Plastic Pollution Facts and Figures

From Beachapedia

This page is available in multiple languages:
Plastic Pollution Facts and Figures (English)
Rise Above Plastics: Nombres et faits (Français)

Plastic Production and Properties

  • The amount of plastic produced from 2000 - 2010 exceeds the amount produced during the entire last century.[1]
  • An estimated 8,300 million metric tons (Mt) of plastics had been produced as of mid-2017. As of 2015, approximately 6,300 Mt of plastic waste had been generated, around 9% of which had been recycled, 12% incinerated, and 79% accumulated in landfills or the natural environment.[2]
  • In heavily polluted areas of the marine environment, like the North Pacific Central Gyre, the mass of plastic is up to six times greater than the mass of plankton.[3]
  • The surge in natural gas fracking has helped drive the increase in "cracking" facilities, used to manufacture plastics. Many are still in construction, meaning instead of reducing our plastic production, we are increasing the capacity to produce millions of tons more. For additional information, check out this article.
  • The catastrophic Hurricane Harvey and subsequent flooding in late August and early September 2017 forced closures of oil and gas processing plants that manufacture the main component of plastic, ethylene, reducing the United States ethylene capacity by an estimated 45%, and polyethylene capacity by 36%.[4]
  • In 2010, about 690,000 tons of high density poly-ethylene (HDPE) plastic "bags, sacks and wraps" were generated in the United States, but only 4.3% of this total was recycled.[5]
  • Plastics do not biodegrade, but instead break down into small particles that persist in the ocean, absorb toxins, and enter our food chain through fish, sea birds and other marine life.[6]
  • As established by the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, over 10,000 chemicals are legally allowed to come into contact with food in the US, including being added directly to recipes or indirectly by being added to food storage vessels. 1,000 of these chemicals are not FDA approved, but are determined to be "generally recognized as safe" (GRAS).[7]
  • "Compounds of concern" (high risk to human health) that are allowed to come in contact with food mainly through plastic packaging include bisphenols, phthalates, nonpersistent pesticides, perfluoroalkyl chemicals (PFCs), and perchlorate.[8]

Plastics in the Ocean

  • Plastic is the most common type of marine litter worldwide.[9] [10]
  • Up to 80% of the plastic in our oceans comes from land-based sources.[11] [12] [13] An estimated 5-13 million tons of plastic enter our oceans each year from land-based sources.[14]
  • The Gulf of Mexico contains some of the highest concentrations of microplastics worldwide, with the majority of which being plastic microfibers. Researchers hypothesize the large drainage basin of the Mississippi River, which outflows into the Gulf, is the main transporter of land based plastics.[15]
  • Over 50% of plastic entering the ocean comes from just five developing countries where there is a lack of waste management capacity.[16]
  • Plastics comprise up to 90% of floating marine debris.[17]
  • By 2025, for every three tons of finfish swimming in the oceans, there could be one ton of plastic in marine waters.[18] Projections indicate that by 2050, the ration of fish to plastics could be 1:1. [19]
  • Plastic debris in the area popularly known as the "Great Pacific Garbage Patch" has increased by 100 times in the past 40 years.[20] Scientists have calculated that 275 million metric tons (MT) of plastic waste was generated in 192 coastal countries in 2010, with 4.8 to 12.7 million MT entering the ocean. [21]
  • At least 5.25 trillion plastic particles weighing 268,940 tons are currently floating at sea.[22]

Plastics on Your Plate

  • Several studies on plastic microfibers and nanoplastics have indicated that these particles are able to be ingested by marine animals and bioaccumulate up the food chain, carrying with them adhered chemicals and toxins, posing health impacts to both wildlife and human consumers of seafood.[23] [24] [25]
  • Researchers who analyzed sea salt sold in China found between 550 and 681 microplastic particles per kilogram of sea salt.[26]

