Plastic pollution is one of the biggest environmental crises of our time. This article outlines some stark plastic pollution facts that simply can’t be overlooked.
Once hailed as an ingenious invention for being virtually indestructible, humankind is now facing the repercussions of the plastic era. Plastic pollution is having a devastating effect on the environment, destroying ecosystems around the globe.
Despite plastic pollution being a wide scale problem, plastic production is still growing year on year, with 368 million tonnes produced globally in 2019. Millions of tonnes of plastic waste are generated each year, with China producing the most, followed by the United States. Though this graphic below is based on estimates from 2010, it’s representative of the expected global picture in 2025.
Mismanaged plastic waste
Some plastics are disposed of and recycled responsibly. It’s mismanaged plastic waste, particularly in developing countries which causes real concern. This is where plastic becomes pollution, clogging up waterways, beaches, and landscapes due to litter or inadequate disposal practices.
Plastic pollution in the ocean
Plastic pollution in the ocean has a devastating effect on marine life and human health. You’ve probably seen the horrifying images that sometimes make the headlines. Fish, dolphins, seals and seabirds often get entangled in discarded plastic or mistake tiny pieces of plastic (microplastics) for food. There have been many reports in recent years of plastic waste being found in the stomachs of dead marine species.
Furthermore, microplastics end up being inadvertently eaten by humans. About the size of a sesame seed, these little bits of plastic in the sea get washed up into beach sand and blown around by the wind, where we inhale them. We also consume microplastics when we eat certain foods, seafood in particular, and when drinking water.
Plastic pollution facts
Here are fifteen eye-opening statistics and facts which help to visualise the damage plastic pollution is doing to the planet and all its lifeforms.
- Durable plastics, such as plastic cups and bottles, can take an incredible 450 years to decompose. Plastic toothbrushes can take 500 years to break down.
- An equivalent of one rubbish lorry full of plastic enters our oceans every minute of every day - all year round.
- A massive 91% of plastics aren’t recycled, and much of it becomes litter.
- We’ll eat 20kg of plastic in our lifetime. That’s the equivalent of two small empty recycling bins.
- One in three fish caught for human consumption contains plastic.
- We need water to survive, yet it contains microplastics. You’re better off drinking tap water than bottled water, though, as the latter can mean you’ll ingest an additional 90,000 plastic particles annually.
- 100,000 marine animals and one million seabirds die each year as a result of plastic pollution.
- A study of sea turtles conducted by the University of Exeter and Plymouth Marine Laboratory found that 100% of them had plastic in their stomachs. An average of 150 plastics was found in each animal.
- Globally, almost a million plastic bottles are sold every minute.
- In England, we use 4.7 billion plastic straws each year. These can take 200 years to decompose. Thankfully, single-use straws are now banned in the UK.
- Plastic bags are the most lethal for ocean wildlife. They often get mistaken for jellyfish by turtles and can even smell like food to them. Once ingested, plastic bags can block animals’ stomachs, causing them to starve. Other small animals get caught in plastic bags and drown.
- Plastic cutlery is also among the most deadly of plastic pollution. These are sharp, often contaminated and frequently found in waterways. Less than half of throw-away plastic utensils are recycled.
- Plastic pollution is likely to be a problem for the next 16 generations.
- We’ve made enough plastic in the last few decades to put a layer of clingfilm around the whole planet.
- Plastic pollution is everywhere. Not just in the ocean and on beaches, but on mountaintops and even embedded in Arctic ice, in some of the most remote waters on earth.
Reducing plastic pollution requires a global effort
Plastic was (and still is) a great invention, being cheap, lightweight, flexible and strong. It’s revolutionised many industries for the better. As packaging, it helps to extend food shelf life, which in turn reduces food waste. The plastic disposable syringe used in medicine has saved and improved countless lives. Plastic is even used to reduce fuel consumption in the airline industry - an Airbus A380 aeroplane is built with 22% lightweight carbon fibre reinforced plastics.
Humanity depends on plastic as one of the most versatile materials ever made. But plastic pollution is harming the planet, not just for all that live on it now, but for future generations.
Through science, technology and engineering, work is underway to provide greener alternatives. Some organisations now use biodegradable and compostable plastics as they try to reduce their carbon footprint. However, there are problems with these types of plastics too. They degrade at different rates, and many biodegradable solutions contain toxic substances, which contribute to global warming.
More needs to be done to reduce plastic waste, not just by individuals but also by the businesses and corporate giants that force single-use plastics upon us.
Plastic pollution - what can you do about it?
There is no overnight solution to eliminate plastic pollution. Still, as consumers, we can begin to make a difference by saying no to throw-away plastics, like plastic coffee cup lids, bags, utensils and takeaway containers.
Try only to use reusable plastics if possible, and explore products made with alternative materials. At WAFE, for instance, you’ll find reusable beeswax wraps as an alternative to cling film, reusable (and foldable) coffee cups, organic cotton fabric storage boxes and more.
When you do use single-use plastics, recycle them properly, as this can reduce the amount of new plastic being made. But remember, only 9% of plastic is recycled worldwide. So reducing plastic consumption is by far the best way for individuals to contribute to the global effort.
Finally, as we go about our daily lives, certainly in the western world, it can be easy to forget about the effects of plastic pollution and let our efforts slip to reduce plastic waste. So stay informed and keep learning about this topic.
Read more informational content about plastic usage and climate change on our blog.