used to monitor temporal and spatial patterns in the abundance of sea-surface plastic debris on regional scales around Europe (Van Franeker et al. 2005; Ryan et al. 2009).

An area of particular concern is the abundance of small plastic fragments or microplastics. Fragments as small as 1.6 mm have been identified in some marine habitats, and it seems likely there will be even smaller pieces below current levels of detection. A

recent workshop convened in the USA by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration concluded that microplastics be defined as pieces ,5 mm with a suggested lower size boundary of 333 mm so as to focus on microplastics that will be captured using conventional sampling approaches (Arthur et al. 2009). However, we consider it important that the abundance of even smaller fragments is not neglected. Plastic fragments appear to form by the mechanical and chemical deterioration of larger items. Alternative routes for microplastics to enter the environment include the direct release of small pieces of plastics that are used as abrasives in industrial and domestic cleaning applications (e.g. shot blasting or scrubbers used in proprietary hand cleansers) and spillage of plastic pellets and powders that are used as a feedstock for the manufacture of most plastic products. Data from shorelines, from the open ocean and from debris ingested by sea-birds, all indicate that quantities of plastic fragments are increasing in the environment, and quantities on some shores are substantial (.10% by weight of strandline material; Barnes et al. 2009). Laboratory experiments have shown that small pieces such as these can be ingested by small marine invertebrates including filter feeders, deposit feeders and detritivores (Thompson et al. 2004), while mussels were shown to retain plastic for over 48 days (Browne et al. 2008). However, the extent and consequences of ingestion of microplastics by natural populations are not known.

In addition to the physical problems associated with plastic debris, there has been much speculation that, if ingested, plastic has the potential to transfer toxic sub-stances to the food chain (see Teuten et al. 2009). In the marine environment, plastic debris such as pellets, fragments and microplastics have been shown to contain organic contaminants including polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, petroleum hydrocarbons, organochlorine pesticides (2,20-bis(p-chlorophenyl)-1,1,1 trichloroethane (DDT) and its metabolites; together with hexachlorinated hexane (HCH)), polybrominated diphenylethers (PBDEs), alkylphenols and BPA at concentrations ranging from ng g– ۱ to mg g– ۱. Some of these com-pounds are added to plastics during manufacture while others adsorb to plastic debris from the environment. Work in Japan has shown that plastics can accumulate and concentrate persistent organic pol-lutants that have arisen in the environment from other sources. These contaminants can become orders of magnitude more concentrated on the surface of plastic debris than in the surrounding sea water (Mato et al. 2001). Teuten et al. (2009) describe experiments to examine the transfer of these contaminants from plastics to seabirds and other animals. The potential for trans-port varies among contaminants, polymers and possibly also according to the state of environmental weathering of the debris. Recent mathematical modelling studies have shown that even very small quantities of plastics could facilitate transport of contaminants from plastic to organisms upon ingestion. This could present a direct and important route for the transport of chemicals to higher animals such as seabirds (Teuten et al. 2007, 2009), but will depend upon the nature of the habitat and the amount and type of plastics present.

For instance, the extent to which the presence of plastic particles might contribute to the total burden of con-taminants transferred from the environment to organ-isms will depend upon competitive sorption and transport by other particulates (Arthur et al. 2009). The abundance of fragments of plastic is increasing in the environment; these particles, especially truly micro-scopic fragments less than the 333 mm proposed by NOAA (see earlier), have a relatively large surface area to volume ratio that is likely to facilitate the transport of contaminants, and because of their size such frag-ments can be ingested by a wide range of organisms. Hence, the potential for plastics to transport and release chemicals to wildlife is an emerging area of concern.

More work will be needed to establish the full environmental relevance of plastics in the transport of contami-nants to organisms living in the natural environment, and the extent to which these chemicals could then be transported along food chains. However, there is already clear evidence that chemicals associated with plastic are potentially harmful to wildlife. Data that have principally been collected using laboratory exposures are summarized by Oehlmann et al. (2009). These show that phthalates and BPA affect reproduction in all studied animal groups and impair development in crustaceans and amphibians. Molluscs and amphibians appear to be particularly sensitive to these compounds and biological effects have been observed in the low ng l– ۱ to mg l– ۱ range. In contrast, most effects in fish tend to occur at higher concentrations. Most plasticizers appear to act by interfering with hormone function, although they can do this by several mechanisms (Hu et al. 2009). Effects observed in the laboratory coincide with measured environmental concentrations, thus there is a very real probability that these chemicals are affecting natural populations (Oehlmann et al. 2009). BPA concentrations in aquatic environments vary considerably, but can reach 21 mg l– ۱ in freshwater systems and concentrations in sediments are generally several orders of magnitude higher than in the water column. For example, in the River Elbe, Germany, BPA was measured at 0.77 mg l– ۱ in water compared with 343 mg kg– ۱ in sediment (dry weight). These findings are in stark contrast with the European Union environmental risk assessment pre-dicted environmental concentrations of 0.12 mg l– ۱ for water and 1.6 mg kg– ۱ (dry weight) for sediments.

Phthalates and BPA can bioaccumulate in organ-isms, but there is much variability between species and individuals according to the type of plasticizer and experimental protocol. However, concentration factors are generally higher for invertebrates than ver-tebrates, and can be especially high in some species of molluscs and crustaceans. While there is clear evidence that these chemicals have adverse effects at environ-mentally relevant concentrations in laboratory studies, there is a need for further research to establish popu-lation-level effects in the natural environment (see discussion in Oehlmann et al. 2009), to establish the long-term effects of exposures (particularly due to exposure of embryos), to determine effects of exposure to contaminant mixtures and to establish the role of plastics as sources (albeit not exclusive sources) of these contaminants (see Meeker et al. (2009) for discussion of sources and routes of exposure).


Turning to adverse effects of plastic on the human population, there is a growing body of literature on potential health risks. A range of chemicals that are used in the manufacture of plastics are known to be toxic. Biomonitoring (e.g. measuring concentration of environmental contaminants in human tissue) provides an integrated measure of an organism’s exposure to contaminants from multiple sources. This approach has shown that chemicals used in the manufacture of plastics are present in the human population, and studies using laboratory animals as model organisms indicate potential adverse health effects of these chemi-cals (Talsness et al. 2009). Body burdens of chemicals that are used in plastic manufacture have also been correlated with adverse effects in the human population, including reproductive abnormalities (e.g. Swan et al. 2005; Swan 2008; Lang et al. 2008).

Interpreting biomonitoring data is complex, and a key task is to set information into perspective with dose levels that are considered toxic on the basis of experimental studies in laboratory animals. The concept of ‘toxicity’ and thus the experimental methods for studying the health impacts of the chemicals in plastic, and other chemicals classified as endocrine disruptors, is currently undergoing a transformation (a paradigm inversion) since the disruption of endocrine regulatory systems requires approaches very different from the study of acute toxicants or poisons. There is thus extensive evidence that traditional toxicological approaches are inadequate for revealing outcomes such as ‘reprogramming’ of the molecular systems in cells as a result of exposure to very low doses during critical periods in development (e.g. Myers et al. 2009). Research on experimental animals informs epidemiologists about the potential for adverse effects in humans and thus plays a critical role in chemical risk assessments. A key conclusion from the paper by Talsness et al. (2009) is the need to modify our approach to chemical testing for risk assessment. As noted by these authors and others, there is a need to integrate concepts of endocrinology in the assumptions underlying chemical risk assessment. In particular, the assumptions that dose–response curves are monotonic and that there are threshold doses (safe levels) are not true for either endogenous hormones or for chemicals with hormonal activity (which includes many chemicals used in plastics) (Talsness et al. 2009).

