Plastics have transformed everyday life; usage is increasing and annual production is likely to exceed 300 million tonnes by 2010. In this concluding paper to the Theme Issue on Plastics, the Environment and Human Health, we synthesize current understanding of the benefits and concerns surrounding the use of plastics and look to future priorities, challenges and opportunities. It is evident that plastics bring many societal benefits and offer future technological and medical advances. However, concerns about usage and disposal are diverse and include accumulation of waste in landfills and in natural habitats, physical problems for wildlife resulting from ingestion or entanglement in plastic, the leaching of chemicals from plastic products and the potential for plastics to transfer chemicals to wildlife and humans. However, perhaps the most important overriding concern, which is implicit throughout this volume, is that our current usage is not sustainable. Around 4 per cent of world oil production is used as a feedstock to make plastics and a similar amount is used as energy in the process. Yet over a third of current production is used to make items of packaging, which are then rapidly discarded. Given our declining reserves of fossil fuels, and finite capacity for disposal of waste to landfill, this linear use of hydrocarbons, via packaging and other short-lived applications of plastic, is simply not sustainable. There are solutions, including material reduction, design for end-of-life recyclability, increased recycling capacity, development of bio-based feedstocks, strategies to reduce littering, the application of green chemistry life-cycle analyses and revised risk assessment approaches. Such measures will be most effective through the combined actions of the public, industry, scientists and policymakers. There is some urgency, as the quantity of plastics produced in the first 10 years of the current century is likely to approach the quantity produced in the entire century that preceded.