Impacts to Marine Wildlife

  • 50 to 80 percent of dead sea turtles have ingested plastic. Plastic bags, which resemble jellyfish, are the most commonly found item in sea turtles’ stomachs.[27]
  • Researchers found that 80 percent of seabird species that spend most of their time at sea (of the order Procellariformes), which include petrels, albatross, and shearwaters, have plastic in their stomaches.[28] [29] [30] This means that they are likely regurgitating plastic into chicks when feeding, reducing the amount of essential nutrients needed for successful development.
Cartoon by Max Gustafson
  • Commercial fish, such as Opah and Bigeye Tuna, consume plastic,[31] which could significantly reduce global populations.[32] A University of Hawaii study reports “[i]n the two [Opah] species found in Hawaiian waters, 58 percent of the small-­‐eye opah and 43 percent of the big-­‐eye opah had ingested some kind of debris.”
  • Impacts of marine debris have been reported for 663 marine wildlife species. Over half of these reports documented entanglement in and ingestion of marine debris. Over 80% of the impacts were associated with plastic debris. [33][34]
  • Recent studies estimate that fish off the West Coast ingest over 12,000 tons of plastic a year.[35] [36]
  • In Indonesia, anthropogenic (human caused) debris was found in 28% of individual fish and in 55% of all species. Similarly, in California, anthropogenic debris was found in 25% of individual fish and in 67% of all species. All of the anthropogenic debris recovered from fish in Indonesia was plastic, whereas anthropogenic debris recovered from fish in the USA was primarily fibers.[37]

Plastic Bags

  • Cleanup of plastic bags is costly. California spends an estimated $25 million annually to landfill discarded plastic bags, and public agencies spend more than $500 million annually in litter cleanup.[38] [39]
  • Plastic bags are problematic in the litter stream because they float easily in the air and water, traveling long distances and never fully breaking down in water.
  • According to preliminary results from the 2017 International Coastal Cleanup Day (ICCD), the amount of plastic bags found and collected from California beaches and waterways was 82% less than the amount of plastic bags found and collected in California during the 2010 ICCD. Additionally. the percent that plastic bags made up of the total litter collected went from 7.4 to just 1.5.[40]

Plastic Bottles

  • Producing the plastic bottles for American consumption of bottled water in 2006 required 3 liters of water to produce each 1 liter of bottled water. Production of these water bottles also required the equivalent of more than 17 million barrels of oil, not including the energy for transportation.[41]
  • For two years in a row (2016 & 2017), plastic bottled water has surpassed soft drinks to become the most popular bottled beverage in the United States, by volume. 12.8 billion gallons of bottled water were consumed in 2015.[42] In 2017, the average per capita consumption of bottled water was 42 gallons per person.[43]
  • In 2016, the total plastic bottle recycling collection rate in the United States decreased to 29.7%, compared to 2015, thats a decrease of 1.4% (71 million pounds of plastic bottles).[44]
  • The US recycling collection rate of plastic bottles is less than 30% (29.7%), which translates to roughly 6.88 billion plastic bottles that were littered or went into a landfill in 2016. Additionally, only 3 of the 7 types of resins used for plastic bottles are readily recyclable due to economic returns. PET and HDPE are the most commonly recycled and used plastic resins (jointly account for 98% of recycled plastic bottles), followed by PP (1.3%).[45]

Plastic-like Alternatives

  • Crab shells & cellulose: PET is one of the most common plastics used for packaging. Scientists have recently developed a new alternative to PET made completely from natural, renewable, low impact ingredients including chitin (crab shells) and tree material (cellulose). Initial tests are showing that this new substance is actually more effective than PET at sealing goods and preventing oxygen exposure.[46]
  • Mushrooms/ mycelium: A mushroom-sourced plastic product is being developed by the company, Ecovative, named mResin. The resin is developed from mycelium, a mushroom like fungus that creates a substance that replicates styrofoam.[47]

For even more facts and figures - and solutions(!) see this Plastics Solutions Briefing Booklet prepared by Surfrider Foundation and UCLA’s Frank G. Wells Environmental Law Clinic.


