Plastic Pollution Facts: 20 Things to Know and What's Being Done to Help
Plastic pollution has garnered extensive attention in the past years as we are collectively waking up to the realities of our wasteful, linear economy.
While plastic may have its proper place of usage for more durable, hard goods requiring the exact chemical properties of the material specifically, there's no sugarcoating the fact that our modern society has become addicted to single-use plastics for the perceived convenience they provide.
To get a comprehensive overview of what plastic pollution looks like in the world today, see below for 20 facts to know and to share with friends as well as seven ways we're already beginning to tackle this global crisis.
1) Humans have produced more than 8.3 billion tons of plastic since 1950, when wide-scale production and use began.
Most of this was produced in the 21st century: Global plastic production increased from just two million metric tons in 1950 to over 400 million metric tons in 2015.
2) Most plastic is only in use for one year or less, resulting in over 6.3 billion tons of plastic waste.
Plastic packaging and consumer goods are in use for extremely short durations of time. In some cases, these plastics are used for only minutes before they are discarded (e.g., straws, cups, utensils).
3) Half of all plastic produced is designed to be used only once.
4) Only nine percent of all plastic is recycled.
As of 2015, only nine percent of plastic had been recycled, 12 percent had been incinerated, and 79 percent was in the natural environment or in landfills. There might be even less plastic recycled now that China has imposed much more stringent standards for the recyclables they accept from foreign countries, though.
Until 2018, China handled recycling for much of the western United States, Canada, Germany, Australia and Europe.
Now, it only accepts recyclables that are nearly free from any sort of contamination (e.g., nonrecyclable goods mixed with recyclables or recyclables contaminated by grease and food leftovers)—a standard that experts say are almost impossible to meet, leaving countries that previously relied on China's recycling scrambling for solutions on how to deal with the waste within their own borders.
5) Plastic stays in the environment for hundreds, sometimes thousands of years.
It’s estimated that plastic bottles and wrappers remain in the environment for about 450 years. Plastic bags can take up to 1,000 years to decompose. As plastics break down, tiny pieces called microplastics are created, which are consumed by microorganisms, marine life, and fish, bioaccumulating and eventually ending up contaminating human food sources as well.
6) Plastic disproportionately affects the poor—from production to disposal.
In his TED talk, Van Jones pointed out that air pollution released during plastic production drives high cancer rates in Cancer Alley, a strip along the Mississippi River in Louisiana. But when we recycle plastic, it’s often shipped overseas and burned, releasing more toxins in the air in developing countries.
7) Most plastic is derived from fossil fuels, so reducing plastic use will be key to reducing our carbon emissions.
Plastic itself can be a byproduct of natural gas, coal, and oil refining, but it can also directly increase demand for fossil fuel extraction. Plastic production and disposal is now the second largest source of industrial greenhouse gas emissions. By 2050, carbon emissions from the plastic industry could grow to 2.75 billion metric tons.
8) Ten rivers carry 90 percent of the world’s plastic waste to the ocean.
Ten rivers, mostly in Asia, carry hundreds of thousands of tons of plastic waste to the ocean each year.
9) Plastic in the ocean has killed millions of marine animals and is estimated to affect more than 700 species, including endangered species like Pacific loggerhead turtles and Hawaiian monk seals.
10) Plastic is capable of killing multiple animals throughout its lifetime. An animal who swallowed a piece of plastic and died will decompose faster than the plastic that killed it, which is re-released into the ocean and can kill again.
Hear more about how we can incentivize the cleanup of existing plastic pollution in the world from Plastic Bank's founder, David Katz, on Green Dreamer Podcast episode 139.
11) Scientists predict that the ocean will contain more plastic than fish in 2050, if current plastic consumption and waste trends continue.
12) Microplastics, or tiny pieces of plastic that are smaller than 5 millimeters, have been found in over 80 percent of tap water sources around the world.
13) Microplastics have been found in seafood.
Scientists have found microplastics in 114 different marine species, many of those regularly eaten by humans. Microplastics bioaccumulate in seafood and are found in higher concentrations as you move up the food chain. Researchers are trying to determine how microplastic consumption affects human health.
14) Food held in plastic containers is often contaminated with chemicals like BPA (bisphenol A), phthalates, or BSA (bisphenol S), which can cause hormone imbalances and other health problems.
BSA is chemically similar to BPA and can still be in foods labeled “BPA-free.”
15) Plastic fibers have even been found in beer.
16) Large quantities of microplastics have accumulated in the deepest points of the ocean.
