Effects of plastic on the environment revealed

A University of Plymouth lecturer is the lead author of a prestigious new Royal Society publication examining the effects of plastics on the environment and human health.

Richard Thompson, who is one of the foremost researchers on this topical subject, was chosen to edit the 180 page special issue of Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B which is published online today pending hard copy publication towards the end of the summer.

The volume which has taken two years to compile contains contributions from more than 60 scientists worldwide together with papers from industry and policy makers and provides the most comprehensive summary available of the benefits and concerns around our current use of plastics.

The volume considers how plastics have been mass produced for 50 years and have transformed our daily lives. Around 8 per cent of world oil production is used to make plastics and plastic production is likely to exceed 300 million tonnes per annum by 2010.

Plastic products have brought numerous societal benefits; including applications in medicine, electronics and energy saving parts in cars and aeroplanes. However, our main use of plastics is for disposable items of packaging which are typically discarded within a year of production.

As a consequence of the durability of plastics and their disposable usage, plastic waste is rapidly accumulating landfill. Papers in the volume show that natural habitats from the poles to the equator have also become contaminated with large, small and even microscopic fragments of plastic. This debris presents a physical hazard to wildlife including seabirds, fish and turtles. There is also evidence that plastics have the potential to transport and release potentially harmful chemicals. Chemicals used in plastic production are shown to leach from landfill and contaminate aquatic habitats and if ingested there is concern that plastics could transport chemicals directly to wildlife.

Contributions from scientists working on human health also raise concerns about the effects of chemicals that are used in the manufacture of plastics and show that body burdens of some of these chemicals have been measured in the human population and have been correlated with adverse effects.

Richard Thompson said; "Looking to the future it is evident that in some applications plastics have the potential to help reduce our footprint on the planet. However, the evidence in this Theme Issue demonstrates that our current usage and disposal of plastics is not sustainable, is harmful to wildlife and potentially harmful to humans.

"There are solutions, including changes in production and usage and increased recycling, but these measures will only be successful with the combined actions of individuals, industry and government. There is some urgency for action as plastic production is growing at around 9 per cent per annum; as a consequence the quantity of plastics produced in the first ten years of the current century is likely to approach the quantity produced in the entire century that preceded."

Notes to Editors

Please direct any media enquiries to University of Plymouth Senior Press Officer Karen Mason on 01752 588002.

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