  1. Thompson, R.C. 2009. “Plastics, the environment and human health: current consensus and future trends”, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B-Biological Sciences. Vol. 364, No. 1526, Pp. 2153-2166.
  2. Geyer, R., Jambeck, J.R. & Law, K.L. 2017. "Production, use, and fate of all plastics ever made", Science Advances, Vol. 3, No. 7.
  3. Moore, C.J., Moore, S.L., Leecaster, M.K., & Weisberg, S.B. 2001. "A Comparison of Plastic and Plankton in the North Pacific Central Gyre", Marine Pollution Bulletin, Vol. 42, No. 12, Pp. 1297-1300.
  4. Joseph Chang. 2017. "Massive US Petchem capacities knocked out from Harvey", ICIS Chemical Business.
  5. United States Environmental Protection Agency, December 2011. Web. 23 Feb 2012.
  6. Williams, Caroline. "Battle of the Bag." New Scientist. (2004): Print.
  7. Trasande, L., Shaffer, R.M. & Sathyanarayana, S. 2018. Food Additives and Child Health. American Academy of Pediatrics, Council on Environmental Health. Pediatrics.
  8. Trasande, L., Shaffer, R.M. & Sathyanarayana, S. 2018. Food Additives and Child Health. American Academy of Pediatrics, Council on Environmental Health. Pediatrics.
  9. Derraik, J.G.B. “The pollution of the marine environment by plastic debris: a review.” Marine Pollution Bulletin 44. (2002): 843.
  10. Gregory, M.R., Ryan, P.G. “Pelagic plastics and other seaborne persistent synthetic debris: a review of Southern Hemisphere perspectives.” Marine Debris – Sources, Impacts and Solutions. Ed. J.M. Coe, D.B. Rogers. New York: Springer-Verlag, 1997, pp. 4, 9-66.
  11. California Ocean Protection Council. An Implementation Strategy for the California Ocean Protection Council Resolution to Reduce and Prevent Ocean Litter. 2008. 3.
  12. "Ships Set Sail to Examine the Vast Patch of PLastic in the Pacific Ocean." 80beats. Discover, 08/03/2009. Web.
  13. “Marine Debris." California Coastal Cleanup Day, Web.
  14. Plastic waste inputs from land into the ocean, Jenna R. Jambeck, Roland Geyer, Chris Wilcox, Theodore R. Siegler, Miriam Perryman, Anthony Andrady, Ramani Narayan, and Kara Lavender Law, Science 13 February 2015: 347 (6223), 768-771.
  15. Abundant plankton-sized microplastic particles in shelf water of the northern Gulf of Mexico, Rosana Di Mauro, Matthew J. Kupchik, and Mark C. Benfield, Environmental Pollution November 2017: 230, 798-809.
  16. Plastic waste inputs from land into the ocean, Jenna R. Jambeck, Roland Geyer, Chris Wilcox, Theodore R. Siegler, Miriam Perryman, Anthony Andrady, Ramani Narayan, and Kara Lavender Law, Science 13 February 2015: 347 (6223), 768-771.
  17. United Nations. Marine Litter: An Analytical Overview. , Web. 14 Feb 2011.
  18. Plastic waste inputs from land into the ocean, Jenna R. Jambeck, Roland Geyer, Chris Wilcox, Theodore R. Siegler, Miriam Perryman, Anthony Andrady, Ramani Narayan, and Kara Lavender Law, Science 13 February 2015: 347 (6223), 768-771.
  19. 2015-2025 projection of plastics in the ocean based on an estimated stock of 150 million tonnes in 2015 (Ocean Conservancy and McKinsey Center for Business and Environment, Stemming the Tide (2015)), estimated annual leakage rates of plastics into the ocean by Jambeck et al. of 8 million tonnes in 2010 and 9.1 million tonnes in 2015 (J. R. Jambeck et al., Plastic waste inputs from land into the ocean (Science, 2015), taken from the middle scenario), and annual growth in leakage flows of plastics into the ocean of 5% up to 2025 (conservatively taken below the 6.8% annual growth rate in ocean plastics leakage into the ocean between 2015 and 2025 as estimated in Plastic waste inputs from land into the ocean, middle scenario). 2025-2050 projections based on a plastics leakage into the ocean growth rate of 3.5% p.a., in line with long-term GDP growth estimates (International Energy Agency, World Energy Outlook 2015 (2015))
  22. Eriksen M, Lebreton LCM, Carson HS, Thiel M, Moore CJ, et al. (2014) Plastic Pollution in the World's Oceans: More than 5 Trillion Plastic Pieces Weighing over 250,000 Tons Afloat at Sea. PLoS ONE 9(12): e111913. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0111913
  23. Samarth Bhargava, Serina Siew Chen Lee, Lynette Shu Min Ying, Mei Lin Neo, Serena Lay-Ming Teo, Suresh Valiyaveettil. Fate of Nanoplastics in Marine Larvae: A Case Study Using Barnacles, Amphibalanus amphitrite. ACS Sustainable Chemistry & Engineering, 2018; 6 (5): 6932.
