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 and Properties

  • The amount of plastic produced from 2000 - 2010 exceeds the amount produced during the entire last century.[1]
  • An estimated 8.3 billion metric tons of plastics had been produced as of mid-2017.[2]
  • 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.[3]
  • 42% of non-fiber plastic produced is used for packaging. [4]
  • 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.[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 article.
  • 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.[6]
  • 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%[7] 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.
  • Plastics do not biodegrade in our lifetime, but instead break down into small particles that persist in the ocean, adsorb to toxins, and enter the food chain through fish, sea birds and other marine life.[8]
  • 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).[9]
  • "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.[10]
  • 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)).[11]
  • 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.[12]
  • 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.[13] In 2017, the average per capita consumption of bottled water was 42 gallons per person.[14]
  • 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).[15]
  • 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%).[16]


Plastics in the Ocean

  • Plastic is the most common type of marine litter worldwide.[17] [18]
  • 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.[19]
  • Up to 80% of marine litter is plastic.[20]
  • An estimated 9 million tons of plastic enter our oceans each year from land-based sources (range is 4.8 to 12.7 million metric tons).[21]
  • Once plastic enters the marine environment, it breaks into tiny fragments that are crippling marine ecosystems, disrupting the food chain [22] and accelerating climate change.[23]
  • Up to 80% of the plastic in our oceans comes from land-based sources.[24] [25]
  • At least 640,000 tons of "ghost gear" from the fishing industry enter the ocean each year, most of which is plastic.[26]
  • 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.[27]
  • 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.[28]
  • Over 50% of plastic entering the ocean comes from just five developing countries where there is a lack of waste management capacity.[29]
  • Plastics comprise up to 90% of floating marine debris.[30]
  • "Based on abundance (count per square kilometer), 90% of all plastic debris in the Great Lakes pelagic environment is micro plastic (<5mm)."[31]
  • By 2025, for every three tons of finfish swimming in the oceans, there could be one ton of plastic in marine waters.[32] Projections indicate that by 2050, the ration of fish to plastics could be 1:1. [33]
  • Plastic debris in the area popularly known as the "Great Pacific Garbage Patch" has increased by 100 times in the past 40 years.[34] 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. [35]
  • At least 5.25 trillion plastic particles weighing 268,940 tons are currently floating at sea.[36]
  • Cleanup of plastic debris is costly. Public agencies spend more than $500 million annually in litter cleanup.[37]
  • Texas beaches experience 10x more plastic marine debris accumulation than other North Central Gulf states.[38]
  • 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.


Plastics in Our Food, Drinks, and Air

  • 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.[39] [40] [41]
  • 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.[42]
  • State University of New York at Fredonia, Department of Geology & Environmental Sciences</ref>
  • 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.[43]
  • In the United States, 94% of tap water samples contained plastic.[44]
  • Researchers who analyzed sea salt sold in China found between 550 and 681 microplastic particles per kilogram of sea salt.[45]
  • A test of 24 German beer brands found that 100% of samples contained microplastics. Microplastics identified included a range of fibers, particles, and granules.[46]
  • 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.[47]


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.[48]
  • 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.[49]
  • 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.[50] [51] [52] 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,[53] which could significantly reduce global populations.[54] 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. [55][56]
  • Recent studies estimate that fish off the West Coast ingest over 12,000 tons of plastic a year.[57] [58]
  • 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.[59]


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.[60]
  • 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.[61]
  • 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.[62]


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.[63]
  • 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.[64]
  • 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.[65]
  • 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.[66]
  • 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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