Even though plastic hasn’t been around for very long—its widespread production and use having started only after World War II—the exponential growth in single-use plastic has quickly turned this material into an environmental threat. Plastic pollution impacts ecosystems, wildlife, and humans. Oceans and marine wildlife are suffering the most negative effects.
Oceans act as the “ultimate sink” for plastic pollution. Around 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic debris reside in our oceans. Nearly 269,000 tons of plastic are floating on the oceans’ surfaces, while 4 billion plastic microfibers per square kilometer currently pollute the deep sea.
Single-use plastic (found in straws, bottles, and shopping bags) makes up 50% of total plastic production. Roughly 500 billion plastic bags are used each year worldwide. This means that around one million single-use bags are used every minute throughout the planet, and that, on average, every person uses 150 bags every year. If you joined them all end to end, one could circle the globe 4,200 times!
These numbers alone already paint a horrible picture: ocean surfaces and the deep sea are at risk. We have gathered some additional facts and statistics regarding the negative impact that plastic has on our oceans in order to raise awareness of this critical issue and how we need to actively protect our marine ecosystems.
Facts about plastic:
• Plastic constitutes 80% of all marine debris.
• There are approximately 46,000 pieces of plastic debris in every square mile of ocean.
• Between 13,000 and 15,000 pieces of plastic are dumped into the ocean around the world each day.
• Plastic bags are the top man-made object found in the ocean by sailors.
• The cost of recycling 1 ton of plastic bags is USD $4,000. The resulting product can be sold for USD $32, making the recycling of bags not a viable process.
• It can take from 20 to 1,000 years for a plastic bag to deteriorate. During this process, the plastic breaks down into smaller pieces and releases chemical toxins, which poses a big threat to ocean wildlife and humans.
• Shopping with your family 4 times is enough to use 60 plastic bags.
• At least 6.4 million tons of plastic are thrown into the ocean every year. That’s like having a 3,200-kilometer line of fully loaded garbage trucks toss the garbage into the ocean.
• 17 million barrels of oil (or 340 million gallons of gasoline) are used each year to produce bottled water. Bottled water production and transport is responsible for the emission of an amount of greenhouse gases hundreds of times higher than the amount generated by filling a glass of water from the tap.
Consequences of plastic pollution:
• The planet has five gyres (large rotating ocean currents). These gyres, where fish and other marine animals find their food, have a high concentration of plastic particles.
• 100,000 marine animals die every year as a result of plastic entanglement, and plastic causes the death of 1 million seabirds annually.
• At least two-thirds of the global fish population has been affected by plastic ingestion.
• Because plastic takes so long to break down into smaller pieces, a single plastic bag can kill several animals.
• Ocean acidification is increasing, and it has been linked to plastic pollution.
• 200 areas have now been declared by scientists as “dead zones,” meaning that life cannot exist there anymore.
• Approximately 3 billion pounds of non-recycled plastic bottles end up in landfills each year.
Plastic pollution around the world:
• Drains clogged with plastic bags worsened the floods in Bangladesh in 1988 and 1998. Bangladesh became the first country in the world to ban single-use plastic bags in 2002.
• Ireland introduced a tax on plastic bags (EUR 0.15) in 2002, which led to a 90% drop in plastic bag use.
• China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam, and Sri Lanka are the top 5 countries polluting the ocean with plastic. Together, they are responsible for approximately 60% of the total plastic pollution.
• Americans consume 8.6 billion gallons of bottled water each year. Global annual consumption is estimated at 53 billion gallons (or 563 billion plastic water bottles).
• On average, only 1 in every 5 plastic bottles is recycled. Australia recycles 36% of PET bottles.