17) Microplastics previously held within polar sea ice are being released as climate change continues, oceans warm, and sea ice melts.
In recent years, more and more plastic debris has been found in Arctic regions. Some of this is a result of sea ice melting, which releases large quantities of microplastics into the ocean. Sea ice that used to remain intact for multiple years has steadily been replaced by thin, first-year ice as the Earth’s oceans and atmosphere warm. When this thinner ice forms, it captures particulate matter, including microplastics.
Arctic sea ice contains microplastics at concentrations that are several orders of magnitude greater than amounts found in contaminated surface waters, according to a 2014 study published in Earth’s Future Journal.
Large quantities of these microplastics are then released when the ice melts. This is expected to greatly increase as planetary warming continues.
18) Over 80 percent of the microplastics contaminating seashores around the globe consist of synthetic plastic-based fibers like acrylic, polyester, or nylon.
Hundreds of thousands of these microplastic fibers are released every time we wash synthetic clothing.
Each time we wash an acrylic sweater, more than 700,000 microplastic fibers are released into the waste water from our laundry machine. When we wash a polyester fleece, nearly 500,000 fibers are released. These fibers are so small that they bypass traditional water treatment processes, are released into our rivers and oceans, and eventually end up being consumed by marine animals.
Fewer microparticles are released the older the material is, but it’s best to avoid these materials, even if they’re recycled. Choose products made from natural fibers like organic cotton, wool, or hemp. You can capture some of the microfibers that are released when washing synthetic fabrics you already own by using a filtering product like the Cora Ball or the Guppy Friend.
19) The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is the largest known plastic accumulation zone in the Pacific Ocean and covers a space twice the size of Texas.
1.8 trillion pieces of plastic float in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, an equivalent of 250 pieces for each human on Earth, and there are four other massive accumulations of plastic in our oceans.
Learn more about this from 5 Gyres Institute's co-founder and researcher, Dr. Marcus Eriksen, on Green Dreamer Podcast episode 103.
20) Cosmetic products including many toothpastes, face and body washes contain microbeads that bypass the water treatment process and flow right into our water system.
Political action has been taken in the recent years to ban the use of microbeads as an ingredient or the import of toiletries containing microbeads in nations around the world. To be safe, though, look for brands that have a “Zero Plastic Inside” label. Or, better yet, stick to products made from only natural, organic ingredients.
The above facts might be overwhelming, but it’s not impossible to turn this crisis around. There are reasons to be hopeful: We already have the technology, resources, and capabilities to effectively reduce our usage, capture, and repurpose the plastic that’s already in our environment.
7 Ways We're Already Helping to Address Plastic Pollution
1) Bans on single-use plastics are being adopted around the world.
Plastic bans are only effective if they are enforced and if there is adequate buy-in from consumers and companies. But public support for single-use plastic bans—like the one that was adopted by the European Union earlier in 2019—show that these policies might help slow the tide of plastic pollution.
2) Clean-up challenges are growing in popularity.
Social media-driven movements like the #TrashTag challenge that encourage people to take before and after photos from collecting trash are inspiring ways to get people out and cleaning up their favorite places. Over 11.6 million pounds of trash were cleaned up of Versova Beach in Mumbai.
3) There are many resources available for living a zero-waste lifestyle.
There is a growing movement of people choosing to live without disposable plastics and containers.
Living waste-free can save you money, reduce toxins from your life, and help slow the tide of plastic flowing into our oceans. You can learn more by listening to Green Dreamer podcast episodes featuring Bea Johnson and Kathryn Kellogg and checking out these ten books to inspire your zero-waste lifestyle.
4) Designers have been synthesizing new materials to replace fabrics like polyester and nylon.
Lab-grown materials that mimic the natural properties of spider silk can be used to produce clothing free of harmful microfibers that come off in the wash.
5) Scientists can turn plastic waste into fuel.
Plastic can be a byproduct of the production of oil, and it’s possible to convert it back into liquid fuel. The process requires less energy and results in fewer carbon emissions than plastic incineration, which is what happens to most of what we recycle. While using this fuel would still release greenhouse gasses, this could be a way to repurpose the huge amounts of waste in our oceans.
Read more: New Technique Converts Plastic Waste to Fuel
6) Plastics that already exist can be repurposed to help clean up the environment.
A special type of plastic resin can actually capture carbon dioxide from the atmosphere—at a rate 1,000 times higher than a natural tree. This captured carbon can then be turned into usable fuel, closing the “carbon-loop.”