Plastic Pollution Facts and Figures

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As new research on the production, life cycle, and impacts of plastic debris become available, Surfrider Foundation continues to assemble this list of credible plastic pollution statistics and figures, sourced mainly from peer-reviewed, published studies. Though many of the figures are estimates, their approved calculation methodologies are provided in the cited literature.

The more we learn, the more it becomes clear that the issue of marine and coastal plastic pollution is severe and widespread. Fortunately, the education and engagement of passionate coastal defenders, citizens, and community members can help stop the flow of plastic at the source, by switching to reusables and supporting legislation that bans the production and use of single-use plastic.

Plastic Production

  • Plastic production, first developed in the 19th century soared during the 20th century, from 2 million metric tons in 1950 to 348 million metric tons in 2017, and is expected to double in capacity yet again by 2040.[1]
  • An estimated 8.3 billion metric tons of plastics had been produced as of mid-2017.[2]
  • Plastic is problematic throughout its whole lifecycle - from the point of raw material extraction to its eventual disposal and dispersion. Roughly two-thirds of all plastic ever produced remains in the environment today—either as pollution in oceans and other landscapes, as microparticles in air, soil, and rain, or as microparticles in humans and animals.[3]
  • A 2019 study found that 79% of incinerators are located in black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) communities and the pollutant fumes produced by incinerating plastic have toxic effects when inhaled.[4]
  • At current levels, greenhouse gas emissions from the plastic lifecycle threaten the ability of the global community to keep global temperature rise below 1.5°C degrees. By 2050, the greenhouse gas emissions from plastic alone could reach over 56 gigatons — 10-13% of the entire remaining carbon budget.[5]
  • 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 2017 article and this 2019 NPR interview.
  • In 2015, about 730,000 tons of high density poly-ethylene (HDPE) plastic "bags, sacks and wraps" were generated in the United States, but only 5.5% of this total was recycled. In total, 4.1 million tons of plastic "bags, sacks, and wraps" were generated (including PS, PP, HDPE, PVC, & LDPE) with a recycling rate of just 12.8%[6] With an average weight of 5.3 grams, that's over 126 billion plastic grocery bags (HDPE bags) produced in the US in 2015. Using the 2015 US population of 321 million people, that's an average of 390 bags used per US resident, annually.
  • A 2017 Technomic industry report estimated that 170-175 million plastic straws are used each day in the United States, totaling to nearly 63 billion straws used annually.[7]
  • 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.[8]
  • 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.[9] In 2017, the average per capita consumption of bottled water was 42 gallons per person.[10]


Why We Can’t Recycle our way out of the Plastic Pollution Crisis

  • As of 2015, approximately 6.3 billon metric tons of plastic waste had been generated, only about 9% of which had been recycled, 12% incinerated, and 79% accumulated in landfills or the natural environment.[11]
  • For over 25 years, the U.S. has been sending massive amounts of plastic waste to China rather than recycling domestically since it was more economical to send it away. Seventy percent of U.S. materials were sold and shipped to Chinese processors.[12]
  • Recycled plastics often lose aesthetic or performance due to common additives like flame retardants and plasticizers. To increase the efficacy of recycling, a new plastic material is being designed with recycling in mind, called PDK (poly(diketoenamine)).[13]
  • In 2016, the total plastic bottle recycling collection rate in the United States decreased to 29.7%, compared to 2015, that's a decrease of 1.4% (71 million pounds of plastic bottles).[14]
  • 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%).[15]
  • In 2017, China announced a strict “National Sword” policy and U.S. recyclers no longer had a consistent buyer for low-grade plastics.[16]
  • China’s import of scrap plastic dropped from 12.6 billion pounds in 2017 to 110 million pounds in 2018.[17]


Plastics in the Ocean

  • Plastic is the most common type of marine litter worldwide.[18]
  • Up to 80% of marine litter is plastic.[19]
  • Plastic waste is entering the ocean at rate of about 11 million metric tons a year and could grow to 29 million metric tons over the next 20 years.[20]
  • By 2025, 11 billion metric tons of plastic are projected to accumulate in the environment.[21]
  • The extremely remote island archipelago, Cocos Keeling Islands in the Indian Ocean, is smothered in ocean plastics, with an estimated 14 million plastic items, weighing 238 tonnes, on local beaches. Single-use items such as bottle caps and straws were the most commonly found item, but staggering numbers of other trash items were also found, including 977,000 shoes and 373,000 toothbrushes.[22]
  • Up to 80% marine litter is plastic[23] and comes from land-based sources.[24]
  • An estimated 8.75 million metric tons (9.65 million tons) of plastic enter our oceans each year from land-based sources (range is 4.8 to 12.7 million metric tons).[25]
  • Once plastic enters the marine environment, it breaks into tiny fragments that are crippling marine ecosystems, disrupting the food chain [26] and accelerating climate change.[27]
  • At least 640,000 tons of "ghost gear" from the fishing industry enter the ocean each year, most of which is plastic.[28]
  • 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.[29]
  • As of November 2018, the highest concentrations of microplastics in deep marine sediments are found in the Arctic, likely transported there from distant sources by ocean currents.[30]
  • Over 50% of plastic entering the ocean comes from just five developing countries where there is a lack of waste management capacity.[31]
  • Plastics comprise up to 90% of floating marine debris.[32]
  • "Based on abundance (count per square kilometer), 90% of all plastic debris in the Great Lakes pelagic environment is micro plastic (<5mm)."[33]
  • By 2025, for every three tons of finfish swimming in the oceans, there could be one ton of plastic in marine waters.[34] Projections indicate that by 2050, the ration of fish to plastics could be 1:1. [35]
  • Plastic debris in the area popularly known as the "Great Pacific Garbage Patch" has increased by 100 times in the past 40 years.[36] 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. [37]
  • At least 5.25 trillion plastic particles weighing 268,940 tons are currently floating at sea.[38]
  • Cleanup of plastic debris is costly. Public agencies spend more than $500 million annually in litter cleanup.[39]
  • Texas beaches experience 10x more plastic marine debris accumulation than other North Central Gulf states.[40]
  • 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.
  • Seabirds are at such high risk of plastic consumption that the level of plastics in their stomaches is used as an indicator of ocean ecosystem health by the Oslo and Paris Convention in the North Sea. As of 2017, 60 percent of fulmar seabirds have 0.1 grams plastic or more in their stomaches, which is six times the target threshold.[41]