The biomonitoring approach has demonstrated phthalates and BPA, as well as other additives in plas-tics and their metabolites, are present in the human population. It has also demonstrated that the most common human exposure scenario is to a large number of these chemicals simultaneously. These data indicate differences according to geographical location and age, with greater concentrations of some of these chemicals in young children. While exposure via house dust is extensive (Rudel et al. 2008), it would appear that at least for some phthalates (e.g. diethylhexyl phthalate, DEHP), foodstuffs and to a lesser extent use of oral drugs probably present major uptake pathways (Wormuth et al. 2006). Exposure data for BPA are similar but less extensive. While average concentrations of phthalates in selected

populations worldwide appear quite similar, there is evidence of considerable variability in daily intake rates among individuals, and even within individuals (Peck et al. 2009). Exposures through ingestion, inha-lation and dermal contact are all considered important routes of exposure for the general population (Adibi et al. 2003; Rudel et al. 2003). Koch & Calafat (2009) show that while mean/median exposures for the general population were below levels determined to be safe for daily exposure (USA, EPA reference dose, RfD; and European Union tolerable daily intake, TDI), the upper percentiles of dibutyl phtha-late and DEHP urinary metabolite concentrations show that for some people daily intake might be substantially higher than previously assumed and could exceed estimated safe daily exposure levels. Current ‘safe’ exposure levels are typically based on the appli-cation of traditional toxicological assumptions regard-ing acute toxicants to calculate daily exposures for chemicals in a range of widely used plastic items. The toxicological consequences of such exposures, especially for susceptible subpopulations such as chil-dren and pregnant women, remain unclear and war-rant further investigation. However, there is evidence of associations between urinary concentrations of some phthalate metabolites and biological outcomes (Swan et al. 2005; Swan 2008). For example, an inverse relationship has been reported between the concentrations of DEHP metabolites in the mother’s urine and anogenital distance, penile width and testi-cular decent in male offspring (Swan et al. 2005; Swan 2008). In adults, there is some evidence of a negative association between phthalate metabolites and semen quality (Meeker & Sathyanarayana) and between high exposures to phthalates (workers produ-cing PVC flooring) and free testosterone levels. Moreover, recent work (Lang et al. 2008) has shown a significant relationship between urine levels of BPA and cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and abnormalities in liver enzymes, and Stahlhut et al. (2009) have reported that exposure of adults in the USA to BPA is likely to occur from multiple sources and that the half-life of BPA is longer than previously estimated, and the very high exposure of premature infants in neonatal intensive-care units to both BPA and phthalates is of great concern (Calafat et al. 2009). These data indicate detrimental effects in the general population may be caused by chronic low-dose exposures (separately or in combination) and acute exposure to higher doses, but the full extent to which chemicals are transported to the human population by plastics is yet to be confirmed.

Much has been learned about toxicological effects on humans from experiments using laboratory ani-mals. This approach has been used to examine component chemicals used in plastic production. A summary of work on phthalates, BPA and tetrabromobisphenol A (TBBPA) is presented by Talsness et al. (2009). The male reproductive tract is particularly sensitive to phthalate exposure. However, most reproductive effects are not exerted by phthalate di-esters themselves, but by their monoester metabolites, which are formed in the liver. The majority of these studies have been done using rats as a model organism,

with doses at least an order of magnitude higher than those to which humans are commonly exposed, but they have resulted in rapid, severe changes in the rat testis. Reproductive effects have also been described in mice and guinea pigs. Effects on pre- and early post-natal development are of particular concern, and recent animal studies have shown exposures to certain phthalates can result in severe disorders of the developing male reproductive system. It should be noted that most work on animals has used phthalate exposures much higher than estimated daily human exposures (see above), and researchers have only recently started to investigate possible biological effects within the range of median human phthalate exposure (Talsness et al. 2009). This is of critical importance because epidemiological studies have reported associations between phthalate levels and a number of adverse health effects in humans (Swan et al. 2005), suggesting that either humans are more sensitive to phthalates than experimental animals or that the testing paradigm used in traditional toxicological studies, which examines one phthalate at a time, has not served to accurately predict adverse effects from the mixture of phthalates to which humans are exposed (Andrade et al. 2006; NAS 2008).

For BPA, there is an extensive published literature showing adverse effects of exposure at very low doses, based on administration during development and to adult experimental animals. In particular, unlike the case for experimental animal research on phthalates, there are now hundreds of experiments on laboratory animals using doses within the range of human exposures (Vandenberg et al. 2007). The rate and extent to which BPA is metabolized affect the interpretation of these findings, but even very low doses of BPA have been shown to cause significant stimulation of insulin secretion followed by insulin resistance in mice, a significant decrease in sperm production by rats, a decrease in maternal behaviour in mice and disruption of hippocampal synapses, leading to the appearance of a brain typical of that seen in senility in both rats and monkeys. The greatest concerns with exposure to BPA are during develop-ment; BPA appears to affect brain development leading to loss of sex differentiation in brain struc-tures and behaviour (Talsness et al. 2009). A further important observation regarding adverse responses to developmental exposures of animals to very low doses of BPA is that many relate to disease trends in humans. Less has been published on effects of the flame retardant TBBPA, but there is evidence of effects on thyroid hormones, pituitary function and reproductive success in animals (Talsness et al. 2009).

Despite the environmental concerns about some of the chemicals used in plastic manufacture, it is impor-tant to emphasize that evidence for effects in humans is still limited and there is a need for further research and in particular, for longitudinal studies to examine temporal relationships with chemicals that leach out of plastics (Adibi et al. 2008). In addition, the tra-ditional approach to studying the toxicity of chemicals has been to focus only on exposure to individual chemicals in relation to disease or abnormalities.

However, because of the complex integrated nature of the endocrine system, it is critical that future studies involving endocrine-disrupting chemicals that leach from plastic products focus on mixtures of chemicals to which people are exposed when they use common household products. For example, in a study conducted in the USA, 80 per cent of babies were exposed to measurable levels of at least nine different phthalate metabolites (Sathyanarayana et al. 2008), and the health impacts of the cumulative exposure to these chemicals need to be determined. An initial attempt at examining more than one phthalate as a contributor to abnormal genital development in babies has shown the importance of this approach (Swan 2008). Studies of mixtures of chemicals therefore also need to extend beyond mixtures of the same class of chemical, such as mixtures of different phthalates or of different PCBs. For example, PVC (used in a wide range of products in the home including water pipes) may contain phthalates, BPA, flame retardants such as PBDEs or TBBPA, cadmium, lead and organotins, all of which have been shown in animal studies to result in obesity (Heindel & vom Saal 2009). In addition, the monomer used to manufacture PVC plastic, vinyl chloride, is a known carcinogen and exposure can cause angiosar-coma of the liver among factory workers (Bolt 2005; Gennaro et al. 2008). PVC in medical tubing has also been shown to be a source of high DEHP exposure among infants in neonatal intensive-care nurseries (Green et al. 2005) and probably contributes to the high levels of BPA found in these babies since BPA is an additive in PVC plastic (Calafat et al. 2009).

