IPEN International Pollutants Elimination Network

Production of plastic
for use by consumers
Consumers purchase
plastics in stores
Plastic products are sent
to recycling centers
Plastic Fuel
Toxic chemicals in plastic
are burnt as cheap fuel
Landfill litter
Recycled plastic components
are discarded in landfills.
Global Waste Trade
The toxic chemicals end up in the new products.

Toxic Threats Throughout the Plastics Life Cycle

Extraction and Production

Toxic threats begin even before plastics are produced, from extraction of the materials used to create plastics.

Oil and gas extraction can release toxic air and water pollutants, posing health threats to nearby communities – disproportionally impacting low-income communities of color in the U.S. and low- and middle-income countries in the Global South. Chemical exposures from fossil fuel extraction have been linked to neuro-, reproductive, and developmental toxicity.

Plastics Poison our Air and Water

Plastics production also releases toxic chemicals that are harmful to human health, with exposures to nearby communities and occupational risks for workers. In the U.S., plastic production plants have for decades faced significant air and water pollution fines. Worker safety hazards are also common: in one 12-month period from 2019-2020, plastics plants in the U.S. received 527 citations for worker safety violations and were fined $2.3 million.

Air pollution around plastic plants is a significant health hazard to nearby communities: more than 100 concerning chemicals in air pollution from plastic manufacture have been identified, including cancer-causing substances and endocrine disrupting chemicals.

Plastics manufacture also pollutes waterways. Plastic makers create plastic pellets (also called nurdles), lentil-sized plastic discs that are shipped for further production into products. Since pellets are made with toxic chemicals, spills and transport losses spread the toxic chemicals globally, primarily through waterways. One study estimated that 230,000 tons of plastic pellets per year enter the environment. 

See more in IPEN’s summary of our two studies on plastic pellets.