Plastics are everywhere — from food packaging to healthcare, construction materials, furniture and textiles. They are, unfortunately, also bad for the environment. They are not only polluting the seas and land, but also contributing to climate change and air emissions.

Marine litter: the majority is plastic

Land-based sources account for 80% of marine litter and approximately 85% of it is plastic. This is a big problem because of plastic’s impact on marine life and human health via the food chain. The persistent nature of plastic means that it can last up to 500 years in some cases. 

Plastic packaging and small plastic items comprise nearly 80% of plastic waste and are a common sight on European beaches. Although the amount of waste continues to increase, current waste management capacity is limited. Most plastic items that are used and thrown away are either recycled, incinerated or properly stored in waste facilities. However, a mismanaged part of that waste continues to find its way to our seas and pollute them. 

How does plastic impact human health?

Our growing exposure to plastics and the chemicals they contain can put human health at risk.

The annual intake of microplastics by humans has been estimated to range from 70,000 to over 120,000 particles. Most of these particles are inhaled through air; food and drink constitute the second largest source. People who predominantly drink bottled water may ingest an additional 90,000 microplastic particles a year. Human exposure to microplastics through drinking water is assumed to be low in Europe, but there is not enough evidence to confirm this.

Our zero pollution monitoring assessment takes a look at how our increasing use of plastics creates more pollution, which impacts both ecosystem and human health in one of its cross-cutting stories.

Microplastics from textiles: towards a circular economy for textiles in Europe

How to move towards sustainable plastics?

Circular and sustainability practices throughout the lifecycle of plastics can help reduce greenhouse gas emissions, pollution and waste. Many such good practice examples already exist and would need to be scaled up to enable a circular plastics economy in Europe.

Our briefing 'Pathways towards circular plastics in Europe' aims to inspire businesses, policymakers and citizens to make the production and consumption of plastics more circular and sustainable. The briefing is based on an underpinning technical report by the EEA’s European Topic Centre on Circular Economy and Resource Use.

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