Examining the relationship between plastic additives and adverse human effects presents a number of challenges. In particular, the changing patterns of production and use of both plastics, and the additives they contain, as well as the confidential nature of industrial specifications makes exposure assessment particularly difficult. Evolving technology, methodology and statistical approaches should help disentangle the relationships between these chemicals and health effects. However, with most of the statistically significant hormone alternations that have been attributed to environmental and occupational exposures, the actual degree of hormone alteration has been considered subclinical. Hence, more information is required on the biological mechanisms that may be affected by plastic additives and in particular, low-dose chronic exposures. Mean-while we should consider strategies to reduce the use of these chemicals in plastic manufacture and/or develop and test alternatives (for example citrates are being developed as substitute plasticizers). This is the goal of the new field of green chemistry, which is based on the premise that development of chemicals for use in commerce should involve an interaction between biologists and chemists. Had this approach been in place 50 years ago it would probably have prevented the development of chemicals that are recog-nized as likely endocrine disruptors (Anastas & Beach 2007). There is also a need for industry and indepen-dent scientists to work more closely with, rather than against, each other in order to focus effectively on the best ways forward. For example, contrast comments

on BPA by Bird (2005) with those of vom Saal (2005), and contrast comments in this volume on the safety of plastic additives by Andrady & Neal (2009) with those by Koch & Calafat (2009), Meeker et al. (2009), Oehlmann et al. (2009) and Talsness et al. (2009).


Accumulation of plastic debris in the environment and the associated consequences are largely avoidable. Considerable immediate reductions in the quantity of waste entering natural environments, as opposed to landfill, could be achieved by better waste disposal and material handling. Littering is a behavioural issue and some have suggested that it has increased in parallel with our use of disposable products and packaging. Perhaps increasing the capacity to recycle will help to reverse this trend such that we start to regard end-of-life materials as valuable feedstocks for new production rather than waste. To achieve this will require better education, engagement, enforcement and recycling capacity . Unfortunately, we were unable to source a contribution on education and public engagement, but it is evident that social research on littering behaviour could be very informative. A recent report by EnCams in the UK examined attitudes towards littering in 2001 and then again in 2006. This indicated that despite greater awareness among the general public about the pro-blems of littering, the propensity to litter had actually increased; five key attitudes and behaviours were noted and these offer valuable insight for future research (EnCams 2006). There is evidence that appropriate education can influence behaviour. For example, pre-production plastic pellets (a feedstock for production of plastic products, also described as nurdles or mer-maids tears) account for around 10 per cent, by number, of the plastic debris recorded on shorelines in Hawaii (McDermid & McMullen 2004) and sub-stantial quantities have been recorded on shorelines in New Zealand (Gregory 1978). These pellets have entered the environment through spillage during transportation, handling and as cargo lost from ships. In the USA guidelines (Operation Clean-Sweep, figure 1e) on handling of resin pellets are reported to have reduced spillage during trials (Moore et al. 2005). Conservation organizations such as the UK Marine Conservation Society play an important role in edu-cation, and the annual beach cleans they organize can be a good way to raise public awareness and to collect data on trends in the abundance of debris on shorelines (see www.mcsuk.org and Ocean Conservancy, International Coastal Cleanup www.oceancon-servancy.org). However, there is a pressing need for education to reduce littering at source (figure 1d and e). This is especially important in urban settings where increased consumption of on-the-go/fast food coupled, in some locations, with a reduction in the availability of bins as a consequence of concerns about terrorism is likely to result in increased littering. Where plastic debris enters watercourses as a conse-quence of dumping or littering a range of strategies

including catch basin inserts, booms and separators can be used to facilitate removal ).

Substantial quantities of end-of-life plastics are dis-posed of to landfill. Waste generation statistics vary among countries and according to the rationale for data collection. For instance, plastics are a small com-ponent of waste by weight but a large component by volume. Temporal and spatial comparisons can thus be confounded, and data on quantities of waste recycled can be skewed according to categorization of various wastes. However, in many locations space in landfill is running out (e.g. Defra et al. 2006). It has also been suggested that because of the longevity of plastics, disposal to landfill may simply be storing problems for the future (Barnes et al. 2009; Hopewell et al. 2009). For example, plasticizers and other additive chemicals have been shown to leach from landfills (Teuten et al. (2009) and references therein). The extent of this varies according to conditions, particularly pH and organic content. There is evidence, however, that landfills can present a significant source of contaminants, such as BPA, to aquatic environments. Efficient treatment approaches are available and are in use in some countries (Teuten et al. 2009).

From a waste management perspective, the three R’s—reduce, reuse and recycle are widely advocated to reduce the quantities of plastic and especially plastics packaging the waste we generate . Hopewell et al. (2009) outline the benefits and limit-ations of these strategies. They show that to be effe-tive we need to consider the three R’s in combination with each other and together with a fourth ‘R’, energy recovery. Indeed we also need to con-sider a 5th ‘R’, molecular redesign, as an emerging and potentially very important strategy. Hence, the three R’s become five: ‘reduce, reuse, recycle, recover and redesign’. There are opportunities to ‘reduce’ usage of raw material by down gauging (figure 1a) and there are also some opportunities to ‘reuse’ plastics, for example, in the transport of goods on an industrial (pallets, crates; figure 1b) and a domestic (carrier bags) scale. However, there is limited potential for wide-scale reuse of retail packaging because of the substantial back-haul distances and logistics involved in returning empty cartons to suppliers. Some of the energy content of plastics can be ‘recovered’ by incineration, and through approaches such as cofuelling of kilns, reasonable energy efficiency can be achieved. These approaches have benefits compared with disposal to landfill since some of the energy content of plastics is recovered. However, energy recovery does not reduce the demand for raw material used in plastic production, hence it is considered less energy efficient than product recovery via recycling (WRAP 2006; Defra 2007). In addition, concerns about emis-sions from incinerators (Katami et al. 2002) can reduce the appeal of this waste disposal option. There is now strong evidence to indicate significant potential lies in increasing our ability to effectively recycle end-of-life plastic products . Although thermoplastics have been recycled since the 1970s, the proportion of material recycled has increased substantially in recent

Figure 1. Solutions include: (a) measures to reduce the production of new plastics from oil, here an example showing how small changes in product packing reduced the weight of packaging required by 70%, while (b) reuseable plastic packing crates have reduced the packaging consumption of the same retailer by an estimated 30,000 tonnes per annum; and (c) recy-cling; here, bales of used plastic bottles have been sorted prior to recycling into new items, such as plastic packaging or textiles. Measures to reduce the quantity of plastic debris in the natural environment include: (d) educational signage to reduce contamination via storm drains and (e) via industrial spillage, together with ( f ) booms to intercept and facilitate the removal of riverine debris. (Photographs (a) and (b), and associated usage statistics, courtesy of Marks and Spencer PLC; (c) courtesy of P. Davidson, WRAP; (d,e,f ) courtesy of C. Moore, Algalita Marine Research Foundation.)

years and represents one of the most dynamic areas of the plastic industry today (WRAP 2006, 2008).