  24. Ruilong Li, Huadong Tan, Linlin Zhang, Shaopeng Wang, Yinghui Wang, Kefu Yu, The implications of water extractable organic matter (WEOM) on the sorption of typical parent, alkyl and N/O/S-containing polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) by microplastics, Ecotoxicology and Environmental Safety, Volume 156, 30 July 2018, Pages 176-182, ISSN 0147-6513.
  25. Matthew B. Khan, Robert S. Prezant. Microplastic abundances in a mussel bed and ingestion by the ribbed marsh mussel Geukensia demissa, Marine Pollution Bulletin, Volume 130, May 2018, Pages 67-75.
  26. Dongqi Yang, Huahong Shi, Lan Li, Jiana Li, Khalida Jabeen, and Prabhu Kolandhasamy, Microplastic Pollution in Table Salts from China, Env. Sci.& Tech. 2015, DOI: 10.1021/acs.est.5b03163
  27. N. Mrosovsky, Leatherback Turtles: The Menace of Plastic, 58 MARINE POLLUTION BULLETIN 287 (2009).
  28. Robards, M.D., Piatt, J.F. & Wohl, K.D. 1995. Increasing frequency of plastic particles ingested by seabirds in the subarctic north Pacific. Marine Pollution Bulletin 30: 151-157.
  29. Ryan, P.G. 2008. Seabirds indicate changes in the composition of plastic litter in the Atlantic and south-western Indian Oceans. Marine Pollution Bulletin 56: 1406-1409.
  30. Acampora, H., Schuyler Q.A., Townsend, K.A. & Hardesty, B.D. 2014. Comparing plastic ingestion in juvenile and adult stranded short-tailed shearwaters (Puffinus tenuirostris) in eastern Australia. Marine Pollution Bulletin 78: 63-68.
  31. C. Anela Choy & Jeffery C. Drazen, Plastic for Dinner? Observations of Frequent Debris Ingestion by Pelagic Predatory Fishes from the Central North Pacific, 485 MARINE ECOLOGY PROGRESS SERIES 155 (2013), at 161
  32. Christiana M. Boerger et al., Plastic Ingestion by Planktivorous Fishes in the North Pacific Central Gyre, 60 MARINE POLLUTION BULLETIN 2275, 2277 (2010).
  33. Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity and the Scientific and Technical Advisory Panel—GEF (2012). Impacts of Marine Debris on Biodiversity: Current Status and Potential Solutions, Montreal, Technical Series No. 67, 61 pages.
  34. Plastic waste inputs from land into the ocean, Jenna R. Jambeck, Roland Geyer, Chris Wilcox, Theodore R. Siegler, Miriam Perryman, Anthony Andrady, Ramani Narayan, and Kara Lavender Law, Science 13 February 2015: 347 (6223), 768-771.
  35. Davison P, Asch RG (2011) Plastic ingestion by mesopelagic fishes in the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre. Mar Ecol Prog Ser 432:173-180
  37. Rochman, C. M. et al. Anthropogenic debris in seafood: Plastic debris and fibers from textiles in fish and bivalves sold for human consumption. Sci. Rep. 5, 14340.
  38. Californians Against Waste. "The Problem of Plastic Bags."
  39. Stickel, B.H., A. Jahn and W. Kier 2012. The Cost to West Coast Communities of Dealing with Trash, Reducing Marine Debris. Prepared by Kier Associates for U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Region 9, pursuant to Order for Services EPG12900098, 21 p. + appendices.
  40. Ocean Conservancy. 2018. California Coastal Cleanup Day – Litter Data Summary 2010 - 2017. Trash Information and Data for Education and Solutions (TIDES) and International Coastal Cleanup Data Collection & Reporting Tool. PDF available at
  41. Pacific Institute Fact Sheet, 2007.
  42. Beverage Marketing Corporation. 2017. Press Release: Bottled Water Becomes Number-One Beverage in the U.S.
  43. Beverage Marketing Corporation. 2018. IBWA Press Release: Consumers Reaffirm Bottled Water is America's Favorite Drink.
  44. The American Chemical Council and The Association of Plastic Recyclers. 2017. 2016 United States National Postconsumer Plastic Bottle Recycling Report.
  45. The American Chemical Council and The Association of Plastic Recyclers. 2017. 2016 United States National Postconsumer Plastic Bottle Recycling Report.
  46. Satam, C.C., Irvin, C.W., Lang, A.W., Jallorina, J.C., Shofner, M.L., Reynolds, J.R. & Meredith, J.C. 2018. Spray-Coated Multilayer Cellulose Nanocrystal—Chitin Nanofiber Films for Barrier Applications. ACS Sustainable Chemistry & Engineering.
  47. Kadirgamar, S. 2017. Company uses mushrooms to grow plastic alternatives. JStor Daily.