Toxic Threats Throughout the Plastics Life Cycle
Exports and Transport
Spills are a significant source of potential exposure to chemicals in plastics. A report by the Sri Lankan Centre for Environmental Justice (CEJ) and IPEN documented impacts of the 2021 pellet spill from the X-Press Pearl cargo ship which released more than 80 billion plastic pellets (1,680 tonnes) along with toxic chemicals. Another IPEN study tested plastic pellets collected from beaches in 23 countries, finding toxic chemicals in all samples.
Plastic waste exports also unequally burden people in low- and middle-income countries with plastic waste from wealthier nations. A 2023 IPEN report found significant amounts of plastic waste exports are unaccounted for, suggesting the problem is even worse than most research identifies.
See our video on threats to vulnerable communities in Africa from plastic waste (with audio available in English and French).
Microplastics have also been identified as a source of global dispersal of toxic chemicals in plastics. Microplastics are plastics that are smaller than 5 mm (about 0.2 in). They can either be produced intentionally (as plastic pellets or “microbeads”) or fragment from larger plastics. Microplastics have been found in many commercial fish species around the world. Studies have linked exposure to microplastics in aquatic organisms to decreased food consumption, weight loss and energy depletion, decreased growth rate, and decreased fertility.
Studies have found microplastics in beer, wine, energy drinks, tea, milk, honey, sugar, and salt. One study found that infants fed milk from sterilized plastic bottles could ingest as many as 3 million microplastic particles per day. We can also breathe in microplastics. Studies have detected microplastics in human stool, blood, placenta, and lungs. Clothing may be a source of microplastics in air: one study found that airborne microplastics may be released when we wear synthetic (rayon, nylon or other plastic) clothing.