Plastic is everywhere these days. We have passed from a world production of 2 million tons in 1950 to 400 million tons in 2015 (2). Plastics are grouped into 7 categories (PET/PE, HDPE, PVC, LDPE, PP, PS, and others). Approximately 40% of the plastic used in Europe is dedicated to packaging (3), in Switzerland this share represents 37% (4).
Impact on ecosystems
Cumulative plastic waste in the world from 1950 to 2015 amounts to 6300 million tonnes. Of this total, only 9% has been recycled, 12% has been incinerated and 79% has been landfilled or disposed of in nature (2).
During its degradation, plastic waste releases its constituent products (microplastics, dyes, heavy metals, plasticizers, etc.) into the environment. These pollutants are present in the air, water and soil and can be ingested by organisms and introduced into the food web (5).
About 14,000 tonnes of plastic waste are discharged into soil and water in Switzerland every year. Most of it comes from tyre abrasion and littering or improper disposal of plastic waste (6).
Impact on climate
Plastics emit greenhouse gases at every stage of its life cycle: during the extraction of hydrocarbons, during refining and manufacturing (emissions from combustion and energy consumption) and during disposal (landfilling, incineration or recycling). If the production and use of plastics in the world continues at the current rate, cumulative greenhouse gas emissions could reach 56 billion tonnes by 2050 according to a study by CIEL (7).
Impact on health
The effects of microplastics on human health have not yet been well studied. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) considers that particles < 150 μm can pass through the intestinal wall, but that less than 0.3% of them are actually absorbed. Only very small particles (< 1.5 μm) can enter the organs. Especially under certain heat conditions, plastics can release monomers or oligomers that can cause toxic effects. Bisphenol A (the building block of polycarbonate) or styrene (the building block of polystyrene) are endocrine disruptors (molecules with chemical properties similar to those of hormones, capable of disrupting the hormonal system of living beings and affecting their reproduction, growth, development, etc.). Similarly, additives such as phthalates can potentially be released and cause undesirable effects (e.g. altered embryonic development) (8).