Cross-cutting story 1: Pathways towards zero pollution from plastics

Page Last modified 28 Jan 2023
This cross-cutting story explores how our increasing use of plastics creates more pollution, which impacts both ecosystem and human health. It also examines the measures that can help society sustainably use plastics.

Europe’s production and use of plastics

Half of all plastics ever produced have been made since 2000 (Geyer et al., 2017). It has been estimated that, in the 1950s, the production and consumption of plastic worldwide amounted to 2 million tonnes (Mt). By 2020, this had grown to over 360Mt (Plastics Europe, 2021).

If this trend continues, global plastic production is forecast to reach well over 1,000Mt by 2050 (Zheng and Suh, 2019). Plastic production in Europe alone amounted to 55Mt in 2020 — accounting for 15% of the global total, as shown in Figure 1. However, Europe’s share of global production has fallen by 32% since 2010, mainly due to intensified production in China (Plastics Europe, 2021).

In western Europe, including countries that are members of the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development), the average annual plastic consumption is around 150kg per person (OECD, 2022) — more than twice the global average of 60kg. In Europe, the key sectors responsible for this level of consumption are packaging (by far the largest sector), construction, the automotive industry and electronics. Cumulatively, these account for over 75% of plastic consumption — excluding synthetic textiles, which are typically reported on separately (EEA, 2019; Plastics Europe, 2021). Demand for plastics is driven by a variety of factors, including economic growth linked to increased consumption, as well as a significant expansion in plastic uses and the number of on-demand plastic products. For instance, in 2016, 480 billion plastic bottles were sold around the world; this is equivalent to over a million sold every minute (Laville and Taylor, 2017). The EU has a 90% plastic (PET) bottle collection target that should be met by 2029, as set in the Single Use Plastics Directive. However, recycling is only part of the solution. Taking this into account, the EU has also committed to reducing the consumption of unsustainable, single-use plastic.

Some of the unique features that have made plastic so popular also create problems in natural environments. Plastic’s lightweight and durable properties mean that it can travel far across the world in water and air, and remains in the environment for decades, if not centuries (Pew Trust and Systemiq, 2020; ETC/CE, 2022). 

Figure 1. Regional share of global plastic production, 2010 to 2020

Note: CIS, Commonwealth of Independent States; NAFTA, North American Free Trade Association.

Source: Plastics Europe (2021).

Click here for different chart formats and data


How plastic impacts ecosystems

In a report published by the World Economic Forum et al. (2016), the Ellen MacArthur Foundation stated that if we do not act on the plastic problem, there will be more plastic by mass than fish in the oceans by 2050. Indeed, the impacts of plastic pollution on aquatic environments are well-documented. A growing number of studies outline the impact that macroplastics have on a wide range of species in a number of ways — including entanglement, injuries and ingestion (UNEP, 2021). All species of marine turtles, almost 60% of whale species, 36% of seal species and 40% of seabird species ingest plastics (Kühn et al., 2015).

As plastic fragments into smaller and smaller parts, it eventually turns into microplastics, i.e. plastic particles under 5mm in size. Microplastics come from a broad range of direct sources (see Figure 2), including vehicle tyre abrasion, laundering synthetic textiles, pellet loss, geotextiles, detergent bags and paints (EC, forthcoming). See the European Commission’s measures to reduce impacts from microplastics pollution on the environment for more details.

Part of the problem is that micro- and nano-sized particles that accumulate in the environment can enter the animal and human food chain (Bouwmeester et al., 2015). Once ingested, microplastics can damage the digestive systems of aquatic organisms and inflict internal and external injuries (de Ruijter et al., 2020). Microplastics may be absorbed and distributed throughout the circulatory and lymphatic systems; they can be stored in fatty tissues and lead to potential carcinogenic effects, liver dysfunction and endocrine disruption (Lehel and Murphy, 2021). Nanoplastics (plastic particles less than 100nm) are even smaller, and the extent to which they impact the environment and result in toxicity is not fully known (Shopova et al., 2020).

Microplastics can emit substances of concern or act as tiny sponges, absorbing and transmitting environmental contaminants (Bouwmeester et al., 2015; Fred-Ahmadu et al., 2019). Although the aggregated impacts of microplastic pollution on ecosystems are unknown, research suggests that microplastics compromise key species, such as corals and worms (Bradney et al., 2019; Renzi et al., 2019).


Macroplastics are the more visible plastic fragments and account for the largest share of plastic pollution. Microplastics are fragments, fibres, spheroids, granules, pellets, flakes or beads in the range of 0.1-5,000μm. Primary microplastics are manufactured at that size, while secondary microplastics originate from plastic debris as it becomes fragmented. Nanoplastics are 1-100nm in size and may be produced when microplastics fragment.

In general, there has been more focus on plastic pollution in aquatic environments than on its impacts on terrestrial and atmospheric environments. The rapid increase in plastic production and pollution outpaces the capacity to assess and monitor its potential widescale impacts. However, a growing area of interest is the impact of microplastics in sewage sludge on soils. As microplastics (from textiles in particular) are filtered out from wastewater treatment plants, they end up in sludge, which is then spread onto agricultural land as fertiliser in many European countries. One study estimates that microplastic contamination in soil amounts to 31,000-42,000 tonnes (Lofty et al., 2022) across Europe. In response, the EU’s Sewage Sludge Directive is set to limit the amount of microplastic in sewage sludge. There are growing concerns around the impact of microplastics on terrestrial organisms, soil carbon and nitrogen cycling — all of which may put future topsoil quality at risk (Baho et al., 2021).

Figure 2. Sources and sinks of microplastics


Source: Adapted from ETC/CE (2022).


Plastics also account for an estimated 3.4% of global greenhouse gas emissions. This is mainly because of their origin in fossil fuels: as plastics are produced, other pollutants are also released — including nitrogen oxides (NOx), sulphur oxides (SOx), particulate matter (PM), volatile organic compounds (VOCs), heavy metals and a wide range of toxic chemicals (EEA, 2021; OECD, 2022).


Impacts on human health

Our growing exposure to plastics and the chemicals they contain can put human health at risk. Microplastics have been detected in human blood and stool (Schwabl et al., 2019; Leslie et al., 2022).

The annual intake of microplastics by humans has been estimated to range from 70,000 to over 120,000 particles (Cox et al., 2019). 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 (Marsden et al., 2019).

Currently, no EU legislation regulates micro- and nanoplastics as contaminants in food. A 2016 opinion of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) found limited data on microplastics in seafood and a lack of methods for assessing nanoplastics in seafood; the opinion recommended method development and systematic monitoring (EFSA, 2016). Work is ongoing to produce up-to-date knowledge on the occurrence and possible toxic effects of ingesting micro- and nanoplastics via food and drink (Shopova et al., 2020).

Plastic polymers and additives can contain a wide range of toxic chemicals — including chlorine, phthalates, bisphenols and brominated flame retardants. These potentially pose a range of health risks — from allergies to endocrine disruption, reduced fertility, damaged nervous systems and cancer (UNEP, 2021). Moreover, the combined effect of the cocktail of chemicals people are exposed to through plastics is not fully understood as explained in the zero pollution ‘Signal’ on the health impacts of chemical mixtures. Plastics used in food contact materials are strictly regulated, but plastic products imported from outside the EU may contain substances banned in the EU market.


Actions to reduce plastic pollution

The zero pollution targets for 2030 aim to reduce marine litter by 50% and microplastic release by 30%.The EU has responded to the plastic problem by implementing a broad range of policies. These include the EU plastic strategy, the Plastic Bags Directive, the Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive, the Single Use Plastic Directive, regulations on plastic waste shipments and the new circular economy action plan. Moreover, the European Commission plans to address issues related to microplastics and bioplastics in policy proposals before the end of 2022.

Strongly supported by the EU, the United Nations Environment Assembly will develop a global treaty on plastic pollution — taking the entire life cycle into account. Negotiations are currently taking place to develop this treaty.

Meanwhile, progress is under way in business. Innovative, circular business models enable the longer use, reuse and repair of materials. At the end-of-life phase, these models mean that plastics can be sorted, recycled and remanufactured.

Despite these solutions, more needs to be done, given the scale of the problem. Future interventions that could help create a more circular system around plastics, and ultimately contribute to meeting the zero pollution targets (EEA, 2021), include:

  • Smarter use: preventing plastic pollution in the first place by reducing the use of disposable plastics and ensuring that the right plastic is used for the right purpose. Smarter use also tackles health risks by limiting toxic elements in plastic products — in line with safe and sustainable by design principles.
  • Increased circularity: reducing plastic pollution by ensuring that plastic stays within closed loops rather than being discarded — and possibly leaking into nature — after use. This requires coordinated actions throughout the life cycle, from design to waste management.
  • Renewable raw material: switching from virgin fossil materials to materials that have a lower impact on ecosystems and leak fewer substances during resource extraction and production. Alternative feedstocks include biomass, waste and even captured carbon emissions. Compostable plastics may also help reduce pollution.

Figure 3. Pathways towards circular and zero pollution plastics

Source: EEA, 2021.

To move towards a more sustainable and zero pollution plastic system, implementing existing policy measures and adopting new targeted interventions will be needed both in Europe and globally. 


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Cover image source: © Matjaz Krivic, Well with Nature /EEA


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