(Micro)plastic challenges to implementing UN SDGs

Negative impacts on ecosystem services and economic impacts on communities.​
Presence of (micro)plastics in food packaging, agricultural soils, fruits and vegetables, fish and shellfish posing potential risks to human health through the ingestion​
Presence of (micro)plastics in humans and fetus via ingestion, inhalation, and dermal exposure of microplastics in packed food products, foodstuff, and air.​
Presence of (micro)plastics in drinking water and treated wastewater effluent.​
Incineration of (micro)plastic waste used in waste-to-energy systems contributes to greenhouse gas emissions, release of atmospheric pollution, and is unsustainable.​
Innovation is required for sustainable bio-based alternatives to fossil fuel-based plastics to help contributing to a circular economy.​
Exports of plastic waste from developed to developing countries have been considered waste pollution transfer.​
Indiscriminate disposal of plastics in countries with inadequate waste management systems is choking critical urban infrastructure.​
Unsustainable global plastic production and plastic waste mismanagement.​
Greenhouse gases are emitted at every step of the plastic life cycle, from production to transportation to waste disposal.​
Extraordinary efforts are required to reduce emissions of (micro)plastics to marine and freshwater ecosystems.​
Mismanagement of (micro)plastic waste causing widespread terrestrial pollution of (micro)plastics in landfills, urban and rural areas, protected areas, and agricultural soils.​

Tab. 1: Microplastics impact and the UN Sustainable development goals. From ref.1

There are (at least) four routes, how (micro)plastics negatively impact the environment and human health:

  1. Waste pollution – entanglement, suffocation, gastrointestinal congestion
  2. Chemical pollution additives, POPs (persistent organic pollutants), heavy metals, products of degradation
  3. Climate change – (micro)plastics overproduction and waste mismanagement contributes to CO2 elevation

“If it’s not sand, it’s food.”

Entanglement into plastic items can cause the death of marine organisms or impair their vitality. “Ghost gear” – discarded or lost nets that float in the oceans form almost half of the “‘Great Pacific Garbage Patch”.2

Ingestion of (micro)plastics suppresses feeding activity, growth and reproduction. Micro- and nanoplastics enter lymph and blood systems from the intestine, accumulate mainly in the liver, where they cause inflammation and disturb energy and lipid metabolism.3

Sea turtles are a bioindicator of the marine plastics debris problem. From 1970 to 2018, 131 scientific publications reported the ingestion of plastic particles by sea turtles. Turtles in the Pacific Ocean ingest much higher quantities than elsewhere.4

But this is not just an ocean issue. It’s a land issue, too. Plastic kills around 1 percent of dromedary camels. Plastic found in their bodies weighed from three to 64 kilograms. “From the camel’s perspective … if it’s not sand, it’s food,” says the author of the study.5

All marine and terrestrial animals are endangered by (micro)plastic ingestion, including human. However, humans, unlike animals, can avoid plastics consumption in big volumes.

Not only zero-waste agenda but also a chemical pollution problem

Additives can form up to 70 % of plastics weight. These are first of all plasticizers and fillers, but also flame retardants, antioxidants, colorants, lubricants, etc. These substances are usually not chemically bound in the polymer, but they are part of the composite. Hence, these substances can easily migrate out of the polymer matrix during plastic item use or degradation.

Not only can chemicals migrate out of the plastic object, but they can also migrate inside. Persistent organic pollutants (POPs) like pesticides (DDT) or PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) bind into the polymer matrix and travel together with (micro)plastics. Heavy metals and antibiotics are also of high concern. Even the polymer itself can be a source of chemical pollutionproducts of degradation, oligomers and monomers, are especially harmful when halogenated.6

Chemical pollution driven by (micro)plastics

  1. represents an additional risk for organisms exposed to (micro)plastics,7, 8
  2. hinders plastics recycling and usage of recycled plastics.9

The hidden cost of plastics

Greenhouse gases are emitted at each stage of the plastic lifecycle:

a) Fossil Fuel Extraction
b) Plastic refining and manufacture
c) Waste management
d) Plastics in the environment

