Effects of plastics in the environment

An overview of concerns by DEA member A/Prof Vicki Kotsirilos

The impact of chemicals such as heavy metals and pesticides in the environment on human health is well recognised.1 What is not well recognised is the impact of plastics in the environment on human health.

In April 2016, the Federal Government, Senate Environment and Communications References Committee, released its report titled “Toxic tide: the threat of marine plastic pollution in Australia”. It contains alarming concerns about the impact of plastics found in abundance in our environment.2

One generation ago, plastics were not part of our daily lives. Cloth, boxes or paper bags were used for shopping and there were no plastics for storing food in the fridges. Now it is part of our daily lives even for single-use packaging of food! The problem is global and widespread. Go to Asia such as Bali and experience swimming in one of their beaches with plastic debris floating in the water and brushing up against your skin. It is not a pleasant experience!

The World Economic Forum warn plastics are increasingly being used across economies in sectors ranging from packaging to construction, transportation, healthcare and electronics. This increasing use is reflected in the rate of increase in global plastic production: in 1964, 15 million tonnes of plastics were produced, in 2014 that had increased to 311 million tonnes. According to the World Economic Forum, plastics production is expected to double again in 20 years, and to almost quadruple by 2050.3 In summary, the Senate report raises serious concerns and highlights the following points:2

There is an alarming production and use of plastics worldwide.

  • The vast majority of plastics is non-biodegradable and can persist in the environment for hundreds of years.
  • Majority of marine-based pollution comes from land, originating from urban and industrial waste sites, sewage outlets, stormwater and litter discarded by recreational users of our coasts and marine waterways.
  • A major national study led by CSIRO, documented the state of marine plastic debris in Australia and its negative impact on marine wildlife.4 The study suggests most marine plastic debris in the Australian region is domestic and correlates with increase in local population, urbanisation and human activity.
  • Stormwater drainage is a significant contributor of plastic debris in the marine environment which often delivers directly to coastal areas, or via catchment runoff into coastal areas. Other sources include: urban litter, garbage from shipping and abandoned fishing gear from local, national and international fishing operations.
  • Marine plastic pollution in Australian waters can also originate from international sources with ocean currents transporting plastic debris over long distances. According to the World Economic Forum’s best available data, Asia accounts for more than 80% of the total leakage of plastic into the ocean.5 CSIRO also note that China and Indonesia are significant sources of plastic pollution.4
  • Due to their light weight, plastics are readily transported by wind and water.
  • National and international studies demonstrate significant quantities of hard plastics, plastic water bottles and packaging litter found in our coastal and river waterways such as Sydney Harbour and Port Phillip Bay.2,6
  • Plastic debris found in the marine environment is either larger debris (macroplastic) or small particles (microplastic) i.e. tiny plastic fragments, fibres and granules of less than 5 mms in size from intentionally produced items, inherent by-products of other products or activities, emitted through accident or unintentional spill or macroplastic degradation.
  • Substantial human voluntary hours such as Clean Up Australia and BeachPatrol are expended on collecting record numbers of plastic littering on coast and land. The cost of removing litter by local and state Government is enormous. For example, the Victorian Government in 2012–13 spent $80 million in removing litter, including the removal of over 7,800 tonnes of litter from Melbourne waterways.2
  • CSIRO report highlights the cost of littering to local government is substantial.4
  • There are international efforts to address the global concern of plastic debris and pollution. At present this issue is addressed on a state by state level in Australia, yet the problem is not a boundary issue and the Senate recommends it be addressed on a National level.2
  • The Senate committee received considerable evidence on the impact of plastic pollution on marine fauna and flora from leading Australian academics, government agencies and community organisations. The evidence indicates that plastic debris affects marine life through ingestion, entanglement, the transport i.e. plastic acting as a medium and bioaccumulation of harmful chemicals.2
  • Plastic ingestion is well documented in a large range of marine species, shorebirds and seabirds – small plastics look similar in appearance to prey for marine animals. The Senate also received evidence in relation to ingestion of plastics by turtles, seabirds, cetaceans (e.g. dolphins and whales), corals and zooplankton.2
  • Marine plastic pollution also acts as both a transport medium for accumulated chemicals present in seawater, and is a source of toxic chemicals such as pesticides (e.g. DDT, polychlorinated biphenyls and endocrine-active substances).2 These substances are well known to be bio-accumulative and impact marine and human health.1,7 Many toxic chemicals are fat soluble, lasting decades in the environment where they undergo biomagnification (tissue concentrations increase) as they pass up the food chain.1
  • The effects of plastics on human life e.g. ingestion of plastics through consumption of marine life, is not well recognised or studied, and warrants further research in view of the growing contamination of plastics in the environment.

In summary, the Senate has made a number of recommendations to address the problems of plastics.2 Every effort should be made at the State, National and International level to help raise community awareness of the problems of plastics on the environment. This includes a reduction in the production of plastics by industry and finding alternative options and the need and use of plastics by communities, e.g. one use plastic products. Additionally, the community and government should prohibit the supply of plastics where suitable options are available, e.g. shopping bags made of plastics, and for improved discarding and recycling programs of all types of plastics.


1 Nicole Bijlsma, Marc M. Cohen. Review, Environmental chemicals in clinical practice: unveiling the elephant in the room. INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF ENVIRONMENTAL RESEARCH AND PUBLIC HEALTH. FEBRUARY 2016 DOI: 10.3390/ijerph13020181 http://profmarccohen.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/Env-chemicals-in-clinical-practice.pdf
[Accessed 30.10.2016] 2http://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/Senate/Environment_and_Communications/Marine_plastics/Report [Accessed 20.10.2016] 3 World Economic Forum, The New Plastics Economy: Rethinking the future of plastics, January 2016, http://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_The_New_Plastics_Economy.pdf p. 7 and p. 10. [Accessed 30.10.2016] 4 Hardesty, B D, and Wilcox, C. Understanding the types, sources and at-sea distribution of marine debris in Australian waters, 2011, CSIRO, https://www.environment.gov.au/system/files/pages/8ff786ed-42cf-4a50-866e-13a4d231422b/files/marine-debris-sources.pdf [Accessed 30.10.2016] 5 World Economic Forum, The New Plastics Economy: Rethinking the future of plastics, January
2016, http://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_The_New_Plastics_Economy.pdf [Accessed 30.10.2016] 6 Neil Blake, Fam Charko. Litter Hotspots program – ‘Clean Bay Coalition’ micro-plastics report. Pilot study of micro-plastics in the Maribyrnong and Yarra Rivers and
Port Phillip Bay. Report by Port Phillip EcoCentre, July 2014. Funded by the Victorian Government Cleaner Yarra & Bay Litter Hotspots program. http://www.bay-keeper.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/Litter-Hotspots-microplastics-report-July-2014-FINAL.pdf [Accessed 30.10.2016] 7 Persistent organic pollutants are organic compounds that are resistant to environmental
degradation, and are known to bioaccumulate. Most persistent organic pollutants are currently
or were in the past used as pesticides, solvents, pharmaceuticals and industrial chemicals. For more information see http://www.environment.gov.au/protection/chemicals-management/pops [Accessed 30.10.2016]

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