Our planet is drowning in plastic pollution

This World Environment Day, it’s time for a change

While plastic has many valuable uses, we have become addicted to single-use or disposable plastic — with severe environmental consequences. Around the world, one million plastic drinking bottles are purchased every minute, while up to 5 trillion single-use plastic bags are used worldwide every year. In total, half of all plastic produced is designed to be used only once — and then thrown away. Plastic waste is now so ubiquitous in the natural environment that scientists have even suggested it could serve as a geological indicator of the Anthropocene era. So how did we get here?

From the 1950s to the 70s, only a small amount of plastic was produced, so plastic waste was relatively manageable.

By the 1990s, plastic waste generation had more than tripled in two decades, following a similar rise in plastic production.

In the early 2000s, our output of plastic waste rose more in a single decade than it had in the previous 40 years.

Today, we produce about 300 million tonnes of plastic waste every year. That’s nearly equivalent to the weight of the entire human population.

Researchers estimate that more than 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic has been produced since the early 1950s. About 60% of that plastic has ended up in either a landfill or the natural environment.

We’re seeing some other worrying trends. Since the 1950s, the rate of plastic production has grown faster than that of any other material. We’ve also seen a shift away from the production of durable plastic, and towards plastics that are meant to be thrown away after a single use. More than 99% of plastics are produced from chemicals derived from oil, natural gas and coal — all of which are dirty, non-renewable resources. If current trends continue, by 2050 the plastic industry could account for 20% of the world’s total oil consumption.

These single-use plastic products are everywhere. For many of us, they’ve become integral to our daily lives.  

Polyethylene terephthalate (PET)
Water bottles, dispensing containers, biscuit trays

High—density polyethylene (HDPE)
Shampoo bottles, milk bottles, freezer bags, ice cream containers

Low—density polyethylene (LDPE)
Bags, trays, containers, food packaging film

Polypropylene (PP)
Potato chip bags, microwave dishes, ice cream tubs, bottle caps

Polystyrene (PS)
Cutlery, plates, cups

Expanded polystyrene (EPS)
Protective packaging, hot drink cups

Source: “Banning single-use plastic: lessons and experiences from countries” UN Environment report (2018)

We need to slow the flow of plastic at its source, but we also need to improve the way we manage our plastic waste. Because right now, a lot of it ends up in the environment.

Only 9% of all plastic waste ever produced has been recycled. About 12% has been incinerated, while the rest — 79% — has accumulated in landfills, dumps or the natural environment. Cigarette butts — whose filters contain tiny plastic fibres — were the most common type of plastic waste found in the environment in a recent global survey. Drink bottles, bottle caps, food wrappers, grocery bags, drink lids, straws and stirrers were the next most common items. Many of us use these products every day, without even thinking about where they might end up.

Rivers carry plastic waste from deep inland to the sea, making them major contributors to ocean pollution

A staggering 8 million tonnes of plastic end up in the world’s oceans every year. How does it get there? A lot of it comes from the world’s rivers, which serve as direct conduits of trash from the world’s cities to the marine environment.

Niger

Nile

Indus

Meghna,
Brahmaputra,
Ganges

Mekong

Zhujiang

Chang
Jiang

Huang He

Hai He

Amur

These 10 rivers alone carry more than 90% of the plastic waste that ends up in the oceans

Data from “Export of Plastic Debris by Rivers into the Sea” by Christian Schmidt, Tobias Krauth, and Stephan Wagner, published in Environmental Science & Technology (2017)

Plastic waste — whether in a river, an ocean, or on land — can persist in the environment for centuries.

The same properties that make plastics so useful — their durability and resistance to degradation — also make them nearly impossible for nature to completely break down. Most plastic items never fully disappear; they just get smaller and smaller. Many of these tiny plastic particles are swallowed by farm animals or fish who mistake them for food, and thus can find their way onto our dinner plates. They’ve also been found in a majority of the world’s tap water. By clogging sewers and providing breeding grounds for mosquitoes and pests, plastic waste — especially plastic bags — can increase the transmission of vector-borne diseases like malaria.

China’s Chang Jiang (Yangtze) River, which flows past Shanghai, delivers nearly 1.5 million tons of plastic waste into the Yellow Sea.

If current trends continue, our oceans could contain more plastic than fish by 2050.

While the United States, Japan and many European countries generate significant amounts of plastic waste, they’re also relatively good at managing it. About half of all of the plastic waste that ends up in the oceans comes from just five countries: China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Viet Nam. These countries are experiencing rapid economic growth, which is reducing poverty rates and improving the quality of life for hundreds of millions of people. But as these economies grow, consumption booms — and so does the use of plastic goods.

The global volume of plastic waste continues to grow, and some of the biggest producers don’t manage their waste effectively.

Data from “Plastic waste inputs from land into the ocean” by Jenna Jambeck and others, published in Science (2015)

But the world is waking up to the problem, and governments are starting to act.

There are a number of things that governments can do — from running public awareness campaigns, to offering incentives for recycling, to introducing levies or even banning certain products outright. In the last decade, dozens of national and local governments around the world have adopted policies to reduce the use of disposable plastic. And the number continues to grow. Africa stands out as the continent where the most countries have adopted a total ban on the production and use of plastic bags. Of the 25 African countries that have banned the bags, more than half have done so in the last four years alone.

An impressive — and growing — number of national and local governments have taken action against plastic pollution

Source: “Banning single-use plastic: lessons and experiences from countries” UN Environment report (2018)

We’ve seen a lot of positive action, but the truth is that we all need to do more.

This World Environment Day, the UN is calling on people everywhere to take concrete steps to #BeatPlasticPollution in their own lives. And you don’t have to wait until 5 June to act. There are so many things that you can do – from asking the restaurants you frequent to stop using plastic straws, to bringing your own coffee mug to work, to pressuring your local authorities to improve how they manage your city’s waste. Here are some other ideas:

Pressure food suppliers to use non-plastic packaging

Bring your own shopping bags to the supermarket

Refuse plastic cutlery and straws

Pick up any plastic you see when you’re out walking

Carry a refillable water bottle

Tell your local officials that you support a ban on single-use plastic bags