If plastic production and use grow as estimated, by 2030, these emissions could reach 1.34 gigatons per year—equivalent to the emissions released by more than 295 new 500-megawatt coal-fired power plants.10

The existing plastic economy is fundamentally inconsistent with the Paris Agreement. Greenhouse gas emissions from the plastic might not allow keeping global temperature rise below 1.5°C degrees.10

a) Fossil Fuel extraction

Manufacturers justify plastic as a side-product of fuel production – the carbon footprint of fossil fuel extraction would not disappear even if we eradicated plastic. However, this argument is misleading – we need to reduce fossil fuel extraction and transfer our demands toward green energy and plastic reduction must accompany this goal.

b) Plastic refining and manufacture

Plastic refining is among the most greenhouse gas-intensive industries in the manufacturing sector—and the fastest growing.10

c) Waste management

Plastic is primarily landfilled, recycled, or incinerated. Incineration is the primary driver of emissions from plastic waste management. Globally, the use of incineration in plastic waste management is poised to grow dramatically in the coming decades.10

d) Plastics in the environment

Unmanaged plastic waste has a climate impact as it degrades. Anaerobic degradation in oceans and landfills leads to the emissions of methane. Moreover, (micro)plastics pollution interferes with the biggest carbon sink – abundance of microplastics in the oceans impairs plankton’s ability to fix carbon through photosynthesis and transport it to the deep ocean.10

Social impact

The one extra negative effect of (micro)plastic pollution that should not be left out is the social impact. Plastic debris results in loss of revenue among fishermen, harm to marine industries and loss of tourism income.11 As society benefits from the clean and prosperous environment, it should aim to recover it.


1 Walker, T. R. (Micro)plastics and the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Current Opinion in Green and Sustainable Chemistry. 2021, 30: 100497. doi:

2 Lebreton, L., B. Slat, F. Ferrari, et al. Evidence that the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is rapidly accumulating plastic. Scientific Reports. 2018, 8(1): 4666. doi: 10.1038/s41598-018-22939-w.

3 Patil, S., A. Bafana, P. K. Naoghare, et al. Environmental prevalence, fate, impacts, and mitigation of microplastics—a critical review on present understanding and future research scope. Environmental Science and Pollution Research. 2021, 28(5): 4951-4974. doi: 10.1007/s11356-020-11700-4.

4 Lynch, J. M. Quantities of Marine Debris Ingested by Sea Turtles: Global Meta-Analysis Highlights Need for Standardized Data Reporting Methods and Reveals Relative Risk. Environmental Science & Technology. 2018, 52(21): 12026-12038. doi: 10.1021/acs.est.8b02848.

5 Asher, J., 2020. Plastic waste forms huge, deadly masses in camel guts. 15. 12. 2020. [cit. 28.4., 2021.] Dostupné z:

6 Schmid, C., L. Cozzarini and E. Zambello. Microplastic’s story. Marine Pollution Bulletin. 2020: 111820. doi:

7 Browne, Mark A., Stewart J. Niven, Tamara S. Galloway, et al. Microplastic Moves Pollutants and Additives to Worms, Reducing Functions Linked to Health and Biodiversity. Current Biology. 2013, 23(23): 2388-2392. doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2013.10.012.

8 Wei, W., Q.-S. Huang, J. Sun, et al. Polyvinyl Chloride Microplastics Affect Methane Production from the Anaerobic Digestion of Waste Activated Sludge through Leaching Toxic Bisphenol-A. Environmental Science & Technology. 2019, 53(5): 2509-2517. doi: 10.1021/acs.est.8b07069.

9 Hahladakis, J. N., C. A. Velis, R. Weber, et al. An overview of chemical additives present in plastics: Migration, release, fate and environmental impact during their use, disposal and recycling. Journal of Hazardous Materials. 2018, 344: 179-199. doi:

10 Kistler, A. and C. Muffett, 2019. Plastic & Climate, The Hidden Costs of a Plastic Planet.

11 Pham, T.-H., H.-T. Do, L.-A. Phan Thi, et al. Global challenges in microplastics: From fundamental understanding to advanced degradations toward sustainable strategies. Chemosphere. 2021, 267: 129275. doi: