Fish and sea mammals, including whales and seagulls, suffer from complications every year due to plastic ingestion. Around the world, countries are imposing bans and tight restrictions on plastic use to curb this waste. Beyond ocean plastics, the plastic pollution facts show us the magnitude of this (growing) problem.
There are ongoing global efforts to curb this environmental problem. Some regions have implemented improved waste management systems to control plastic pollution. In turn, waste management has become a lucrative business opportunity, and a means to boost the economy, but it shouldn't end there.
We must take action to reduce plastic pollution at its source, or even better, eliminate it through the uptake of eco-friendly alternatives.
Here are some of the most striking facts about plastic pollution, its impact on the environment, our oceans, marine life, and the global economy.
These are single-use plastics, disposable items that one may use and bin without a second thought. Unfortunately, every minute, these items are building up into a massive problem in the form of waste. And even if you're doing due diligence by sorting your trash, only 14% of these plastics produced will eventually be recycled.
#2- Annual plastic production exploded from 15 million tonnes in 1964 to 311 million tonnes in 2014, and experts predict these figures to double over the next 20 years1
#3- The plastic recycling success rate is 5 percent, which falls below the global recycling rates for paper (58 percent) and iron and steel (70-90 percent)1
#4- Over 90% of plastics products are derived from virgin fossil feedstocks1
#5- In 2012, greenhouse gas amounted to approximately 390 million tonnes of CO2 for all plastics, including packaging1
Plastics are significant contributors to the current climate change crisis. Producers derive plastic material from petroleum, a fossil fuel source. When manufacturers refine petroleum for its by-products, vast amounts of greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide, are released into the atmosphere. The growing plastic industry contributes to air pollution and global warming issues.
The best mitigation for all the plastic waste is to prevent its manufacture in the first place. And if we must use plastic, reduce, reuse, and recycle. If you're interested in reducing your plastic waste and pursuing a zero-waste lifestyle, look at our reusable straws, zero-waste gifts, and zero-waste makeup guides.
#6- There are over 150 million metric tonnes of plastic waste in the ocean today1
The term 'marine plastic' (or 'ocean plastic') did not exist until very recently, in the context of the age of our planet.
Today, there are pieces of plastics in the ocean, both on the surface and deep within sea level. These pieces make up millions of tons of waste that are causing harm to both marine animals and other animals (such as birds) that live in/around our oceans.
#7- Plastics can remain in the ocean for hundreds of years without decomposing or changing their original form1
The ocean of plastics we see today will not disappear soon unless we make massive efforts to clear it. These facts bring to mind the size of the marine plastic problem.
Scientists classify all forms of plastics, except bio-plastics, as non-degradable. As a result, they will be around long after their use.
The million tons of plastic we throw away don't disappear. They have just piled away out of sight. Unfortunately, the ocean has become the most common hiding place for a vast amount of plastic waste.
#8- The damage caused by plastic to marine ecosystems costs at least 13 billion dollars every year1
Oceans and rivers are the biggest dumpsites for plastic waste. The plastic on ocean surfaces and even deep within sea level doesn't always get there by direct dumping.
When garbage trucks and other transporters carry waste, the wind will blow some of the waste items away and into the general environment. Some of these, including plastics, will eventually reach water bodies. And much of the waste 'properly' buried in landfills will ultimately slough off or sink into water environments.
Plastic in oceans, as a problem, siphons monetary funds meant for infrastructural development worldwide. This, in turn, slows down economic growth and lowers a country's living standard.
#9- By 2025, the ratio of plastic to fish will be one to three. Experts predict that plastic stock in our oceans will grow to 250 million tonnes1
#10- Even if efforts to reduce plastic flow into the ocean are put in place, total ocean plastic volume will not decline unless we swap plastic for something biodegradable and less life-threatening1
In 2015 an important research piece, "Plastic waste inputs from land into the ocean," was published by a collaboration of environmental engineers, oceanographers, and ecologists. Sadly, the facts speak for themselves:
#11- In 2010, 192 coastal countries generated 275 million metric tons of plastic waste, of which 4.8 to 12.8 million tons made their way into our oceans. Experts predict these numbers to rise by 20252
#12- The cumulative impact of plastics sitting at the bottom of the oceans will equal 155 million metric tons by 2025. The World Bank predicted that the earth could reach its global peak waste before 2100 if we're not careful2
#13- Every year, we dump about 8 million metric tons of plastic into the ocean2
#14- The Great Pacific Garbage Patch between California and Hawaii is the size of the US State of Texas
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is a collection of marine plastic debris, indicating the size of this pollution problem in the US. Massive patches of marine litter and plastic debris cover large swathes of the ocean surface and sea floor.
#15- By 2030, the number of plastics entering the ocean will be the equivalent of two garbage trucks per minute. By 2050, that estimate will be three trucks by the minute.ref
#16- Plastic bag pollution is one of the most dangerous threats to marine life, according to the World Wildlife Foundationref
Over two years, ocean plastic ingestion complications killed five whales. In 2019, scientists discovered 48 pounds of plastic inside a dead sperm whale off Sardinia. Over 100,000 ocean-going sea mammals die from plastic bag ingestion every year, including whales. At the same time, researchers have found that over half of sea turtles globally have ingested plastic12.
In Sardinia, a pregnant sperm whale washed up dead with 50 pounds of pieces of plastic found in her stomach. Because of this incident, the European Union is ready to ban many one-time-use plastics by 2021 to reduce ocean plastic pollution.
Sea animals ingest plastic bags, straws, and fishing nets can cause suffocation or starvation, eventually leading to their death.
Read more: 20 Wondrous Whale Facts
And it doesn't stop there; marine animals that ingest plastic waste can end up on our plates. Recent research highlights the impact of plastic on our food chain, finding that, on average, Americans consume between 39,00 and 52,000 plastic particles every year11.
With governments imposing bans on single-use only plastic bags, and other products, there are alternatives in the market as grocery stores, department stores, liquor stores, restaurants, and convenience stores make swift changes to replace plastic bags. Some other options include paper bags, reusable cotton bags, jute bags, and bio-plastics.
#17- The UN estimates that we produce one to five trillion plastic bags each year globally, that's close to two million bags per minute1
#18- Currently, the annual consumption of plastic bags per person in the EU is 90 bags, with plans to cut this down to 40 bags per person by 20251
Plastic bags are one of the most widely used items in the world today. You can find them everywhere, whether it's in a drugstore or a clothes store.
Single-use plastic is a cheap and easy choice for these stores. As a result, consumers dispose of them in waste streams (that will never see a recycling plant) or drop them as litter. Every minute, our plastic use is degrading our planet and building toward a massive problem for the environment.
In Europe, authorities have imposed a ban to reduce the use of disposable plastic bags; more plans are in place to reduce the use of plastic bags per individual. The European Union is ready to drop the use of plastic bags to 40 plastic bags per person from 90 in 2020 to control plastic waste and pollution.
#19- Lightweight single-use plastic bags, often used once, take between one and four centuries to decay4
#20- The average lifespan of a plastic bag is 12 minutes5
#21- Researched has found plastic bags and pieces of plastic in the guts of 95 percent of seagulls. They forecast this will rise to 99 percent of seabirds eating plastic if plastic litter continues6
#22- In 2008, China banned retailers from giving out free plastic bags and will ban the use of plastic bags across all cities and towns by 20227
Though plastic bags are indispensable (at least not until we get a better, cheaper biodegradable replacement), they still pose a severe threat to our health, marine environment, and animal life.
We may continue to have the shocking number of plastic bags produced yearly unless we cut back on their use. Like the rest of the world, China, the world's biggest waste producer, is taking significant steps to ban the use of plastic bags by 2022 after banning free plastic bags in 2010.
#23- The River Yangtze, the top polluting river located in China, received approximately 330,000 tonnes of plastic and plastic bags in 20157
#24- Indonesia ranks as one of the world's biggest plastic polluters, with its government spending 1 billion dollars yearly to clear its watersref
When we heap and abandon tons of plastic waste, they not only occupy usable land space they also affect our standard of living and marine life in the ocean. For instance, Indonesia is crawling through a plastic waste crisis threatening its over 350 million residents and water resources.
As part of its waste cleanup campaign, the Indonesian government has agreed to splash 1 billion dollars yearly to reduce plastic waste and ocean plastic pollution.
#25- Each of Indonesia's over 350 million residents produces more than two pounds of plastic waste every yearref
#26- Out of the 480 billion plastic bottles sold in 2016, only 7 percent of these bottles were reused8
People can buy and use plastic bottles and beverage containers anywhere as often as daily. According to Euromonitor, we purchase one million plastic bottles every single minute.
Unfortunately, the million tons of plastic bottles around the globe will mostly go to landfills and ocean bodies, as only 7 percent will eventually be recycled. As we continue perpetuating a disposable, throwaway culture, these numbers will only continue to rise.
#27- Industry experts predict that manufacturers will sell over 580 billion plastic drinking bottles in 20218
#28- In Europe, clearing the ocean and other coastal areas with plastic stocks consumes 690 million dollars annually1
#29- Europe and the US leak 170,000 tonnes of plastic waste into the ocean every year1
#30- The tourism, fishing, and shipping industries suffer 1.3 billion dollars in costs in the Asia-Pacific region due to plastic pollution1
Fishing and tourism are excellent sources of individual income and gross domestic product. Many nations and individuals depend on both the fishing and tourism industry to generate millions of jobs.
However, improper plastic disposal in rivers and oceans affects marine life. Seas and rivers reek of stench from plastic pollution. As a result, this affects fishing and tourism, which in turn impacts individual and national income.
#31- Rapidly developing middle-income countries in Asia accounts for 80% of plastic leakage into the ocean1
#32- In 2018, more than 80 plastic bags were found inside a dying pilot whale that washed up on the shores of Thailand
#33- Nigeria uses around 50 million bags annually, while globally, over one trillion plastic bags are used every year9
Africa suffers from plastic pollution, and Nigeria ranks among the continent's top polluters. Since millions of Nigerians prefer plastic sachets and bottles of drinking water because of the scarcity of potable water, millions of these containers end up in landfills yearly.
#34- Nigeria has over 20 million tonnes of plastic going into its technosphere. However, less than 12% of the resulting waste from this figure goes into recycling 10
Nigeria's plastic waste problem is a burden for Africa's most populous country. Its rickety waste infrastructure is already overwhelmed because of the increasing population size and inadequate sensitization of plastic waste. This has gone unchecked for years and has become a national crisis.
Consumers often find plastic particles in food products, streets, and gutters. All point to a pressing need to improve how developing countries manage waste.
#35- In 2010, plastic waste from Africa was around 4.8 million tonnes annually. However, this could reach 11.5 million tonnes by 2025 as the growth rate in the continent increases with the dilapidated structure of the waste management system in the continent is still a lingering problemref
#36- As early as the 1970s, Mauritania lost over 70 percent of its livestock due to ingestion of plastic bagsref
#37- Pollution affects the fishing industry that employs over 12 million Africansref
The fishing industry, which employs millions of Africans, is one of the worst-hit sectors affected by plastic pollution, as millions of fish die yearly from plastic litter. Additionally, in lower-income countries with lesser pollution controls, those living near plastic production sites face detrimental health impacts.
There are bans like tight restrictions on plastic production, importation, and use in Rwanda. In the last decade, this approach helped to lower plastic pollution figures and increase GDP per capita in the African nation.
#38- In Brazil, over 50 million people living below the poverty line will face the consequences of plastic pollutionref
Today, as these plastic pollution facts show, plastic pollution impacts everything from climate to marine life in the ocean to public health. And with more plastic products everywhere, we have a big challenge sorting out plastic land and marine pollution while mitigating the climate impacts of plastic production.
Developing countries and rural settlements are two of the biggest sufferers of plastic pollution. Since these areas lack waste management systems, dwellers, primarily those living below the poverty line, will endure plastic pollution. This mismanaged plastic waste spreads diseases in several ways, including floods caused by clogged gutters and drains.
The economic powerhouse Ellen MacArthur Foundation is at the forefront of curbing this issue. They have partnered with Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, and Nestle to eliminate 'problematic or unnecessary plastic packaging and make 100 per of packaging recyclable by 2025.
However, we all have a role to play in helping stop plastic pollution. Avoid those plastic water bottles and seek plastic-free and zero-waste alternatives wherever possible.
Jen’s a passionate environmentalist and sustainability expert. With a science degree from Babcock University Jen loves applying her research skills to craft editorial that connects with our global changemaker and readership audiences centered around topics including zero waste, sustainability, climate change, and biodiversity.
Elsewhere Jen’s interests include the role that future technology and data have in helping us solve some of the planet’s biggest challenges.