Plastic started as a blessing--a miraculously cheap, flexible and durable material. It can be molded into shapes and textures beyond our wildest imagination. But too much of a good thing eventually becomes a curse.
It now crowds our oceans, its toxins seep into our drinking water, and it gradually dissolves into microscopic particles that appear in our table salt. For something so pervasive, we should at least know the facts about it.
This amped up production follows a trend that only took hold in just the past twenty years. Nearly half of all plastic ever manufactured has been made since 2000. Total plastic production went from 250 billion tons in 2000 to 448 billion tons in 2015 (“Fast Facts about Plastic Pollution”). The world currently produces more than 400 million tons of plastic every year (“Single Use Plastics,” Fig. 1.2).
Those numbers should alarm you, because over a third of that plastic is created for only a single-use. We use plastic bags, wrappers and lids for less than an hour, or even less than a minute, before throwing them away.
The facts about plastic pollution prove that this trash-by-design concept isn’t worth it.
What is single-use plastic and why is it bad?
Single use plastic is the stuff we commonly see used as packaging, but it includes any plastic created for a disposable purpose. It’s become the cultural norm for take-away food packaging, shopping bags and single-serve wrappers. Estimates suggest that about half of all plastic gets used once before it gets tossed.
Paradoxically, we’ve chosen a material that can remain intact for thousands of years [Insert internal link to biodegradable article] for our disposable goods. That’s why the majority of our plastic is sitting in the landfills and oceans--up to almost 80 percent. Only 9 percent of all plastic waste has been recycled and 12 percent has been incinerated (“Single Use Plastics,” Fig. 1.2).
Here’s why this is especially bad news. Plastics both contain toxins and they attract them. About 78 percent of priority pollutants listed by the EPA have some connection to plastic waste.
Toxic chemicals from plastic can be identified in the blood and body tissue of most people. Our exposure can lead to awful consequences like cancer, birth defects, lowered immunities, and endocrine disruption, which affects reproduction and development (“Perils of Plastic”). The toxins in plastics and their additives can also contaminate our soils and groundwater when they breakdown and seep into the environment from landfills. (“Plastics Recycling: Challenges and Opportunities”).
Here are more facts to highlight the urgency of our plastic crisis.
Single-use plastic packaging facts
Forty percent of all plastic produced is for single-use plastic packaging, totalling 161 million tons annually. (“Single Use Plastics”).
Over 52 percent of the plastics thrown away each year are from plastic packaging. (“Global Plastic Production”).
Single-use plastic in the ocean
By 2050, the volume of plastic in the ocean will outweigh that of fish (“The New Plastics Economy”).
More than 600 marine species are negatively impacted by litter and plastic waste (“Single Use Plastics”).
Almost 100% of seabirds will have ingested plastic by 2050 (“Single Use Plastics”).
At least 223 marine species including turtles (100%), seals (33+%), whales (59%), and seabirds (59%) along with fish (92%) and six species of invertebrates have been recorded (“Top Ten Facts”).
Plastic ingestion can occur accidentally, when mistaking plastic for food or when preying on other that have already ingested plastic (“Top Ten Facts”).
Ocean plastic breaks into particles the size of plankton that outnumber them six to one. Toxins including PCBs and DDT attach to the surface of the particles up to 1 million times more than the levels in regular seawater (“Top Ten Facts”).
Roughly 80 percent of ocean plastics are from waste generated on land, while the rest comes from fishing gear such as nets, fishing lines and vessels (“FAQs on Plastics”).
Plastic debris cause $13 billion in losses each year related to damaged ecosystems affecting fishing and tourism as well as beach cleaning expenses (“Global Plastic Production”).
How much plastic is in the ocean?
People cause about 10-20 million tons of plastic waste to go into the ocean each year (“Global Plastic Production”).
There are roughly 5.25 trillion plastic and microplastic pieces floating in the oceans, which weigh 268,940 tons (“Global Plastic Production”).
Plastic water bottle facts
Each minute, roughly a million plastic beverage bottles are sold (“Fast Facts about Plastic Pollution”).
It would cost roughly $1400 per year to get enough water from bottled water to drink eight glasses of water per day. From the tap it costs about $0.49 for the same hydration (“Bottled Water Facts”).
Americans use 17 million barrels of oil to make bottles for bottled water each year, which could fuel 1.3 million cars for a year. That’s enough for every single person in Dallas, Texas (“Bottled Water Facts”).
Americans purchased 111 billion plastic single-use bottles in 2015, an average of 346 bottles per person (“Fast Facts about Plastic Pollution”).
Just 23 percent of plastic bottles are recycled in the U.S. (“Bottled Water Facts”).
Plastic bag facts
Up to five trillion plastic bags are consumed around the world annually (“Single Use Plastics”).
Fourteen billion of those plastic bags come from the U.S. (“Bags by the Numbers”).
American shoppers use about one plastic bags per day (365 per year), while shoppers in Denmark use just four per year! (“Fast Facts about Plastic Pollution”).
Plastic grocery bags were introduced to supermarkets in 1977 (“Bags by the Numbers”).
Just one percent of plastic bags are recycled (“Bags by the Numbers”).
U.S. retailers spend $4 billion on free plastic bags for their customers each year (“Bags by the Numbers”).
Plastic straw facts
Half a billion plastic straws are thrown away everyday (“Plastic straws”).
Plastic waste from straws only accounts for 0.03 percent of ocean plastic pollution, which is why some people see plastic straw bans as a media-friendly, but limited approach to impacting plastic waste (“FAQs on Plastics”).
Now that you know more about plastic, share your favorite factoid with friends to spark a conversation. You may be surprised to learn how many people agree about the harmful impacts of plastic pollution!
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