Un-sugarcoated Facts about Plastic Pollution
Global plastic waste levels are off the charts
How much plastic is recycled?
Of all of the 6.9 billion tons plastic waste ever produced, onlynine percent has been recycled. The rest has either been incinerated (12 percent) or become waste (79 percent). Unlike glass or aluminum, which can be continually recycled, plastic typically becomes waste unless it is kept in use.
Current rates of recycling are dismal. Globally, onlya fifth of plastic gets recycled. However, some countries and regions have greater recycling capacities than others. Europe recycles 30 percent of its plastic, China recycles 25 percent and the U.S. recycles only 9 percent.
How much has plastic pollution grown?
The steady growth of plastic production and waste shows that this problem won’t be solved overnight. From 2000 to today, the worldhas doubled its total plastic production since plastics were invented, fifty years earlier.
Looking at yearly benchmarks shows how plastics infiltrated our lives in just about three generations’ time. In 1950,2.3 million tons were produced, in 1964, that number had jumped to15 million tons, it then leapt tenfold to 162 million tons by 1993, reaching396 million tons in 2016 alone. That’s 53 kilograms of plastic per person on the planet.
In the fifty years from 1964 to 2014, plastic production increased more than 200-fold. These days, the amount of plastic grows at about arate of 4 percent each year.
How much plastic goes to waste each year?
In one of the most recent calculations, we created nearly341 million tons of worldwide plastic waste. That’s about the same weight of the entire human population--in just one year!
Why is this number so high? One reason is that about40 percent of our plastics have a very short lifespan as disposable, single-use products. These include plastic wrapping, containers, and bottles designed to be thrown away almost instantly.
If we stop using plastic for disposable purposes, our waste could decrease significantly. Estimates suggest that we’d cut back to producing188 million metric tons of plastic if we cut out single-use plastics.
Thecountries with the highest waste per person, per day are Kuwait (0.69kg), Guyana (0.59kg), Germany (0.48kg), Ireland (0.43kg), Netherlands (0.42kg) and the United States (0.38kg).
Interestingly, some countries with rather low daily per capita waste rates include industrialized bordering countries to the high-waste countries. For instance, people in Canada (0.9kg) and Sweden (0.5kg) produce significantly less plastic waste each day per capita. This proves that many industrialized nations have the potential to lower their rates in line with their neighbors.
Developing nations with high populations like China (0.12kg) and India (0.01kg) also produce far less waste rates per person each day, but China still produces the most plastic waste overall (66 million tons). The U.S. lands at second place (42 million) and Germany comes in third (16 million). Of course, these are no award-winning credentials!
Where does plastic waste end up?
Most plastic waste ends up in “managed” landfills, which keep it from impacting ecosystems too much. Yet,one-third of plastic waste, about 110 million tons, enters our natural environment, where it has very dangerous consequences. This plastic creates pollution on land, in waterways and in the ocean.
Eighty percent of marine debris comes from land-based sources. If you imagine five grocery bags filled with plastic each foot of every coastline around the world, you’d see the volume of plastic that has filled the ocean. The remaining 20 percent of marine debris mostly results from discarded fishing equipment. A total of60 to 95 percent of the debris that flows into the ocean is plastic.
Coastal regions with waterways leading to the ocean carry the waste to the seas and oceans from rivers or open dumps. The currents then carry most plastic to spiraling gyres, where the plastic waste builds up. These patterns of waste are now known as ocean “garbage patches,” such as theGreat Pacific Garbage Patch (insert link to our own article), which spans anarea twice the size of Texas.
Even though plastic pollution in the ocean has risen astronomically in recent years, scientists estimate that the plastic pollution on land isfour times worse than in the ocean!
Inadequate disposal management
Improved waste management could prevent most plastic waste from making its way to the oceans. Worldwide, about37 percent of plastic waste is mismanaged. In countries that lack the infrastructure to collect and manage waste, littering and dumping make plastic pollution worse. In many parts of South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa,80-90 percent of plastic waste is likely to pollute land and in waterways because of inadequate disposal sites.
Meanwhile, most developed countries can afford landfills that prevent impacts on the surrounding environment. Places like Europe, North America, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and South Korea have landfill systems that generally protect the environment from waste.
