Estimated contribution of product groups to plastic pollution

In her book De Verborgen Impact (‘The Hidden Impact’) Babette Porcelijn reviews the Top Ten products contributing most to the environmental footprint of the average Dutch consumer. In a new edition she wanted to include the amount of plastics pollution associated with each product group and commissioned CE Delft to draw up estimates. This report provides such estimates, scoring product groups on a scale of 0 to 3.

Life Cycle Assessment currently includes no method for quantifying the environmental impacts of litter, the distribution of microplastics in the environment, or input to the ‘plastic soup’ polluting our oceans. This makes it impossible to integrate the environmental impacts of plastics pollution into an overall environmental score per product group. For this reason we can provide only a qualitative estimate of the extent of the plastics pollution attributable to each product group. This is a provisional estimate, involving major uncertainties, because quantitative measurement of this form of pollution is complex and the estimates provided in various sources vary enormously.

The two product groups causing the most plastics pollution are, surprisingly, ‘motor vehicles’ and ‘vegetable produce, fish & beverages’. With the former, it is the wear-and-tear of tyres that is to blame, while in the latter case the major pollution sources are food and beverage packaging and fisheries, where polymer-based paints and fishing nets are major contributors to the ‘plastic soup’. ‘Stuff’ (i.e. ‘general goods’) and ‘clothing and textiles’ share second place, with laundry wear-and-tear making a sizeable contribution. Packaging discarded outdoors also plays a role, as do disposable household goods.