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Good and bad of plastic

Plastic is a great invention, but it also causes a lot of problems when ending up in the environment. In addition to formability, the other advantages of plastic include lightness, durability, and hygienic properties. Once released into the environment, plastic degrades into microplastics, and then it is difficult, if not impossible, to remove from the environment.
A small child drinking from a plastic bottle.
© Adobe Stock

Today, plastic is present in various forms in people's everyday lives. In the morning, you get dressed in clothes that probably contain plastic; at breakfast, several food items are packaged in plastic; you sit on a bus, train, or car, which today are built mainly from a variety of different plastics; at work or at school you use a plastic keyboard. Even the air you breathe contains tiny plastic particles.

Avoid unnecessary consumption.

Buy only what you really need and think whether you could buy it second-hand.

Use durable products instead of single-use goods.

Reducing consumption also reduces the plastic waste load. Specific attention should be paid to single-use plastic: do I really need disposable utensils for a trip to the cottage, could my flowerbed survive with woodchip mulch without a plastic mulch, or could I change only the brush of my dish brush without always buying a whole new brush?

Use plastic bags, bottles and boxes several times.

Plastic is a durable material – use the plastic pots and boxes that end up in your home to storage small items.

Sort plastic packaging waste for recycling, return deposit bottles and take reusable items to a flea market.

New plastic products are produced from sorted and recycled plastics. For now, the recycling rate for plastic packaging waste is 42 per cent, which means that morethere is room for improvement.. The Finnish deposit system for bottles is an efficient way to reducethe plastic load to the environment. 

Take care of your immediate neighbourhood – always take all the garbage with you, collect cigarette butts in a portable box and take part in cleaning campaigns.

Recreational use of beaches, parks and forests is a major source of litter. Considerable costs for cleaning up litter and illegally dumped waste are caused to municipalities and cities annually. Citizens have taken actions, and various cleaning campaigns are organised throughout the whole country, especially in spring. Cigarette butts are particularly common and harmful pieces of litter because of the harmful substances they contain.

Do not leave fishing gear, i.e., line, hooks, lures and nets, in the environment.

Fishing nets, lines and ropes that are made of loops or knots in particular cause tangling of animals. Especially fishing nets that have been left, abandoned, or lost in the water, known as 'ghost fishing gear', poses high risk, since the fish that are already get caught attracts predators that might also get tangled in the gear.

A pepper is taken from a box and put into a bag.
While shopping using a reusable bag reduces unnecessary plastic consumption. © Adobe Stock

Plastic is a versatile material

The word plastic originates from Latin plasticus which means ‘fit for moulding', which says it all: plastic is a much-used material because of its formability.

There is no unambiguous definition of plastic in everyday language: the word plastic can refer to a wide range of materials. Plastics can be divided into thermosets and thermoplastics. The majority, 90 per cent, of the world's plastics are thermoplastics. Plastics that cannot be melted and re-formed due to their structure are called thermosets .

In addition to its formability, the other advantages of plastics include light weight, durability, and hygienic properties. This can be seen, for example, in food packaging. One might think that the plastic wrap around a cucumber is pointless, but it protects the vegetable all the way from the farm to your fridge. Waste production can be reduced with the help of plastic. In any case, it has been estimated that, the negative environmental impacts of food production outweigh the impacts of its packaging or transport. If packaging waste is recycled after usage, the impacts will naturally be reduced even further.

Littering is a global problem

The most visible problems of plastic are related to littering on terrestrial and aquatic environments. In addition to the aesthetic damage, plastic litter causes great harm to the functions of various ecosystems.

Animals eat the waste by mistake, which can cause blockagesto their digestive system and lead to starvation. Tangling of animals into the litter hinders their mobility, feeding, and reproduction. It is also known that plastics can carry various alien species and contain also harmful substances. The effects of plastics on, for example, the benthic ecosystems or soils and soil organisms can be unpredictable and wide-ranging. 

In addition to the visible large-scale plastic litter, i.e. macroplastics, microplastics can cause harm to the environment and humans. It is formed when plastic fragments begin to break down and degrade in the environment. Microplastics end up in the environment, also for example, from traffic, via waste waters and as a result of the utilisation of sewage sludge. Microplastics can be found in groundwaters, inside mussels as well as in Antarctica. Recently it has also been found in human blood, lungs, placentas and especially in faeces of young children.  

Removing microplastics from the environment is impossible with currently available technology. Despite the existing research, the effects of degraded plastics are still poorly known. In the environment the amount of microplasticsis constantly increasing. According to scientists all possible actions should be taken now, to avoid the harmful effects of microplastics in the future.

More on plastics and the circular economy at the website

Bio-based and biodegradable plastics cause a headache for consumer communications

For now, scientists and companies are feverishly looking for solutions for substituting plastics. Heavier materials, such as glass and metal, increase transportation emissions. Moreover, growth in metal demand and production could also increase mining activity.

Solutions are sought from bio-based and biodegradable materials, but the related terminology often causes ambiguities.

  • Bio-based plastics are made entirely or partly from renewable raw materials such as starch and cellulose instead of fossil-based raw materials.
  • Biodegradable plastics are plastics that are completely mineralised into carbon dioxide and water within a reasonable period of time.  

However, not all bio-based plastics are biodegradable, and not all biodegradable plastics are bio-based. Biodegradable plastics can be made from both bio-based and fossil-based raw materials. Bio-based raw materials can also be used to produce non-biodegradable plastics, such as biopolyethylene, which is similar in structure to fossil-based polyethylene.

The term biodegradability is also easily misleading in the sense that biodegradability is dependent on prevailing conditions such as temperature and time. Biodegradability is currently defined by certain conditions (temperature, composting time, etc.) according to well-defined standards. This means that for example plastics intended for biodegradation in industrial composting facilities do not necessarily decompose under the prevailing conditions in the soil or sea environments.  

How do decision makers deal with the  plastic-related problems?

The environmental and health impacts caused by plastics can be managed through legislation, various commitments, and international agreements. Finland and the EU have already committed to a number of international commitments and conventions that have been transposed into EU or national legislation. Finland will participate in the preparations of the new global and legally binding treaty on plastic pollution together with other EU countries.

Even though regulation that relates to plastics and its impacts have been increased in recent years, there are still regulatory gaps and not all harmful environmental and health impacts have been able to be tackled.


Finnish Environment Institute (Syke)