Well-managedlandfill designs prevent toxins and debris from entering the local groundwater supply. They either have synthetic (plastic) liners or clay bottom liners sealing the ground below the lowest layer of trash, and they divert stormwater, so it doesn’t leach through to the bottom. Trash is then stored in cells within the space designated for the landfill. Many landfills also collect methane that gets emitted from the decomposing garbage. A cap or covering seals landfills off at the top.
However, disposal sites in many low- and middle-income countries follow an “open dump” pattern where trash gets piled into a large hole without any bottom-lining or sealing for the top layer. When plastics are dumped in these disposal sites, lightweight plastic bags blow away and enter the environment, while other plastic waste easily enters waterways that get carried to the oceans.
Research reveals thatmismanaged plastic waste disposal occurs highest in these countries: China (28 percent), Indonesia (10 percent), the Philippines (6 percent), Vietnam (6 percent), Thailand (3.2 percent), Egypt (3 percent), Nigeria (2.7 percent) and South Africa (2 percent).
Impacts of plastic pollution on wildlife
The impacts of plastic on wildlife are undeniable. About700 marine species are at risk of extinction and the same number of species has been negatively affected by ocean plastic.
One of the greatest concerns for wildlife isplastic ingestion. Nine out of ten seabirds, a third of sea turtles and over half of whale and dolphin species have ingested plastic. Scientists have even found plastic stuck in the digestive system of crustaceans. And plasticingestion kills wildlife, causing the death of roughly a million seabirds and a hundred thousand other wildlife species.
While many species that filter the ocean sweep up plastic into their stomachs unintentionally, some species mistake plastic pieces for food. Brightly colored plastic pieces can tempt species by sight and smell. Some plastics are known to attract chemicals that smell like food to different sea creatures. Plastic may be ingested directly or further up the food chain when larger organisms feed on smaller organisms that already ingested plastic.
In the stomachs of different organisms, plastic takes up space or even blocks digestion because it doesn’t easilypass through the digestive system. It can also puncture the stomach lining. Ingested plastic can lead to internal bleeding, fatigue and starvation. Moreover, plastics attract toxins in the ocean that can weaken the immune systems and breeding capabilities of organisms.
Plastic entanglement also negatively impacts wildlife, affecting over 270 species of animals of various types: mammals, reptiles, birds and fish. These species can easily get caught in discarded nets or other malleable forms of plastic.
When plastic debris impacts wildlife, it takes a toll on the fishing and tourism industries. Losses of roughly $13 billion per year come fromplastic-related damage. It leads to expensive beach cleaning operations, fishing losses and harmful changes to valuable ecosystems when floating plastic carries microbes and toxins with it to previously unexposed regions.
Because of the incredibly durable molecular structure of plastic polymers, when plastics break down, they maintain structural integrity. Rather than biodegrade, they break into ever-smaller pieces. Microscopic plastic has infiltrated our environment so much that humans regularly ingest plastic. On average, we eat70,000 microplastics each year.
Microplastics linger on land and in water. In some places,15 percent of the sand on Hawaii’s Big Island is microplastic. Scientists have estimated that5.25 trillion plastic particles swim in the ocean, weighing about 268,940 tons. Yet,94 percent of ocean plastic sinks to the seabed, where its effects are unknown.
In water, microplastics turn toxic because they attract industrial chemicals and pollutants that cling to the microplastics. Water filled with microplastics can becomea million times more toxic than regular water.
Plastic pollution rate expected to rise
The world’s capacity to produce plastic has expanded in recent years, which means plastic waste could increase40 percent by 2030. Our oceans could containmore plastic than fish by volume in 2050 if we continue at this rate.
Plastics also have an impact on climate change, because they are the direct byproducts of the fossil fuel industry. Ninety-nine percent of plastics are made from chemicals extracted from oil, natural gas and coal. By 2050, the plastics industry could make upa fifth of the worldwide oil consumption.
What are the main sources of plastic waste?
Forty percent of all plastic is used for packaging, which should raise our alarm. Most plastic has a very short lifespan and gets thrown away after just one use. For example, the lifespan of a plastic bag is just12 minutes. Most of these kinds of disposable plastic bags, containers and wrappers are consumed in upper-middle income countries.
Sincepackaging has a very short usable lifespan (6 months on average) compared to building and construction (roughly 35 years), the plastic used for packaging becomes waste much faster. This has spurred manufacturers to consider developing reusable packaging solutions that have a longer lifespan.
What is most plastic used for?
