At the time of writing, the topic of plastics in the environment is much in the news, with the general public being well aware of the concerns raised. In the UK, this high level of public interest appears to have arisen largely from a popular television programme reporting the dangers to marine life arising from plastics in the oceans. This programme highlighted the problems caused to marine mammals from ingestion of large plastic items, but the problem of plastics in the environment is much more extensive, as will be evident to the reader of this volume. Plastic debris may be seen on beaches around the world, and only around 9% of manufactured plastics are recycled. At the same time, it needs to be emphasised that there are very many benefits that society obtains from plastics, and that there are many different types of plastic. We hope that this book provides a balanced and realistic view of the role of plastics in everyday life while highlighting the environmental problems and possible ways of resolving these.
Plastics enter almost every facet of modern life and in the first chapter, Herve Millet and colleagues of Plastics Europe explains which plastics are in widespread use, some of their properties, and the beneficial aspects for society. This chapter gives essential background and context for the following chapters.
The most obvious form of plastic pollution of the environment is marine litter; in Chapter 2 Wai Chin Li and Hin Fung Tse review some of the worrying facts concerning pollution of the marine environment by larger items (litter). However, much of the concern for the environment has focussed on smaller items of millimetre dimensions or smaller, which are referred to as microplastics. In Chapter 3, Richard Thompson, an advisor to the UK government on this issue, reviews current knowledge and concerns. Some of the plastics in consumer products and some attrition products are significantly smaller than most microplastics and are of nanoscale dimensions and may give rise to particular environmental problems because of the special properties of nanoscale materials. João Pinto da Costa explores the current knowledge of nanoplastics in the environment in Chapter 4.
Most plastic materials are comprised of organic polymers. Many of the properties which make them most useful to society depend upon incorporation of plasticisers which give the flexibility that we expect from most plastic materials. Many of the chemicals used as plasticisers have known activity as endocrine disruptors and are therefore liable to have adverse effects on both wildlife and humans if exposures are at a sufficiently high level. In Chapter 5, Charles Tyler and co-authors explore the impacts on wildlife and, in Chapter 6, Tamara Galloway and co-authors report on a case study of human exposure to plasticisers.
One of the benefits of many plastics is that they can be recycled, although a surprisingly small percentage of currently used plastics are in fact recycled. In Chapter 7, Edward Kosior explores the potential of plastics for recycling, the uses for recycled plastics, which often have inferior properties to virgin material, and reviews some of the statistics for plastics recycling and re-use. In Chapter 8, Richard Thompson and Sabine Pahl give an overview and synthesis of the current societal use and concerns over plastics, indicating areas of current consensus, and point to future directions for policy and research.
Pollution by plastics is one of the most pressing and serious environmental issues currently facing society. It has been with us for a long time but there is now a widespread recognition of the need for decisive action. Such action needs to be underpinned by sound scientific knowledge and this volume provides an authoritative overview of the current state of such knowledge. We are confident that it will prove to be of value to scientists, and to students on courses relating to the environment, as well as to policymakers and members of the general public seeking reliable information on this important topic.
Ronald E. Hester
Roy M. Harrison