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The positive benefits afforded by the widespread use of plastics need to be reconciled with negative impacts on the environment and health across the entire plastics life cycle. Optimizing the balance in several facets of plastics production, use and waste management is necessary for a more sustainable relationship with these materials in the Anthropocene.
Undeniably, plastics have brought us enormous societal benefits owing to their versatility, light weight, durability and low costs. However, these same properties have come with negative externalities, especially because these persistent materials are leaked into the environment across their entire life cycle. This dichotomy is somewhat unsurprising, given the exponential growth of plastics production driven by low-cost feedstocks and a linear business model. However, the fact that synthetic polymers are ubiquitous in natural environments is a rather recent finding, with numerous studies now showing that plastic debris accumulates in both urban and remote sites. The ubiquity of plastic pollution is a cause of concern, as adverse biological effects across all trophic levels and impacts on ecosystem services are being documented in a variety of ways1. Plastic pollution could also be considered an agent of global environmental change, resulting in a long-lasting environmental debt of pollution2. This is important because once plastics get into the environment, there are very few opportunities for remediation, especially as macroplastics further degrade into microplastics and nanoplastics. Embedding plastic pollution in the Anthropocene context forces us to use a broader lens insofar as that we need to consider the ecological and societal complexities. We can no longer consider the impacts of pollution in isolation, but in concert with all other environmental changes humanity causes.
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D.M.M. was funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation (grant number [email protected]_186856).
Department of Environmental Systems Science, ETH Zurich, Zurich, Switzerland
Denise M. Mitrano
Department of Biology, Norwegian University of Science and Technology, Trondheim, Norway
Martin Wagner
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You can also search for this author in PubMed Google Scholar
Correspondence to Denise M. Mitrano.
M.W. is an unremunerated member of the Scientific Advisory Board of Food Packaging Forum and has received travel funding to attend annual board meetings. D.M.M. declares no competing interests.
Principles of green chemistry and engineering: https://www.acs.org/content/acs/en/greenchemistry/principles.html
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Mitrano, D.M., Wagner, M. A sustainable future for plastics considering material safety and preserved value. Nat Rev Mater (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41578-021-00406-9
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Published: 13 December 2021
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41578-021-00406-9
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