Plastic debris collected by NOAA staff and volunteers on the Midway Atoll in the Pacific ocean. Holly Richards / USFWS / Flickr

20 Facts About Our Plastic-Packed Planet and 9 Ways to Help

Plastic is moldable, durable, and its versatility means it's everywhere and in everything from computers to medical devices. Its benefits are impossible to deny, but our relationship to this marvelous material is ultimately an unhealthy one. We undervalue and overuse plastic and in turn overdispose of it.

Our plastic addiction has created a dilemma that has made plastic an indispensable part of the modern world while simultaneously contaminating the oceans, choking landfills and even harming our health.

Each year humans send an estimated eight million metric tons of plastic out to sea. Our massive waste management problem means that pound for pound, humans are on pace to fill oceans with more plastic than there are fish by 2050.

Around the globe a million plastic bottles are bought and sold every 60 seconds, on average. This figure will spike another 20 percent by 2021. Last year, 480 billion plastic drinking bottles were consumed around the world. To put this into perspective, if placed end to end, the water bottles produced in 2016 would reach more than halfway to the sun.

Plastic is so pervasive that it has even made its way into the food chain and our drinking water. Scientists at Ghent University in Belgium calculated that the average European shellfish consumer eats up to 6,400 microplastics per year. Similarly, 83 percent of tap water samples in a recent investigation were found to contain microplastics.

So, let's break down some the staggering figures surrounding this ubiquitous material and what its presence means for the planet:

  • Fewer than half of the bottles bought in 2016 were collected for recycling and only seven percent of those collected were turned into new bottles.
  • In 2016, Coca Cola increased its production of single-use bottles by more than a billion, according to an analysis by Greenpeace.
  • Coca Cola alone produces 3,400 bottles a second.
  • Half of all plastic becomes trash within a year.
  • A recent study found that plastic was found in nearly a third of UK-caught fish.
  • Even uninhabited islands in the pacific are polluted by plastic. In 2017, marine scientists found that Henderson Island, a tiny island in the South Pacific, was covered by roughly 18 tons of plastic.
  • More than 200 animal species have been documented consuming plastic, including turtles, whales, seal, birds and fish.
  • 90 percent of seabirds eat plastic and nearly every seabird will consume it by 2050, according to a 2016 study.
  • The U.S. has the world's highest rate of microplastic water contamination—94.4 percent of tap water samples contained plastic fibers, which are known to contain and absorb toxic chemicals.
  • Europe, which was found to have the lowest rate of microplastic water contamination, had a contamination rate of 72.2 percent.
  • In 2017, the European chemicals agency decided that BPA was an "endocrine disruptor."
  • More than 90 percent of the world's population have traces of BPA in their urine sample.
  • Although we know about the pervasiveness of plastic, very little is understood about the effects of its consumption, a phenomenon that nearly all humans are a part of.
  • In the Los Angeles area alone, 10 metric tons of plastic fragments—grocery bags, straws and soda bottles—are carried into the Pacific Ocean every day.
  • Billions of pounds of plastic can be found in swirling convergences in about 40 percent of the world's ocean surfaces.
  • The production of plastic uses around eight percent of the world's oil production, according to estimates.
  • The heart of the Great Garbage Patch in the Pacific Ocean is thought to be around 386,000 square miles, with the periphery spanning a further 1,351,000 square miles. According to the UN Environmental Programme, the patch is becoming visible from space.

What can be done to scale back this problem?

  • Pressure politicians. While day-to-day actions are important, ultimately macro policies are needed to make meaningful change. Governments should be funding research into microplastics and regulating and incentivizing changes in plastic production and consumption.
  • Complain to retailers. Pressure retailers to do away with over-packaging.
  • Support plastic bag bans, polystyrene foam bans and bottle recycling bills.
  • Use natural clothing fiber rather than synthetic clothing, as synthetic cloth releases plastic fiber in every wash cycle.
  • Choose to reuse. Neither plastic shopping bags nor plastic water bottles can be easily recycled.
  • Deposit return schemes are highly effective ways to reduce plastic bottle waste. In Germany, where a bottle-return program is in place, nearly 98 percent of plastic bottles are returned.
  • Recycle. If you must use plastic, try to choose #1 (PETE) or #2 (HDPE), which are the most commonly recycled plastics.
  • Avoid plastic bags and polystyrene foam as both typically have very low recycling rates.
  • Seek out alternatives to the plastic items that you rely on.
Show Comments ()
Solar shade canopies. University of Hawaii

This College Could Become the First 100% Renewable Campus in U.S.