The recycling message is simple; both industry and society need to regard end-of-life items, including plastics, as raw materials rather than waste. At present our consumption of fossil fuels for plastic production is linear, from oil to waste via plastics. It is essential to take a more cyclical approach to material usage, but achieving this goal is complex (Hopewell et al. 2009). Greatest energy efficiency is achieved where recycling diverts the need for use of fossil fuels as raw materials (figure 1c); good examples being the recycling of old polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles into new ones (closed-loop recycling) or where low-density polyethylene bottles are converted into waste bins (semi-closed loop). In addition to benefits as a consequence of more sustainable material usage, a recent life cycle analysis calculated that use of 100 per cent recycled PET rather than virgin PET to produce plastic bottles could give a 27 per cent reduction on CO2 emissions (WRAP 2008; Hopewell et al. 2009).

There are some very encouraging trends, with growth in mechanical recycling increasing at 7 per cent per annum in western Europe. However, there is considerable regional variation in recycling rates and globally only a small proportion of plastic waste is recycled (see Barnes et al. (2009) for US data; see Hopewell et al. (2009) for European data). Items made of a single polymer are easier and more efficient to recycle than composite items, films and mixed wastes. As a consequence, it is currently not possible to recycle a substantial proportion of the packaging

in a typical shopping basket (Hopewell et al. 2009). On reading the account by Hopewell et al. (2009), the ingenuity of the separation procedures for recycling is evident (Fourier-transform near-infrared spec-troscopy, optical colour separation, X-ray detection), but one cannot help but wonder why similar ingenuity has not been focused on designing products for better end-of-life recyclability. Historically, the main considerations for the design of plastic packaging have been getting goods safely to market and product marketing. There is an increasing urgency to also design products, especially packaging, in order to achieve material reduction and greater end-of-life recyclability. Public support for recycling is high in some countries (57% in the UK and 80% in Australia; Hopewell et al. 2009), and consumers are keen to recycle, but the small size and the diversity of different symbols to describe a product’s potential recyclability, together with uncertainties as to whether a product will actually be recycled if it is offered for collection, can hinder engagement. In our opinion, what is needed is a sim-plification and streamlining of everyday packaging, to facilitate recyclability, together with clearer labelling to inform users. One option could be a traffic light system so that consumers can easily distinguish from printed product labelling between packages that use recycled content and have high end-of-life recyclability (marked with a green spot), those that have low end-of-life recyclability and are predominantly made of virgin polymer (red spot), and those which lie between these extremes (amber spot). With combined actions including waste reduction, design for end-of-life,

better labelling for consumers, increased options for on-the-go disposal to recycling and improved recycling capability, Hopewell et al. (2009) consider it could be possible to divert the majority of plastic from landfill over the next few decades (figure 1a–c). This will require consistency of policy measures and facilities among regions and will also require the cooperation of industry since ultimately there needs to be an acceptance of reduced usage and hence reduced income associated with the production of plastics from virgin polymer.

Molecular redesign of plastics (the 5th R) has become an emerging issue in green chemistry (Anastas & Warner 1998; Anastas et al. 2000; Anastas & Crabtree 2009) that should be incorporated within the design and life cycle analysis of plastics. In this context, green chemists aspire to design chemical products that are fully effective, yet have little or no toxicity or endocrine-disrupting activity; that break down into innocuous substances if released into the environment after use; and/or that are based upon renewable feedstocks, such as agricultural wastes. One of the fundamental factors limiting progress on all other R’s is that the design criteria used to develop new monomers have rarely included specifications to enhance reusability, recyclability or recovery of plastic once it has been used. Typically, such assessments have only been made after a product entered the marketplace and pro-blems involving waste and/or adverse health effects have begun to appear. Had the guiding principles of Green Chemistry (Anastas & Warner 1998) been available to inform the syntheses of polymers over the past century, perhaps some of the environmental and health concerns described in this Theme Issue would be more manage-able. To date, the application of these design criteria to polymers has remained largely in the laboratory. Polylactic acid (PLA) (Drumright et al. 2000), a biode-gradable polymer sourced from corn and potatoes, has entered the marketplace and has the potential to make a valuable contribution among other strategies for waste management. However, life cycle analyses are required to help establish the most appropriate usage, disposal (e.g. Song et al. 2009 illustrate relatively slow degrad-ability of PLA in home composting) and hence labelling, of biopolymers such as this (WRAP 2009).


Degradable polymers have been advocated as an alter-native to conventional oil-based plastics and their production has increased considerably in recent decades. Materials with functionality comparable to conventional plastics can now be produced on an industrial scale; they are more expensive than conventional polymers and account for less than 1 per cent of plastics production (Song et al. 2009). Biopolymers differ from conventional polymers in that their feed-stock is from renewable biomass rather than being oil-based. They may be natural polymers , or synthetic polymers made from biomass monomers (e.g. PLA) or synthetic polymers made from synthetic monomers derived from biomass (e.g. polythene derived from bioethanol) (WRAP 2009). They are often described as renewable polymers

since the original biomass, for example corn grown in agriculture, can be reproduced. The net carbon dioxide emission may be less than that with conventional polymers, but it is not zero since farming and pesticide production have carbon dioxide outputs (WRAP 2009). In addition, as a consequence of our rapidly increasing human population, it seems unlikely that there will be sufficient land to grow crops for food, let alone for substantial quantities of packaging in which to wrap it. One solution is to recycle waste food into biopolymers; this has merit, but will ultimately be limited by the amount of waste food available.

Biopolymers that are designed to breakdown in an industrial composter are described as ‘biodegradables’ while those that are intended to degrade in a domestic composter are known as ‘compostable’. There are benefits of these biodegradable materials in specific applications, for example, with packaging of highly perishable goods where, regrettably, it can be necess-ary to dispose of perished unopened and unused product together with its wrapper. Song et al. (2009) show experimentally that degradation of biodegrad-able, as opposed to compostable, polymers can be very slow in home composters (typically less than 5% loss of biomass in 90 days). Degradation of these poly-mers in landfills is also likely to be slow and may create unwanted methane emissions. Hence, the benefits of biopolymers are only realized if they are disposed of to an appropriate waste management system that uses their biodegradable features. Typically, this is achieved via industrial composting at 508C for around 12 weeks to produce compost as a useful product.

Some biopolymers, such as PLA, are biodegradable, but others such as polythene derived from bioethanol are not. A further complication is that degradable, as opposed to biodegradable, polymers (also called ‘oxo-biodegradable’, ‘oxy-degradable’ or ‘UV-degradable’) can also be made from oil-based sources but as a con-sequence are not biopolymers. These degradable materials are typically polyethylene together with addi-tives to accelerate the degradation. They are used in a range of applications and are designed to break down under UV exposure and/or dry heat and mechanical stress, leaving small particles of plastic. They do not degrade effectively in landfills and little is known about the timescale, extent or consequences of their degradation in natural environments (Barnes et al. 2009; Teuten et al. 2009). Degradable polymers could also compromise the quality of recycled plastics if they enter the recycling stream. As a consequence, use of degradable polymers is not advocated for primary retail packaging (WRAP 2009).

