Impacts on the Environment

Impacts on Plants and Animals

Plastic waste significantly impacts the environment. Because of plastic’s extreme durability, plastics in the environment never fully disappear; they just break down into smaller pieces and accumulate both in the environment and in living organisms. Cold temperatures and lack of access to sunlight slow down plastic degradation, making plastics in the ocean last longer and accumulate faster. Floating plastic pollution can transport invasive species, disrupting habitats. Plastic buried in landfills can leach chemicals into groundwater and affect plant growth. For example, plastic films increase evaporation and dry soils out faster. Plastic pollution can significantly affect the ocean’s role in sequestering carbon by altering the rate at which carbon-filled excretions sinks. Plastic makes these excretions more buoyant, making them sink slower and emit more carbon into the atmosphere.

Plastic pollution directly impacts organisms and their habitats. Marine plastics cause lethal effects in whales, seals, turtles, birds, fish, corals, bivalves, and many other invertebrates.

Entanglement and Ingestion definitions. Source: Canadian Science Assessment of Plastic Pollution

Entanglement and Ingestion definitions. Source: Canadian Science Assessment of Plastic Pollution

Plastics also pose a large threat to whales as it accumulates in their stomachs. Whales store a large amount of CO2 and trap that carbon once they die, and shorter lifespans of whales will significantly affect the amount of carbon they can sequester. For more information, go here.

Impacts on Humans

Similar to other organisms, microplastics enter the human body through inhalation and ingestion and will accumulate in the organs. Microplastics are often found in human lungs, livers, spleens, kidneys, and even the placentas of newborn babies. The average adult ingests and inhales up to 320 particles of plastic every day. Each year, the average adult consumes 250 grams of microplastics, which is approximately a heaping dinner plate’s worth of shredded plastic. Chemical additives are used in plastic production to change the physical properties of the plastic, such as changing the colour, increasing durability, improving formability, etc. Chemical additives in plastics can enter the body and are linked to significant health concerns such as inflammation, cardiovascular diseases, cancer, and birth defects. For more information, go here.

Average yearly microplastic consumption. Source: Reuters

Average yearly microplastic consumption. Source: Reuters

Plastic can negatively impact human health in every stage of the plastic lifecycle. There are seven stages in the plastic lifecycle, each of which have slightly different effects and impact the environment in different ways. While certain stages have overlapping effects on human health, they are each administered by different industry actors, such as recycling or waste management facilities, oil and gas companies, mining companies, packaging facilities, plastic manufacturers, etc., so should be evaluated and regulated separately. The seven stages and their effects are as follows:

For more information, go here.

Environmental Impacts in Canada

Single-use plastics make up the bulk of plastic litter found in freshwater and along shorelines.

Microplastics are also commonly found in freshwater, marine water, sediment, and soils. Microplastics in bottled water is not significantly found since drinking water treatment in Canada removes large portions of microplastic pollution. There is no Canadian governmental data available on the amount of microplastics in the air, but foreign studies suggest that microplastics are more common in indoor than outdoor air. For more information on Canadian environmental impacts, go

Canadian data on microplastics in food is limited, but seafood is noted as being significantly impacted by marine environment plastic pollution. The following table provides a summary of % of species found with at least one ingested microplastic particle. For more information, go here or to the Canadian Science Assessment of plastic pollution.

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Microplastic Ingestion in Common Canadian Fish Species

Fish Species Fishing Region % of Species with Ingested Plastic
Capelin Atlantic (Newfoundland) 0
Cod Atlantic 1.68
Salmon Atlantic 0
Silver Hake Atlantic 0
Chinook Salmon Pacific (Vancouver) 59
Rainbow Trout Pacific 0
Fathead Minnow Prairies (Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba) 50
Northern Pike Prairies 83.3

<aside> 🥚 Plastic dinosaur toys contain up to 419 different chemical additives. 126 of these additives are potentially harmful to children. These additives include softeners or plasticisers, flame retardants, stabilisers, fragrances, and colourants. It is recommended that toys be stored in open spaces where fumes will not be inhaled by children.


⬅️  Plastic in Global Context

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