Plastics in the Environment

The release of plastics and other synthetic polymers to the environment presents a set of complex, globally diffuse, and persistent environmental challenges now receiving considerable attention from scientists, governments, and the public.
Intense research and emerging regional and national policies have focused on the potential environmental and economic impacts of plastic debris in oceans, lakes, and rivers; the accumulation of plastic particles in sediments and biota; and the role of micro- and nanoplastics in food chain transfer of additives (e.g., plasticizers and dyes) and extrinsic environmental contaminants (e.g., polychlorinated biphenyls, pesticides) that can sorb to plastics in the environment. Recent initiatives have banned specific uses of plastics (e.g., microbeads in cosmetics) and supported the use of recycled, compostable, or recoverable plastics. The use of bio-based polymers as an alternative to petroleum-based polymers has also gained traction over the past decade. However, substantial challenges remain in understanding and implementing technologies that facilitate waste minimization, reuse, and recycling in the current plastic circular economy.

Exponent’s Polymer Science and Materials Chemistry practice offers guidance and resources to help industrial partners adapt to changes in the market. Exponent’s consultants provide value to clients through services related to plastic formulation—including additives and materials characterization and selection, failure analysis, qualification and applicable standards testing, and assessment of mechanisms relevant to durability and degradation—and continuous improvement of plastics manufacturing, recycling, recovery, and reuse processes.

Exponent’s Ecological and Biological Sciences and Environmental and Earth Sciences practices help our clients identify and mitigate current and future environmental risks, analyze product lifecycles, and enhance product stewardship for their plastics and polymers portfolios. Our consultants have expertise in chemistry, toxicology, fisheries science, environmental engineering, and other disciplines relevant to the fate and effects of plastics and polymers in the environment and their management.

Clients that have leveraged Exponent’s environmental plastics expertise include national and international industry trade organizations and Fortune 500 companies, including plastic compounders, apparel manufacturers, and food packaging corporations.

Experience

Our experience with plastics and polymers in the environment includes:
  • Highly cited scientific review article on the potential for microplastics to serve as vectors for bioaccumulation of hydrophobic organic chemicals in the marine environment [LINK].
  • Environmental assessment of polymers associated with personal care products, including evaluation of their physical and chemical properties, removal by conventional wastewater treatment processes, and environmental fate following discharge in effluent or biosolids.
  • White paper reviewing the environmental impact and cost effectiveness of recycling polystyrene foam and other expanded polymer materials.
  • Technical review of issues relating to macroplastics, including sources, identification, measurement techniques, transport, fate, and impacts to human and ecological health.
  • Technical critical review and summary of the Environment Canada report “Microbeads – A Scientific Summary” and proposed action to add microbeads to the List of Toxic Substances under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act.
  • Evaluation of fate of metabolites from biodegradable plastics under a composting scenario for a trade organization representing biodegradable plastics manufacturers.
  • Environmental fate assessment of plastic products, including wearable devices, plastic storage bags, and plastic household devices, and third-party verification of supplier compliance with specifications and regulations.
  • Participation in the development of standards such as ASTM D20.95 and UL 746D related to recycling and the use of recycled materials.
  • Assisted clients in understanding recycled plastic feedstock variability in the context of material specifications and performance in accordance with UL 746D.
  • Assisted clients in the testing and qualification of new plastic products manufactured from recycled and regrind resins.
  • Assisted clients in the comparative analysis, testing, and qualification of new plastic products incorporating alternative plasticizers or other additives based on environmental goals.
  • Identified niche applications for landfill-bound scrap materials for textiles and rubbers.
  • Provided a technical review of developing standards related to terms such as compostable and biodegradable and their application to new product compositions.

Professionals

Knowledge