There is a popular misconception that degradable and biodegradable polymers offer solutions to the problems of plastic debris and the associated environ-mental hazards that result from littering. However, most of these materials are unlikely to degrade quickly in natural habitats, and there is concern that degrad-able, oil-based polymers could merely disintegrate into small pieces that are not in themselves any more degradable than conventional plastic (Barnes et al. 2009). So while biodegradable polymers offer some waste management solutions, there are limitations and considerable misunderstanding among the general

Table 1. Synthesis of current knowledge, uncertainty and recommended actions relevant to environmental and human health concerns arising from current production, use and disposal of plastics.

  established knowledge concerns and uncertainty recommendations for industry,
      research and policy
production and plastics are inexpensive, is our usage of hydrocarbons for increase/incentivize material
use lightweight, versatile, water plastics sustainable? reduction and reuse
  resistant and durable to what extent could construct life cycle analysis of
  annual growth in plastic biopolymers replace oil-based production, disposal/recycling of
  production is approximately plastics? major polymers (including
  ۹% (currently .260 Mt yr21) is there sufficient arable land for biopolymers, degradable and
  around 8% of world oil production of biomass (crops) biodegradable polymers) and
  production is used to make required for biopolymers? plastic products
  plastics to what extent does use of plastic develop alternative monomers,
  plastics bring extensive societal, powders as cleaning abrasives, polymers and additives using
  human health and and scrubbers results in direct green chemistry approaches
  environmental benefits release of particles to revise international standards for
  .۳۳% of production is used for environment? and introduce accurate/
  disposable items of packaging   informative labelling of
      recyclable, ‘degradable’,
      ‘biodegradable’ and
      compostable polymers
disposal: waste plastics are a substantial part of are current disposal strategies increase/incentivize product design
management domestic and industrial wastes sustainable—lack of space in towards use of recycled
  in landfill landfill? feedstock and increased end-of-
  recycling of some polymers (e.g. to what extent do chemicals life recyclability
  PET) has increased leach from plastic in landfill? improve methods to collect and
  considerably in recent years, little is known about the separate plastic waste for
  but substantial quantities of degradability or environmental recycling
  plastic waste not compatible fate of additives used in investment in/incentivize recycling
  with recycling biodegradable polymers operations
  biodegradable polymers typically   standardize labelling so consumers
  require industrial composting   can identify products with high
  and will not readily degrade   end-of-life recyclability (traffic
  in landfill   light system)
  biodegradable plastics can   research and monitoring of
  compromise recycling   leachates from landfills
disposal: plastic debris is common in to what extent will breakdown of education/incentives to promote
littering and marine habitats worldwide, plastic debris increase the the value of end-of-life plastics
dumping including poles and deep sea abundance of small fragments as a feedstock for recycling
  the abundance of plastic debris is in the environment? education and associated
  increasing/stabilizing (not rates of accumulation of debris enforcement on the wasteful and
  declining) on land, in freshwaters and in adverse ecological effects of
  plastic debris is fragmenting, with the deep sea are not certain plastic spillage, dumping and
  pieces ,20 mm on shorelines do biodegradable or compostable littering
  and in water column plastics degrade in natural develop standard protocols and
    habitats? monitoring to evaluate trends in
      the abundance of plastic debris
      across in natural habitats
      cleaning programmes in natural,
      urban and industrial locations
      research on breakdown of
      degradable and biodegradables
issues relating .۲۶۰ species are known to ingest does ingestion of, or research to establish the
to wildlife or become entangled in plastic entanglement in, plastic debris distribution, abundance and
  debris have effects at the population environmental consequences of
  ingestion is widespread in some level or can such effects micro- and nano-plastic
  populations (.95% of combine with other stressors fragments
  individuals) and can to do so? research to establish potential for
  compromise feeding to what extent do plastics plastics to transport chemicals
  entanglement in plastic debris transport/release chemicals to to food chain
  can lead to severe injury and wildlife? research to establish population-
  death what are the consequences of the level consequences of ingestion
    accumulation of small plastic and entanglement
    particles (e.g. abrasives from education, monitoring and
    cleaning applications) in the cleaning (see above)

Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B (2009)

Review. Plastics, the environment and human health         R. C. Thompson et al.        ۲۱۶۳

Table 1. (Continued)

established knowledge concerns and uncertainty recommendations for industry,
    research and policy

issues relating some plastics contain potentially what are the effects of low-dose
to human harmful monomers and chronic exposure to chemicals
health additive chemicals, including or mixtures of chemicals used
  flame retardants and as plastic monomers or
  plasticizers additives?
  adverse effects of additives dose –response curves may not
  evident in laboratory animals be monotonic and so should
  measurable levels of chemicals not be extrapolated in risk
  used as additives/monomers are assessment
  present in the human  
  Canadian government declared  
  BPA a toxic substance. USA  
  National Toxicology Program  
  expressed concern for adverse  
  health effects  

conduct cumulative risk assessment/management of plastic additives and monomers

biomonitoring of body burdens of additives/monomers

effects on susceptible subpopulations (babies, children) and on those with high-exposure risks

evaluate effects of exposure to mixtures of additives/monomers

design/validate appropriate species/protocols to assess chronic low dose exposures to additives/monomers by humans

public about their application (WRAP 2007). To gain the maximum benefit from degradable, biodegradable and compostable materials, it is, therefore, essential to identify specific uses that offer clear advantages and to refine national and international standards (e.g. EN 13432, ASTM D6400-99) and associated product lab-elling to indicate appropriate usage and appropriate disposal.


Our intention when preparing this Theme Issue was to focus on the science surrounding all aspects pertinent to plastics, the environment and human health. There are some omissions from the volume, such as input from social scientists on how best to convey relevant information to influence littering behaviour, consumer choice and engagement with recycling. These omis-sions aside, to be of greatest value the science herein needs to be communicated beyond a purely scientific audience (see recommendations in table 1). This is in part the role of a Theme Issue such as this, and the final invited contribution to the volume examines the science –policy interface with particular reference to policy relating to plastics. Shaxson (2009) con-siders this interface from the perspectives of industry, the scientist and the policymaker. She emphasizes the need for policy relating to plastic to weigh societal and economic benefits against environmental and health concerns. This is a diverse subject area that will require a range of policies to focus at specific issues, including polymer safety, material reduction, reuse, recycling, biopolymers, biodegradable and com-postable polymers, littering, dumping and industrial spillage. There are a range of appropriate measures (National Research Council 2008) including infor-mation and recommendations (e.g. WRAP 2009), regulations (such as the Canadian Government restric-tions on BPA in baby bottles), taxes (such as land fill tax, which incentivizes the diversion of waste from landfill to recycling), standards (such as EN 13432 covering compostable plastics) and allocation of

funds for research, innovation and capacity building. However, the diversity of issues leads to an equally complex policy environment. In the UK, for example, there is not one, but many relevant policy interfaces and numerous policies. These activities are shared among several government departments, driven by national pressures, international obligations and Euro-pean directives. In such a complex environment, even robust and clearly delivered information from the scientific community does not always have the most appropriate effects on the policy process.

Shaxson presents evidence from case studies on pol-icies relating to plastic litter in the marine environment and land-based plastic waste. She indicates that many plastic-related policy issues fall into what are defined as unstructured or badly structured problems—in essence, problems that lack consensus and clarity in the relevant policy question and in some cases lack clarity in the rel-evant knowledge base to inform any decision. Shaxson suggests such circumstances will require a reflexive approach to brokering knowledge between industry, scientists and policymakers, and that scientists will need to be prepared to make and facilitate value judgements on the basis of best evidence. From a UK perspective, she advocates using the science within this volume to help develop a ‘Plastics Road Map’, similar to the recently completed Milk and Dairy Road Map (Defra 2008) to structure policy around plastics, the environment and human health and suggests that this be facilitated by appropriate and broad debate among relevant parties.