Plastics in Our Food, Drinks, and Air

  • Microplastics have recently been found in fruits and vegetables, with the highest concentration in apples (233,000 plastic particles per gram of apple), resulting in estimated daily intake of 462,000 plastic particles for adults, and 1,410,000 plastic particles for children.[42]
  • Over 1000 metric tons of plastic are deposited from the air on to protected lands in the Western US each year. That's 132 plastic particles deposited per square meter per day! [43]
  • 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).[44] Many of these intentionally used chemicals have not been tested for hazard properties.[45]
  • "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.[46]
  • People who frequently dine out at restaurants, fast food establishments and cafeterias have 35-55% higher pthalate levels than people who prepare food at home.[47]
  • Increasing levels of toxic chemical consumption and exposure, including toxic chemicals commonly used in plastics, have been linked to reduced sperm counts, and projected to cause infertility to 4 out of 5 men by 2040.[48]
  • 97% of children tested had plastic byproducts in their blood and urine samples, with high levels of the toxic chemical PFOA. *Research report has not yet been shared from German Environment Ministry.[49]
  • 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.[50] [51] [52]
  • 93% of bottled water tested contain microplastics. A total of 259 bottles from 11 brands were purchased from 19 locations in 9 countries. An average of 325 microplastic particles (larger than 6.5 micrometers) were found per liter of bottle water (ranging from 0 to 10,000 particles per liter). Nestle bottled water contained the highest amount of plastic particles.[53]
  • An international study on microplastics in tap water found that 83% of the samples contained plastic microfibers (99.7% of plastics found were fibers). 159 water were samples collected and analyzed from five continents.[54]
  • In the United States, 94% of tap water samples contained plastic.[55]
  • Researchers who analyzed sea salt sold in China found between 550 and 681 microplastic particles per kilogram of sea salt.[56]
  • A test of 24 German beer brands found that 100% of samples contained microplastics. Microplastics identified included a range of fibers, particles, and granules.[57]
  • In 2019, a study in France confirmed the potential for atmospheric deposition of microplastics, documenting the deposition of 365 microplastics/square meter/day in a remote area of the French Pyreneese Mountains. Microplastics included particles, fibers, and films.[58]


Impacts to Marine Wildlife

  • Chemical leachates from plastic bags and PVC matting impair the growth of the world's most important microorganisms, Prochlorococcus, a marine bacteria that provides one tenth of the world's oxygen.[59]
  • 34 percent of dead leatherback sea turtles have ingested plastic. Plastic bags, which resemble jellyfish, are the most commonly found synthetic item in sea turtles’ stomachs.[60]
  • 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.[61] [62] [63] 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,[64] which could significantly reduce global populations.[65] 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. [66][67]
  • Recent studies estimate that fish off the West Coast ingest over 12,000 tons of plastic a year.[68] [69]
  • 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.[70]


Economic Costs of Plastic Litter and Marine Debris

  • The loss of ecosystem services is estimated to be between $3,300 and $33,000 per tonne of marine plastic each year.[71]
  • It is estimated that plastic marine debris has reduced the value of marine ecosystem services by 1-5%, which equates to a loss of $500–$2500 billion each year.[72]
  • The "natural capital cost", based on environmental impact, of consumer plastics is estimated at $75 billion each year. The "natural capital cost" of plastic litter that becomes marine debris is estimated at $13 billion each year.[73]


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.[74]
  • 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.[75]
  • Milk protein: Casein, a protein extracted from cow’s milk, has been shown in studies as a promising - if limited - alternative to low-density plastics (thin plastics like plastic bags). Casein is not very strong in and of itself as water can wash it away. Unfortunately, in one study, clay and formaldehyde were needed to strengthen its bonds.[76]
  • Chicken feathers: Chicken feathers are composed almost entirely of keratin, the same protein found in human hair and fingernails. Although many researchers have experimented over the years with keratin as a plastic-alternative, keratin falls apart easily when wet, and therefore hasn’t held much promise as a viable alternative. A 2011 study claims to have found a way. Unfortunately, to add strength to keratin’s bonds, a plasticizer called methyl acrylate (found in nail polish) had to be added.[77]
  • Seaweed sachets: A company in England is developing edible packaging made of seaweed. "Customers can eat the packaging — which has a slightly chewy texture, but little taste — or throw it away and it will biodegrade in about six weeks." As a trial, the creators are selling "juice shots" at a Department store in London, and have sold alcoholic drinks in these edible "cherry tomato-like" seaweed balls at festivals. Learn more here.


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.

References

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