As a growing number of U.S. cities make pledges towards 100 percent renewables, it's easy to forget that the entire state of Hawaii set this important benchmark three years ago when it mandated that all of its electricity must come from renewable sources no later than 2045.

To help the Aloha State meet this ambitious commitment, in 2015, the University of Hawaii (UH) and the Hawaiian Legislature set a collective goal for the university system to be "net-zero" by Jan. 1, 2035, which means the total amount of energy consumed is equal to the amount of renewable energy created.

Keep reading... Show less

Silver Nanoparticles in Clothing Wash Out, May Be Toxic

By Sukalyan Sengupta and Tabish Nawaz

Humans have known since ancient times that silver kills or stops the growth of many microorganisms. Hippocrates, the father of medicine, is said to have used silver preparations for treating ulcers and healing wounds. Until the introduction of antibiotics in the 1940s, colloidal silver (tiny particles suspended in a liquid) was a mainstay for treating burns, infected wounds and ulcers. Silver is still used today in wound dressings, in creams and as a coating on medical devices.

Keep reading... Show less
4.4 million premature air pollution deaths could be avoided in Kolkata if emissions are reduced swiftly this century. M M / CC BY-SA 2.0

Study Finds Timely Emissions Reductions Could Prevent 153 Million Air Pollution Deaths This Century

One of the roadblocks to swift action on climate change is the human brain's tendency to focus on threats and stimuli that are an obvious and noticeable part of their everyday lives, rather than an abstract and future problem, as Amit Dhir explained in The Decision Lab.

Now, a study published in Nature Climate Change Monday shows that acting quickly to curb greenhouse gas emissions would also reduce the air pollution that is already a major urban killer, thereby saving millions of lives within the next 40 years.

Keep reading... Show less
Lands threatened by BLM's March 2018 sale include Hatch Point. Neal Clark / SUWA

Trump Administration Sells Oil and Gas Leases Near Utah National Monuments

The Interior Department on Tuesday is auctioning off 32 parcels of public lands in southeastern Utah for oil and gas development.

The Bureau of Land Management's (BLM) lease sale includes more than 51,000 acres of land near Bears Ears—the national monument significantly scaled back by the Trump administration last year—as well as the Hovenweep and Canyons of the Ancients monuments.

Keep reading... Show less
Katharine Hayhoe talks climate communication hacks at the Natural Products Expo West Convention. Climate Collaborative

Katharine Hayhoe Reveals Surprising Ways to Talk About Climate Change

By Katie O'Reilly

Katharine Hayhoe isn't your typical atmospheric scientist. Throughout her career, the evangelical Christian and daughter of missionaries has had to convince many (including her pastor husband) that science and religion need not be at odds when it comes to climate change. Hayhoe, who directs Texas Tech's University's Climate Science Center, is CEO of ATMOS Research, a scientific consulting company, and produces the PBS Kids' web series Global Weirding, rose to national prominence in early 2012 after then-presidential candidate Newt Gingrich dropped her chapter from a book he was editing about the environment. The reason? Hayhoe's arguments affirmed that climate change was no liberal hoax. The Toronto native attracted the fury of Rush Limbaugh, who encouraged his listeners to harass her.

Keep reading... Show less
Rising Tide NA / Twitter

Kinder Morgan Pipeline Protest Grows: Arrests Include a Greenpeace Founder, Juno-Nominated Grandfather

By Andy Rowell

Just because you get older, it doesn't mean you cannot stop taking action for what you believe in. And Monday was a case in point. Two seventy-year-olds, still putting their bodies on the line for environmental justice and indigenous rights.

Early Monday morning, the first seventy-year-old, a grandfather of two, and former nominee for Canada's Juno musical award, slipped into Kinder Morgan's compound at one of its sites for the controversial Trans Mountain pipeline and scaled a tree and then erected a mid-air platform with a hammock up in the air.

Keep reading... Show less

The Grapes of Trash

By Marlene Cimons

German monk and theologian Martin Luther probably said it best: "Beer is made by men, wine by God." It's true—the world loves its wine. Americans, in fact, downed close to a billion gallons of it in 2016. But winemakers create a lot of waste when they produce all that vino, most of it in seeds, stalks and skins.

Keep reading... Show less

Why Mike Pompeo Could Be Even Worse for the Environment Than Rex Tillerson

By Kelle Louaillier

As Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson was one of the most blatant revolving-door cases in the Trump administration and a clear sign that Trump's government was of, by and for the fossil fuel industry. But make no mistake: Mike Pompeo could be far worse.

Keep reading... Show less


The best of EcoWatch, right in your inbox. Sign up for our email newsletter!