BLOG: Plastic Pollution | Breast Cancer UK

BLOG: Plastic Pollution

Published 27 May 2016

There are five trillion pieces of plastic floating in our oceans and evidence suggests that it is damaging our health.

Our health and the health of our environment are closely linked. This is common sense and most of us instinctively know that if our environment suffers, ultimately our health will suffer too.

There is one form of environmental degradation that we experience every day: plastic pollution. Whether you have seen discarded plastic bottles in your local park, plastic bags caught in trees, or little plastic nurdles lining your local beach, for many of us plastic pollution has become a fact of life.

But where does it all come from? For more than 50 years, the annual global production of plastic has increased. [1] Around five million tonnes of plastic are consumed in the UK annually [2], and approximately 311 million tonnes of plastic was produced in 2014 (up from 225 million in 2004). [3]

One of the great things about plastic is its strength and durability, yet illogically around 50% of it is used once and thrown away. [4] Most plastic degrades during reprocessing and can only be recycled a limited number of times. Once thrown away, plastic does not biodegrade readily but normally break downs into smaller and smaller pieces.

Our discarded plastic doesn’t go away. The LA Times reported that in 2005 a piece of plastic found in an albatross stomach bore a serial number traced to a World War II seaplane shot down in 1944. Computer models re-creating the object’s journey showed it drifted 6,000 miles to the Eastern Garbage Patch off the West Coast of the U.S., where it spun in circles for 50 years before being eaten by the seabird.[5]

This build-up of plastic has a devastating impact on our environment. Plastic that breaks down in landfills release additives and breakdown products into our groundwater, which can become persistent organic pollutants. [6] Tiny fragments of plastic, called microplastics, seep into our water ways and are ingested by plankton and fish.[7] An estimated five trillion pieces of plastic are currently floating in the world’s oceans, breaking into smaller pieces, damaging ecosystems and washing up on our beaches. [8]

Inevitably this harm to the environment affects our health too. A number of fish and shellfish eaten by humans (including mussels, oysters, mackerel, salmon and tuna) have been found to contain microplastics, and fish that eat plastic can bioaccumulate chemical pollutants.[9] [10] Research suggests that we are ingesting more than 11,000 plastic particles every year.[11] The Department for the Environment and Rural Affairs has recently said that while more research is required, “the presence of marine microplastics in seafood could pose a threat to food safety.”[12]

Many of the chemicals associated with microplastics and chemicals that leach from plastic, such as phthalates and bisphenol A, are endocrine disruptors (which can affect the function of the hormone system), and may be linked to breast cancer.[13] [14] Chemicals used in the production of plastic, such as vinyl chloride and styrene are known carcinogens.[15] [16] More research is required to determine the exact health implications of plastic pollution, but with more being consumed and thrown away each year it is critical that we find out.

What can we do to deal with our plastic pollution problem? Each of us can follow the mantra ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’ – reduce the waste we produce, reuse it where we can and if all else fails recycle it. We can also avoid using face scrubs and toothpaste that contain plastic ‘microbeads’. But plastic is everywhere and hard to avoid. We need action on a larger scale.

Where to start? An end to the use of harmful chemicals such as bisphenol A and phthalates in the manufacture of plastic and a ban on the use of microbeads in personal care products. We would also like to see a ban on any plastic going to landfill and the introduction of a deposit return scheme for drinks bottles. Ultimately we need a change in perspective: plastic waste is not simply rubbish, it is both a valuable resource and a potentially toxic pollutant.

The rising incidence of breast cancer, which has seen an increase in incidence of 102% [17] in women in just one generation, demands that we research and tackle all of the environmental risk factors of the disease. The story of plastic pollution demonstrates something that we already know, and that links into all of our campaigns: our health and our environment are closely linked, and we must care for both.



[1] Plastics Europe, “Plastics – the Facts 2013”, 2013

[2] "Plastics Recycling",, 2016  [accessed 24 May 2016].

[3] Plastics Europe, “Plastics – the Facts 2015”, 2015

[4] J. Hopewell, R. Dvorak and E. Kosior, "Plastics Recycling: Challenges And Opportunities", Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 364 (2009)

[5] Kenneth Weiss, "Altered Oceans Part Four: Plague Of Plastic Chokes The Seas", Los Angeles Times, 2016 [accessed 24 May 2016].

[6] J. Hopewell, R. Dvorak and E. Kosior, "Plastics Recycling: Challenges And Opportunities", Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 364 (2009), 2115-2126

[7] Anthony L. Andrady, "Microplastics In The Marine Environment", Marine Pollution Bulletin, 62 (2011), 1596-1605

[8] Marcus Eriksen and others, "Plastic Pollution In The World's Oceans: More Than 5 Trillion Plastic Pieces Weighing Over 250,000 Tons Afloat At Sea", PLoS ONE, 9 (2014), e111913

[9] Rochman, C.M. et al. Scientific Reports 5 (2015)

[10] Chelsea M. Rochman and others, "Ingested Plastic Transfers Hazardous Chemicals To Fish And Induces Hepatic Stress", Sci. Rep., 3 (2013)

[11] Tamara S. Galloway and Ceri N. Lewis, "Marine Microplastics Spell Big Problems For Future Generations", Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 113 (2016), 2331-2333

[12] Written evidence submitted by Defra to The House of Commons’ Environmental Audit Committee (April 2016)

[13] T.-H. Hsieh and others, "Phthalates Induce Proliferation And Invasiveness Of Estrogen Receptor-Negative Breast Cancer Through The Ahr/HDAC6/C-Myc Signaling Pathway", The FASEB Journal, 26 (2011), 778-787

[14] J. Corrales and others, "Global Assessment Of Bisphenol A In The Environment: Review And Analysis Of Its Occurrence And Bioaccumulation", Dose-Response, 13 (2015)

[15] Brandt-Rauf PW, Li Y, Long C, Monaco R, Kovvali G, Marion MJ. Plastics and carcinogenesis: The example of vinyl chloride. J Carcinog 2012;11:5

[16] J. Huff and P. F. Infante, "Styrene Exposure And Risk Of Cancer", Mutagenesis, 26 (2011), 583-584

[17] Office of National Statistics (2015). Cancer Registration Statistics England, 2014. Accessed 27th May 2016

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