Plastic pollution: plastic trash floating in the ocean with fish in the background

The Effects of Plastic Pollution

Decrease Your Plastic Waste

Why is plastic bad for the environment?

Plastic was invented in 1907 and took off in the 1950’s. A convenient, versatile, and cheap product, it has becomes so integral and commonplace in our lives that it is pretty much impossible to completely avoid. Plastic pollution has become one of the most concerning environmental issues today.

The world’s plastic production has reached around 400 million tons created per year and is expected to double by 2050. About half of that is intended for single-use products, nearly all of which are produced with fossil fuels and are discarded within the same year they are made. Only about 30% of all plastic ever made is currently being used, and its production continues to grow, while it is estimated that only 5-9% of plastic is recycled. The rest piles up in landfills, taking hundreds of years to decompose.

Plastics contain a myriad of additives such as plasticizers, antioxidants, pigments, flame-retardants that pose a hazard to both the environment and animal/human health. As we know, plastics can take hundreds of years to break down, and in the process they can leach toxic chemicals into the soil and water. Existing environmental pollutants can bind with these chemicals, forming more harmful compounds that can take even longer to break down.

Eventually plastic breaks down into tiny pieces less than 5mm in size, which we then refer to as microplastics. These particles make up 92% of the ever-growing Great Pacific Garbage patch, which is now twice the size of Texas. (Speaking of Texas, every year we make enough plastic film to shrink-wrap the entire Lone Star state). In the ocean, these microplastics are frequently ingested by wildlife, piercing or blocking their digestive tracts, often leading to their demise. Plastic has been found in more than 60% of all seabirds and in 100% of sea turtles species. By 2050, it is estimated that the amount of plastic in the ocean will outweigh the sea life.

Where do microplastics come from?

Plastic pollution such as bottles and containers are probably among the first items that come to your mind. While those are significant, there are a couple other sources of microplastics that you probably didn’t know about: beauty & personal care products, and textiles.

Beauty & Personal Care Products

[Go to Beauty & Personal Care Products page.]

Most of the products you have on your bathroom shelf contain microbeads of tiny plastic spheres in the product itself. One study showed 87% of products from the ten best-selling cosmetics brands contain microplastics. These are used in nearly every type of product: cosmetics, exfoliating scrubs, moisturizers, toothpaste, deodorant, and hair care products. These microplastics are too small to be filtered out of water and end up polluting rivers, lakes, and oceans.

Common plastics used are polyethylene (PE), polypropylene (PP), polyethylene terephthalate (PET), polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA), polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE) and nylon. Another common suspect is dimethicone, a silicone polymer (i.e. synthetic) that all sources seem to agree is safe for your skin, but differ on whether it contributes to the microplastic problem. From what I have read, I lean towards it being an environmental concern. Finding mainstream brand products without these ingredients, especially dimethicone, can be very difficult.

Beat the Microbead is a helpful resource with lots of information, including an online database and an app. I just went through everything in my bathroom and feel quite disgusted at what I found. This adds a whole new level to choosing products, as if it weren’t already complicated enough. Sigh.

app store
google play


[Go to Textiles page.]

The other significant items microplastics come from are synthetic fabrics. 69% of clothing is made with synthetic fibers, the majority of that being polyester. Other common synthetic fabrics include spandex, nylon, and acrylic. These are all derived from fossil fuels and their production uses more energy and produces more emissions than the processing of natural fibers. In addition, many chemicals are used in the process, some toxic.

Because they contain plastic, synthetic material is not biodegradable and can take up to 200 years to decompose, leaching the chemicals into the soil and water in the process. Just like other plastics, they eventually break down into smaller microplastics. These tiny fragments, along with the small fibers enter the water system as clothes are washed, contribute to the plastic pollution. It is estimated that up to 35% of microplastics in the ocean and 71% of microplastics in rivers come from synthetic clothing. In your own home, textile microplastics compose 33% of the dust floating around.

Read more about the environmental impacts of synthetic fibers.

Are microplastics bad for us?

Microplastics have been found in every ecosystem on the planet, from the highest mountain peaks to the deepest parts of the ocean. Recent studies have shown microplastics in our bloodstream and even human placentas. It is also estimated that we ingest 5 grams of plastic every week. That’s about the equivalent of a credit card. Yum.

