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Opinion: We need better data about the environmental persistence of plastic goods
Friday, 2020/07/03 | 08:17:33

Collin P. Ward and Christopher M. Reddy; PNAS June 30, 2020 117 (26) 14618-14621


Plastic pollution is one of the most visible and complex environmental issues today. Interested and concerned parties include researchers, governmental agencies, nongovernmental organizations, industry, media, and the general public. One key assumption behind the issue and the public outcry is that plastics last indefinitely in the environment, resulting in chronic exposure that harms animals and humans. But the data supporting this assumption are scant.


An accurate understanding of the persistence of plastic goods in the environment is critical for many stakeholders. Consumers need reliable information about that persistence to make informed choices. Researchers need this information because persistence is a key factor in models that predict how much plastic waste is in the environment and where it resides (12), as well as the risks associated with this pollution (3). Legislators need this information to develop evidence-based policy that bans the use of plastics at the local, national, and international level.


The ubiquity of these bans is rivaled only by the range of information that drives public perception of how long it takes for different types of plastic goods to degrade in the environment. Our fundamental belief that scientific evidence should inform the public and drive environmental policy led us to one seemingly simple question: What evidence underpins how long plastic goods last in the environment?


To answer this question, we reviewed information graphics and documents reporting the lifetime of different plastic goods in the environment (Figure 1Table S1). These 57 graphics and documents were published by governmental agencies, nongovernmental organizations, academic institutions, peer-reviewed journals (4), college textbooks (5), reference books, lesson plans, nonprofit organizations, for-profit companies, and the print and online media. Many of the information graphics are displayed in public places such as parks, beaches, or aquaria. This review is global in nature, spanning 13 countries, three languages, and four continents. We report on four major findings.


To be clear, none of these findings excuses the large and growing amount of plastic waste humans are producing. Cumulative plastic waste is estimated to rise from six to greater than 25 billion metric tons from 2015 to 2050 (6). Moreover, these findings do not excuse the ubiquitous plastic litter in the environment. Our sole intent here is to provide transparency on the quality of information currently being disseminated to stakeholders about the environmental persistence of plastic goods. See https://www.pnas.org/content/117/26/14618


Fig.1: Review of 57 information graphics and documents that report environmental lifetimes of common plastic consumer goods. The bars represent the range of estimates, the red circles represent the mean of estimates, and the number of estimates for each plastic good (N) is provided on the right (N = 255 in total). The recycling number corresponds to the base polymer of each good. PET = polyethylene terephthalate, PS = polystyrene, LDPE = low-density polyethylene, PA = polyamide, and PP = polypropylene. Individual lifetime estimates and additional details about the analysis are provided in Table S1 of the Supporting Information. Image credit: Natalie Reiner.

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