Looking ahead, we do not appear to be approaching the end of the ‘plastic age’ described by Yarsley and Couzens in the 1940s, and there is much that plastics can contribute to society. Andrady & Neal (2009) consider that the speed of technological change is increasing exponentially such that life in 2030 will be unrecognizable compared with life today; plastics will play a significant role in this change. Plastic materials have the potential to bring scientific and medical

Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B (2009)

۲۱۶۴    R. C. Thompson et al.         Review. Plastics, the environment and human health

advances, to alleviate suffering and help reduce man-kind’s environmental footprint on the planet (Andrady

  • Neal 2009). For instance, plastics are likely to play an increasing role in medical applications, including tissue and organ transplants; lightweight components, such as those in the new Boeing 787, will reduce fuel usage in transportation; components for generation of renewable energy and insulation will help reduce carbon emissions and smart plastic packaging will no doubt be able to monitor and indicate the quality of per-ishable goods.

In conclusion, plastics offer considerable benefits for the future, but it is evident that our current approaches to production, use and disposal are not sustainable and present concerns for wildlife and human health. We have considerable knowledge about many of the environmental hazards, and information on human health effects is growing, but many concerns and uncertainties remain. There are solutions, but these can only be achieved by combined actions (see summary table 1). There is a role for individuals, via appropriate use and disposal, particularly recycling; for industry by adopting green chemistry, material reduction and by designing products for reuse and/or end-of-life recyclability and for governments and policymakers by setting standards and targets, by defining appropriate product labelling to inform and incentivize change and by funding relevant academic research and technological developments. These measures must be considered within a frame-work of lifecycle analysis and this should incorporate all of the key stages in plastic production, including synthesis of the chemicals that are used in production, together with usage and disposal. Relevant examples of lifecycle analysis are provided by Thornton (2002) and WRAP (2006) and this topic is discussed, and advo-cated, in more detail in Shaxson (2009). In our opinion, these actions are overdue and are now required with urgent effect; there are diverse environ-mental hazards associated with the accumulation of plastic waste and there are growing concerns about effects on human health, yet plastic production continues to grow at approximately 9 per cent per annum (PlasticsEurope 2008). As a consequence, the quantity of plastics produced in the first 10 years of the current century will approach the total that was produced in the entire century that preceded.

We are indebted to James Joseph and Claire Rawlinson in the editorial office and Jessica Mnatzaganian in the journals production office at the Royal Society. Without their guidance and patience this volume would not have been possible. We also thank Dr J. P. Myers, Environmental Health Sciences, for his help in preparing text for the section on Green Chemistry.


Adibi, J. J., Perera, F. P., Jedrychowski, W., Camann, D. E., Barr, D., Jacek, R. & Whyatt, R. M. 2003 Prenatal exposures to phthalates among women in New York City and Krakow, Poland. Environ. Health Perspect. 111, 1719–۱۷۲۲٫

Adibi, J. J. et al. 2008 Characterization of phthalate exposure among pregnant women assessed by repeat air and urine samples. Environ. Health Perspect. 116, 467–۴۷۳٫

Anastas, P. T. & Beach, E. S. 2007 Green chemistry: the emergence of a transformative framework. Green Chem. Lett. Rev. 1, 9 –۲۴٫ (doi:10.1080/17518250701882441)

Anastas, P. T. & Crabtree, R. H. (ed.) 2009 Handbook of green chemistry—green catalysis. Vol I Homogenous catalysis. Handbook of Green Chemistry. New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons.

Anastas, P. T. & Warner, J. C. 1998 Green chemistry: theory

and practice. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Anastas, P. T., Bickart, P. H. & Kirchhoff, M. M. 2000 Designing safer polymers. New York, NY: John Wiley and Sons, Wiley-Interscience.

Andrade, A. J. M., Grande, S. W., Talsness, C. E., Grote, K.

  • Chahoud, I. 2006 A dose –response study following in utero and lactational exposure to di-(2-ethylhexyl)-phtha-late (DEHP): non-monotonic dose –response and low dose effects on rat brain aromatase activity. Toxicology 227, 185–۱۹۲٫ (doi:10.1016/j.tox.2006.07.022)

Andrady, A. L. & Neal, M. A. 2009 Applications and societal benefits of plastics. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 364, 1977– ۱۹۸۴٫ (doi:10.1098/rstb.2008.0304)

Arthur, C., Baker, J. & Bamford, H. 2009. Proc. International Research Workshop on the occurrence, effects and fate of micro-plastic marine debris, 9 – ۱۱ September 2008. NOAA Techni-

cal Memorandum NOS-OR&R30.

Barnes, D. K. A. 2002 Biodiversity—invasions by marine life on plastic debris. Nature 416, 808– ۸۰۹٫ (doi:10.1038/ 416808a)

Barnes, D. K. A. 2005 Remote islands reveal rapid rise of southern hemisphere sea debris. Sci. World J. 5, 915–۹۲۱٫

Barnes, D. K. A., Galgani, F., Thompson, R. C. & Barlaz, M. 2009 Accumulation and fragmentation of plastic debris in global environments. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 364, 1985– ۱۹۹۸٫ (doi:10.1098/rstb.2008.0205)

Bird, J. 2005 Hyperbole or common sense. Chem. Ind. 5, 14–۱۵٫

Bolt, H. M. 2005 Vinyl chloride—a classical industrial toxi-cant of new interest. Crit. Rev. Toxicol. 35, 307–۳۲۳٫ (doi:10.1080/10408440490915975)

Brinton, W. F. 2005 Characterization of man-made foreign matter and its presence in multiple size fractions from mixed waste composting. Compost Sci. Utilizat. 13, 274–۲۸۰٫

Brown, J. & Macfadyen, G. 2007 Ghost fishing in European waters: impacts and management responses. Mar. Policy 31, 488–۵۰۴٫ (doi:10.1016/j.marpol.2006.10.007)

Browne, M. A., Dissanayake, A., Galloway, T. S., Lowe, D. M. & Thompson, R. C. 2008 Ingested microscopic plastic translocates to the circulatory system of the mussel, Mytilus edulis (L.). Environ. Sci. Technol. 42, 5026– ۵۰۳۱٫ (doi:10.1021/es800249a)

Calafat, A. M., Weuve, J., Ye, X. Y., Jia, L. T., Hu, H., Ringer, S., Huttner, K. & Hauser, R. 2009 Exposure to bisphenol A and other phenols in neonatal intensive care unit premature infants. Environ. Health Perspec. 117, 639–۶۴۴٫ (doi:10.1289/ehp.0800265)

Cheshire, A. C. et al. 2009 UNEP/IOC Guidelines on Survey and Monitoring of Marine Litter. UNEP Regional Seas Reports and Studies, No. 186; IOC Technical Series No. 83: xiiþ۱۲۰ pp.

Defra 2007 Waste strategy for England, p. 127. Norwich, UK: Department of Environment food and Rural Affairs, HMSO.