In 2015, thetotal volume of plastic production spread across the following industries:
- Packaging (161 million tons)
- Building and Construction (71 million tons)
- Other (65 million tons)
- Textiles (52 million tons)
- Consumer and Institutional (46 million tons)
- Transportation (30 million tons)
- Electrical/electronic (20 million tons)
- Industrial machinery (3 million tons)
These were the estimated total volumes of plastic waste across the above-listed industries in 2015:
- Packaging (155 million tons)
- Other (46 million tons)
- Consumer and Institutional (41 million tons)
- Transportation (19 million tons)
- Building and Construction (14 million tons)
- Electrical/electronic (14 million tons)
- Industrial machinery (1 million tons)
Some of themost commonly found items in the environment, according to a global survey, are cigarette butts, drink bottles, bottle caps, food wrappers, grocery bags, drink lids, straws and stirrers.
Here are some additionalworldwide facts about the different types of disposable plastic products sold:
- In 2016, more than 480 billion plastic bottles were sold.
- About a trillion plastic shopping bags are used each year.
- Half a billion plastic straws are used each day.
- Annually, we produce enough bubble wrap to circle the world ten times.
- We use 500 billion plastic cups each year.
- People litter more than 4.5 trillion cigarette butts everyday.
Which countries produce the most plastic products?
Most plastic is produced in China (29 percent) and other parts of Asia (22 percent). Other major plastic producing regions include Europe (19 percent), the NAFTA countries (18 percent), the Middle East and Africa (7 percent) and Latin America (4 percent).
Which countries create the most plastic waste?
Thecountries most responsible for the mismanaged waste that contaminates our environment include China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam.
Justten rivers in these countries and others around the world in carry more than 90 percent of the plastic waste that feeds into our oceans:
- Chang Jiang (Yangtze River) (1.5 million tons)
- Indus (160,000 tons)
- Huang He (Yellow River) (120,000 tons)
- Hai He (92,000 tons)
- Nile (85,000 tons)
- Meghna, Brahmaputra, Ganges (73,000 tons)
- Zhujiang (Pearl River) (53,000 tons)
- Amur (38,000 tons)
- Niger (35,000 tons)
- Mekong (33,000 tons)
10 helpful tips on reducing plastic pollution
1. Avoid single-use plastic whenever possible. This means swapping plastic bags, water bottles, take away food containers, cups and straws with reusable items you can tote with you in your purse or backpack.
2. Choose items sold in bulk over items that are individually wrapped and bring your own containers to refill.
3. Buy products from companies that care about sustainable packaging design, but remember that plastics labelled “biodegradable” or “bio plastic”aren’t necessarily eco-friendly. This just means that under certain controlled conditions, the plastic can break down, but not all forms of disposal ensure those conditions. While some single-use packaging can be more environmentally friendly, paper bags actually cause more environmental issues during production than plastic, which may come as a surprise. Certainly, natural fiber packaging has a better chance of breaking down in nature and metal or glass packaging can be continually recycled.The absolute best option for helping the environment, however, is to cut down on single-use packaging by opting for reusable containers, though.
4. Write letters of complaint to manufacturers that sell unsustainable single-use, single-serve packaging designs. Ask them to create options with reusable containers and bulk purchasing options.
5. Use your vote to support local bans and fees on single-use plastic products like bags, straws, cutlery, plates and cups. These regulations will spur the public and private sectors to mobilize to find different design solutions.
6. Promote the concept of reuse by purchasing used clothing or furniture items. Find alternative uses for plastic items you might normally throw away to extend their lifespan.
7. Track and monitor the plastic items you buy and throwaway on a weekly basis. Share your findings with your friends and think of creative ways to cut back. Without a way to measure your progress, you’ll never know how effective your strategies for eliminating plastic really are.
8. Make common household cleaning products, food and beauty products that come in plastic bottles or containers with bulk supplies at home. For example, you can make homemade deodorant, shampoo, toothpaste, soap, cleaner, yogurt, peanut butter and crackers.
9. Recycle the right way by reading the requirements from your local municipality’s recycling program carefully.
10. Share consumer items that you don’t use frequently with your local community of neighbors, friends or family. Examples include lawn mowers, handheld drills, household appliances, tools and equipment.
Reduce plastic waste by drinking water from a refillable water bottle. Our guide on water bottle selection contains details on choosing the best size, shape and material of water bottle for your needs.
Download our free guide: How to Choose the Best Water Bottle
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