Plastic is made with many different chemicals, and some have been shown to be toxic and cause health issues. In humans, these chemicals can act as carcinogens and endocrine (hormone) disruptors, affect organ function and pregnancy outcomes, increase inflammation, and possibly carry pathogens. In animals, chemicals from plastics accumulate in fats and tissues, and research has suggested that these chemicals may impact aquatic animals by contributing to liver issues, reduced feeding, reproduction issues, and compromised immunity.

Two types of plastics in particular are the worst for human health: #3/PVC and #6/polystyrene. Read more about these specific types of plastic.

Read more about the health hazards of plastics in the Washington Post.

You’ve noticed the recycling symbol and numbers on the underside of plastic bottles and containers, right? Does presence of that symbol indicate it is recyclable? Find the answer here.

Plastic recycling

What plastics can be recycled?

  • Empty bottles, tubs, jugs, and jars. Keep plastic lids on.

Check which plastics your local recycler accepts. Just because an item has a recycle symbol on the bottom does not mean it is recyclable. The symbol is actually a resin identification code that’s purpose is to indicate the type of plastic used to manufacture the item. Technically all plastics can be recycled, but it is dependent on factors like cost, supply and demand of these commodities, and the capability of facilities to process these more difficult to recycle types of plastics. The supply depends on us: since only about 9% of plastic is recycled in the U.S., certain types of plastic are difficult for recyclers to find. Learn about the types of plastic.

I think it is safe to say that plastics with resin codes #1 (PET/PETE) and #2 (HDPE) are universally accepted and recycled, followed by #5 (PP).

Plastic items not acceptable for recycling

  • Bulky items, such as furniture.
  • Items made from multiple materials, such as garden hoses and toothpaste tubes.
  • Styrofoam
    • Styrofoam is a notoriously tough material to recycle; I haven’t located anywhere that will recycle them. Some places may recycle block styrofoam, such as Marko Foam in Utah. Many sources say that UPS stores will take your packing peanuts, but the locations I have contacted told me they do not, and one told me UPS has banned packing peanuts altogether. So styrofoam belongs in the trash; do your best to avoid it as much as possible.
  • Plastic film

More plastic recycling options

For harder to recycle plastic items, head over to the How to Reduce Plastic Use. Some packaging can be recycled through programs like Terracycle and Nordstrom’s Beautycycle.

In my area, plastics #1-7 are all accepted, but #1 and #2 are the only ones actually getting recycled. The rest are sold to a cement plant who burns these plastics as a fuel source for their kiln. This is actually a very common practice.

The cement industry is responsible for 7% of global greenhouse emissions. Burning plastics can release harmful toxins like dioxins into the air, but proponents deny this is an issue. I contacted the cement facility that burns plastics in my state and was assured that burning plastic is cleaner than coal, and that the cement plant “does have pollution control equipment and very strict permit for air pollution.”

I have mixed feelings about this–it results in less plastics in the landfill, and less virgin fossil fuels required for fuel, but I’m not confident about the filtration of toxic chemicals being released into the air. It leaves me wondering if I should just throw #3-7 plastics into the trash. It’s a classic battle of picking the lesser of two evils.

For more information about burning plastics, read these articles by National Geographic and Greenpeace.

Solutions to plastic pollution

The real solution to plastic pollution is to minimize use of it in our lives in every way possible. In reality, we cannot completely eliminate this material from our lives, but we can definitely decrease our use significantly by focusing on some key areas.

Learn how to reduce plastic consumption of common household items.

Stop using single use plastics.

Stop buying or using items like plastic water bottles, straws, plastic bags such as shopping bags, produce bags and zip-top bags. Instead, purchase reusable replacements.

Buy products in plastic-free packaging.

Look for items like beauty products, cleaners, and food packaged in materials like glass, metal, bamboo, recycled paper, or at least recycled plastic.

Use products that do not contain microbeads.

Use the Beat the Microbead app, and check labels for the common offending ingredients.

Choose natural fabrics over synthetic.

Instead of polyester, nylon, spandex, or acrylic, option for clothing, bedding, and other textiles made from sustainably-sourced, natural fibers, such as organic cotton, hemp, linen, bamboo, wool, silk, cashmere, or Tencel (Lyocell and Modal). Learn more about sustainable clothing.


Try to find other used for your plastic item after it has fulfilled its original purpose.

The real solution? Cut all plastics out of your life as much as possible. Find eco-friendly plastic alternatives here.

Scroll to Top