Defra 2008 The milk roadmap. London, UK: Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. See http://www. defra.gov.uk/environment/consumerprod/products/milk. htm#roadmap (accessed 10 July 2008).

Defra, Enviros, Wilson, S. & Hannan, M. 2006 Review of England’s waste strategy. Environmental report under the ‘SEA’ directive, p. 96. London, UK: DEFRA.

Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B (2009)

Review. Plastics, the environment and human health                                              R. C. Thompson et al.                                                                      ۲۱۶۵

Derraik, J. G. B. 2002 The pollution of the marine environ-ment by plastic debris: a review. Mar. Pollut. Bull. 44, 842–۸۵۲٫ (doi:10.1016/S0025-326X(02)00220-5)

Drumright, R. E., Gruber, P. R. & Henton, D. E. 2000 Poly-lactic acid technology. Adv. Mater. 12, 1841–۱۸۴۶٫ (doi:10.1002/1521-4095(200012)12:23,1841::AID-ADMA1841.3.0.CO;2-E)

EnCams     ۲۰۰۶    Litter   segmentation 2006.   Wigan,     UK:

Environmental Campaigns Limited (ENCAMS).

Gennaro, V., Ceppi, M., Crosignani, P. & Montanaro, F. 2008 Reanalysis of updated mortality among vinyl and polyvinyl chloride workers: confirmation of historical evi-dence and new findings. BMC Public Health 8, article 21. (doi:10.1186/1471-2458-8-21)

Green, R., Hauser, R., Calafat, A. M., Weuve, J., Schettler, T., Ringer, S., Huttner, K. & Hu, H. 2005 Use of di(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate-containing medical products and urinary levels of mono(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate in neonatal intensive care unit infants. Environ. Health Perspect. 113, 1222–۱۲۲۵٫

Gregory, M. R. 1978 Accumulation and distribution of virgin plastic granules on New Zealand beaches. N. Z. J. Mar. Freshwater Res. 12, 339–۴۱۴٫

Gregory, M. R. 2009 Environmental implications of plastic debris in marine settings—entanglement, ingestion, smothering, hangers-on, hitch-hiking and alien invasions. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 364, 2013–۲۰۲۵٫ (doi:10.1098/ rstb.2008.0265)

Harper, P. C. & Fowler, J. A. 1987 Plastic pellets in New Zealand storm-killed prions (Pachyptila spp.), 1958– ۱۹۹۸٫ Notornis 34, 65–۷۰٫

Heindel, J. J. & vom Saal, F. S. 2009 Overview of obesity and the role of developmental nutrition and environmental chemical exposures. Mol. Cell. Endocrinol. (doi:10.1016/ j.mce.2009.02.025)

Hopewell, J., Dvorak, R. & Kosior, E. 2009 Plastics recy-cling: challenges and opportunities. Phil. Trans. R. Soc.

  • ۳۶۴, ۲۱۱۵–۲۱۲۶٫ (doi:10.1098/rstb.2008.0311)

Hu, G. X., Lian, Q. Q., Ge, R. S., Hardy, D. O. & Li, X. K.

۲۰۰۹ Phthalate-induced testicular dysgenesis syndrome: Leydig cell influence. Trends Endocrinol. Metab. 20, 139–۱۴۵٫ (doi:10.1016/j.tem.2008.12.001)

Katami, T., Yasuhara, A., Okuda, T. & Shibamoto, T. 2002 Formation of PCDDs, PCDFs, and coplanar PCBs from polyvinyl chloride during combustion in an incinerator. Environ. Sci. Technol. 36, 1320–۱۳۲۴٫ (doi:10.1021/ es0109904)

Koch, H. M. & Calafat, A. M. 2009 Human body burdens of chemicals used in plastic manufacture. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 364, 2063– ۲۰۷۸٫ (doi:10.1098/ rstb.2008.0208)

Laist, D. W. 1997 Impacts of marine debris: entanglement of marine life in marine debris including a comprehensive list of species with entanglement and ingestion records. In Marine debris: sources, impacts and solutions (eds J. M. Coe & B. D. Rogers), pp. 99–۱۴۱٫ Berlin, Germany: Springer.

Lang, I. A., Galloway, T. S., Scarlett, A., Henley, W. E., Depledge, M., Wallace, R. B. & Melzer, D. 2008 Associ-ation of urinary bisphenol A concentration with medical disorders and laboratory abnormalities in adults. J. Am. Med. Assoc. 300, 1303 –۱۳۱۰٫ (doi:10.1001/jama.300. 11.1303)

Mato, Y., Isobe, T., Takada, H., Kanehiro, H., Ohtake, C. & Kaminuma, T. 2001 Plastic resin pellets as a transport medium for toxic chemicals in the marine environment. Environ. Sci. Technol. 35, 318–۳۲۴٫ (doi:10.1021/ es0010498)

McDermid, K. J. & McMullen, T. L. 2004 Quantitative analysis of small-plastic debris on beaches in the

Hawaiian archipelago. Mar. Pollut. Bull. 48, 790– ۷۹۴٫ (doi:10.1016/j.marpolbul.2003.10.017)

Mee, A., Rideout, B. A., Hamber, J. A., Todd, J. N., Austin, G., Clark, M. & Wallace, M. P. 2007 Junk ingestion and nestling mortality in a reintroduced population of Cali-fornia Condors Gymnogyps californianus. Bird Conserv. Int. 17, 119–۱۳۰٫ (doi:10.1017/S095927090700069X)

Meeker, J. D., Sathyanarayana, S. & Swan, S. H. 2009 Phthalates and other additives in plastics: human exposure and associated health outcomes. Phil. Trans.

  1. B 364, 2097–۲۱۱۳٫ (doi:10.1098/rstb.2008.0268) Moore, C. J. 2008 Synthetic polymers in the marine environ-ment: a rapidly increasing, long-term threat. Environ. Res.

۱۰۸, ۱۳۱–۱۳۹٫ (doi:10.1016/j.envres.2008.07.025) Moore, C. J., Lattin, G. L. & Zellers, A. F. 2005 Working our

way upstream: a snapshot of land based contributions of plastic and other trash to coastal waters and beaches of Southern California. In Proceedings of the Plastic Debris Rivers to Sea Conference, Algalita Marine Research Foun-dation, Long Beach, California.

Myers, J. P. et al. 2009 Why public health agencies cannot depend on good laboratory practices as a criterion for selecting data: the case of bisphenol A. Environ. Health Perspect. 117, 309–۳۱۵٫

NAS 2008 Phthalates and cumulative risk assessment: the tasks ahead. Washington, DC: National Academy of Sciences.

National Research Council. 2008 Tackling Marine Debris in the 21st century. Committee on the effectiveness of inter-national and national measures to prevent and reduce marine debris and its impacts. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

Oehlmann, J. et al. 2009 A critical analysis of the biological impacts of plasticizers on wildlife. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 364, 2047–۲۰۶۲٫ (doi:10.1098/rstb.2008.0242)

Oigman-Pszczol, S. S. & Creed, J. C. 2007 Quantifica-tion and classification of marine litter on beaches along Armacao dos Buzios, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. J. Coastal Res. 23, 421–۴۲۸٫ (doi:10.2112/1551-5036(2007)23[421: QACOML]2.0.CO;2)

OSPAR 2007 OSPAR pilot project on monitoring marine beach litter: monitoring of marine litter on beaches in the OSPAR region. London, UK: OSPAR Commission.

Peck, J. D., Sweeney, A. M., Symanski, E., Gardiner, J., Silva, M. J., Calafat, A. M. & Schantz, S. L. 2009 Intra- and inter-individual variability of urinary phthalate metabolite concentrations in Hmong women of reproduc-tive age. J. Expo. Sci. Environ. Epidemiol. (doi:10.1038/ jes.2009.4)

PlasticsEurope 2008 The compelling facts about plastics 2007: an analysis of plastics production, demanda and recovery in Europe, p. 24. Brussels, Australia: PlasticsEurope.

Rudel, R. A., Brody, J. G., Spengler, J. C., Vallarino, J., Geno, P. W., Sun, G. & Yau, A. 2001 Identification of selected hormonally active agents and animal mammary carcinogens in commercial and residential air and dust samples. J. Air Waste Manag. Assoc. 51, 499–۵۱۳٫

Rudel, R. A., Camann, D. E., Spengler, J. D., Korn, L. R. & Brody, J. G. 2003 Phthalates, alkylphenols, pesticides, polybrominated diphenyl ethers, and other endocrine-disrupting compounds in indoor air and dust. Environ. Sci. Technol. 37, 4543– ۴۵۵۳٫ (doi:10.1021/ es0264596)

Rudel, R. A., Dodson, R. E., Newton, E., Zota, A. R. & Brody, J. G. 2008 Correlations between urinary phthalate metabolites and phthalates, estrogenic compounds 4-butyl phenol and o-phenyl phenol, and some pesticides in home indoor air and house dust. Epidemiology 19, S332.

Ryan, P. G., Moore, C. J., van Franeker, J. A. & Moloney, C. L. 2009 Monitoring the abundance of plastic debris in the

Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B (2009)

۲۱۶۶    R. C. Thompson et al.         Review. Plastics, the environment and human health

marine environment. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 364, 1999– ۲۰۱۲٫ (doi:10.1098/rstb.2008.0207)

Sathyanarayana, S., Karr, C. J., Lozano, P., Brown, E., Calafat, A. M., Liu, F. & Swan, S. H. 2008 Baby care products: possible sources of infant phthalate exposure. Pediatrics 121, E260–E268. (doi:10.1542/peds.2006-3766)

Shaxson, L. 2009 Structuring policy problems for plastics, the environment and human health: reflections from the UK. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 364, 2141– ۲۱۵۱٫ (doi:10.1098/rstb.2008.0283)

Song, J. H., Murphy, R. J., Narayan, R. & Davies, G. B. H. 2009 Biodegradable and compostable alternatives to con-ventional plastics. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 364, 2127– ۲۱۳۹٫ (doi:10.1098/rstb.2008.0289)

Stahlhut, R. W., Welshons, W. V. & Swan, S. H. 2009 Bisphenol A data in NHANES suggest longer than expected half-life, substantial non-food exposure, or both. Environ. Health Perspect. 117, 784–۷۸۹٫ (doi:10. 1289/ehp.0800376)

Swan, S. H. 2008 Environmental phthalate exposure in relation to reproductive outcomes and other health end-points in humans. Environ. Res. 108, 177–۱۸۴٫ (doi:10. 1016/j.envres.2008.08.007)

Swan, S. H. et al. 2005 Decrease in anogenital distance among male infants with prenatal phthalate exposure. Environ. Health Perspect. 113, 1056–۱۰۶۱٫

Talsness, C. E., Andrade, A. J. M., Kuriyama, S. N., Taylor, J. A. & vom Saal, F. S. 2009 Components of plastic: experimental studies in animals and relevance for human health. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 364, 2079–۲۰۹۶٫ (doi:10.1098/rstb.2008.0281)

Teuten, E. L., Rowland, S. J., Galloway, T. S. & Thompson, R. C. 2007 Potential for plastics to transport hydrophobic contaminants. Environ. Sci. Technol. 41, 7759–۷۷۶۴٫ (doi:10.1021/es071737s)

Teuten, E. L. et al. 2009 Transport and release of chemicals from plastics to the environment and to wild-life. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 364, 2027–۲۰۴۵٫ (doi:10. 1098/rstb.2008.0284)

Thompson, R. C., Olsen, Y., Mitchell, R. P., Davis, A., Rowland, S. J., John, A. W. G., McGonigle, D. & Russell, A. E. 2004 Lost at sea: where is all the plastic? Science 304, 838–۸۳۸٫ (doi:10.1126/science.1094559)

Thompson, R., Moore, C., Andrady, A., Gregory, M., Takada, H. & Weisberg, S. 2005 New directions in plastic debris. Science 310, 1117.

Thornton, J. 2002 Environmental Impacts of Polyvinyl Chloride Building Materials, A Healthy Building Network Report. Washington, DC: Healthy Building Network.

Van Franeker, J. A. et al. 2005 Save the North Sea’ Fulmar Study 2002–۲۰۰۴: a regional pilot project for the Fulmar-Litter-EcoQO in the OSPAR area. In Alterra-rapport 1162. Wageningen: Alterra. See www. zeevogelgroep.nl.

Vandenberg, L. N., Hauser, R., Marcus, M., Olea, N. & Welshons, W. V. 2007 Human exposure to bisphenol A (BPA). Reprod. Toxicol. 24, 139– ۱۷۷٫ (doi:10.1016/ j.reprotox.2007.07.010)

vom Saal, F. S. 2005 Low-dose BPA: confirmed by extensive literature. Chem. Ind. 7, 14–۱۵٫

Wagner, M. & Oehlmann, J. 2009 Endocrine disruptors in bottled mineral water: total estrogenic burden and migration from plastic bottles. Environ. Sci. Pollut. Res 16, 278–۲۸۶٫

Wormuth, M., Scheringer, M., Vollenweider, M. & Hungerbuhler, K. 2006 What are the sources of exposure to eight frequently used phthalic acid esters in Europeans? Risk Anal. 26, 803–۸۲۴٫ (doi:10.1111/j.1539-6924.2006. 00770.x)

WRAP 2006 Environmental benefits of recycling: an inter-national review of life cycle comparisons for key materials in the UK recycling sector. Banbury, UK: WRAP.

WRAP 2007 Consumer attitudes to biopolymers. Banbury, UK:


WRAP 2008 The carbon impact of bottling Australian wine in the UK: PET and glass bottles, p. 34. Banbury, UK: WRAP. WRAP 2009 Biopolymer packaging in UK grocery market, p. 4.

Banbury, UK: WRAP.

Yamashita, R. & Tanimura, A. 2007 Floating plastic in the Kuroshio Current area, western North Pacific Ocean. Mar. Pollut. Bull. 54, 485–۴۸۸٫ (doi:10.1016/ j.marpolbul.2006.11.012)

Yarsley, V. E. & Couzens, E. G. 1945 Plastics. Middlesex:

Penguin Books Limited.

Zubris, K. A. V. & Richards, B. K. 2005 Synthetic fibers as an indicator of land application of sludge. Environ. Pollut. 138, 201–۲۱۱٫ (doi:10.1016/j.envpol.2005.04.013)

The future of automotive lithium-ion battery recycling: Charting a sustainable course
China to cut ‘waste’ imports to zero in 2020