15 Plastic Pollution Facts Showing We Aren’t Doing Enough

Plastic pollution is a severe problem. It is a global concern and a massive contributor to climate change. With this being said, it’s no secret that plastic is bad for the environment. Plastic is toxic to plants, animals, and humans. Plastic takes hundreds of years to break down and leaves microplastics behind. Those microplastics end up in plants and animals, and in turn, end up in us. We hear about the plastic pollution crisis on the news, scientific studies, articles (like this one 😂), and countless Netflix documentaries. 

Do you know how severe this crisis is though? Here are a couple of quick statistics:

  • 300 million tons of plastic are produced every year
  • 13 billion plastic bottles are thrown out yearly

Those statistics are quite staggering and are only a small glimpse into this global issue. A silver lining has emerged though; calls from consumers have put pressure on companies to reduce their plastic production. There have been efforts to ban plastic use in some countries. There have been pushes from policymakers to reduce single-use plastics. Lastly, there has been a recent trend over the past 10-20 years pushing for environmentally responsible choices in creating alternatives to traditional plastics. Some companies and brands are attempting to be more earth-friendly by reducing plastic use and phasing out bags and straws, among other efforts. 

However, it is not just retailers and producers that need to take responsibility for plastic pollution. Consumers must realize they have a part to play too. Here are some facts about plastic and plastic pollution so you can be more educated about the problem.

1. Less than 20% of all plastic produced is recycled. 

According to some accounts, up to 9 billion tons of plastic have been made since the 1950s. Also, most of this ends up in the trash rather than recycled. Of all the plastic that has been created, it is estimated we are only utilizing approximately 30% of it. As of 2018, the estimated ratio of plastic used vs plastic recycled is 3 million tons used to 8.7% recycled. It is noted that some types of plastic are recycled more than others. Clearly, we are not recycling nearly enough to combat plastic pollution. According to another report from 2015, up to only 9% of plastic is recycled and up to 12% is incinerated. This means there is around 87% or more of plastic polluting the earth in landfills, dumps, and bodies of water. 

2. Plastic bags are a bigger culprit of plastic pollution than you might realize.

Did you know that up to 1 trillion plastic bags are used worldwide every year? This breaks down to roughly 2 million bags used every minute globally. To combat this, some states in the US such as New York banned the use of plastic bags for groceries. We also have countries such as the UK that introduced a surcharge in 2015 for plastic bag use. This extra charge created an 83% drop in plastic bag use. We still have a long way to go to combat plastic pollution on the large scale. However, these steps are positive steps in the right direction.  

3. Single-use plastics can get you jail time in some countries. 

Back in 2017, Kenya introduced a law stating that anyone caught using plastic bags in any capacity risked a fee of up to $40,000 or up to four years imprisonment. Other countries such as China and France also have strict bans on single-use plastic, but Kenya still has one of the harsher punishments for selling, producing, or using plastics. Other notable countries with bans and laws in effect for plastic use are Italy, Russia, certain states within the US, and Rwanda. I don’t know about you, but I think I could live without a plastic bag or water bottle to save myself four years in prison or most of my yearly salary!

4. The very benefits of plastic are the biggest obstacles for us to overcome. 

What do I mean by this? Plastics have many benefits on the surface. Plastic is cost-effective for producers, plastic is durable, and plastic is very resistant to degradation. These are all great benefits if you want a cheap product that holds up well for a long period of time. However, these benefits work against you once the product it contains is used up. Once it is time to discard this plastic, the problem reveals itself. The materials that make plastic so durable also make it difficult for plastic to bioassimilate. It can take between 350-450 years for plastic to break down naturally. Even then, microplastics remain to contaminate whatever environment they get into. 

5. Plastic Pollution makes up 73% of worldwide beach litter.

National Geographic calculated that 73% of beach litter globally is plastic. This plastic pollution includes bottles, bags, lids and caps, wrappers, food containers, grocery bags, and more. I’m not sure about you, but I don’t like the idea of going to the beach and dealing with trash. 

6. Ocean plastic pollution is astronomical.

According to some studies, up to 32% of all plastic production ends up in our oceans annually. This equates to roughly 5 to 13 million metric tons every year. Plastics are believed to be found in every ocean basin on earth. We are basically putting a dump truck’s worth of garbage in our oceans every minute of the day with these numbers. How we haven’t killed off all life on this planet yet is astounding.

7. Packaging is the largest culprit of plastic pollution. 

Many sectors use plastics to some capacity. This includes healthcare, technology, communications, manufacturing, etc. The biggest culprit however is the packaging industry. Packaging is the largest market for plastics today. Packaging materials account for almost 50% of all plastic waste globally. What makes this worse is most of those materials will not get recycled or incinerated. 

8. Much of the plastic used today was produced recently.

Remember that plastic use really took off in the 1950s post world war 2? Well, what is truly shocking is nearly 50% of all plastic in the world today was created in the last 15-20 years. At this rate, by 2050 we would have tripled the amount of plastic produced in 2015. 

9. Over one million plastic bottles are bought every minute.

You read that right; every minute over 1 million plastic bottles are bought. These can be water bottles, juice bottles, soda bottles, etc. From 2006 to 2016, the number of estimated plastic bottles sold went from 300 billion to 480 billion annually. This number has been set to keep rising. To make matters worse, less than 50% of these bottles were recycled. Billions of plastic bottles have made their way into landfills each year. 

10. By 2050, plastic pollution in our oceans will outweigh the fish.

This is much closer than is comfortable to imagine since it is 2022. There is a report that predicts based on current plastic production and waste that plastic will outweigh fish by almost 45 million tons by 2050. Think of how big the oceans are and how many fish there are in those oceans. Plastic could outweigh them all in less than 30 years at our current rate of plastic use and pollution.  

11. By 2050, most seabirds will be eating plastic.

Here is another 2050 apocalyptic statistic for you. It is estimated by 2050, 99% of seabirds will have plastic in their stomachs. This number is built on some findings by the United Nations concerning seabird eating habits. They found that plastic ingestion kills around 1 million seabirds and up to 100,000 other marine animals annually. There is already an estimate that as many as 90% of current marine birds and fish have plastic particles inside them. This is because plastic decomposes into tiny pieces in the water and animals consume those pieces. Plastics do not digest the same as organic materials, so plastic particles will remain. 

12. Plastic bags get used for 12 minutes.

That sounds so wrong, but there are reports out there stating the average time a plastic bag is used is up to 12 minutes. If you really think about grocery bags, it makes sense. However, it cannot be justified to use a 12-minute product that takes hundreds of years to decompose.  

13. Scientists have found BPA in over 90% of Americans tested. 

This one makes me afraid to go get tested. Bisphenol A (BPA) is a chemical compound used in plastic production. BPA can be found in your technology, your food containers, your water bottles, and more. Over time, the plastics made with BPA will begin to leech chemicals as time begins to break down chemical bonds. When this happens, BPA gets released into food and water. So when looking for a plastic bottle, see if there is a better option. (Here’s a hint: BioBottles is the best option.) You’ll thank me later. 

14. Plastic was invented around 1862.

Plastic is said to have been invented around 1862 by Alexander Parkes. He called it “Parkesine” when he introduced it at the London International Exchange. It’s crazy how something so pervasive hasn’t even been around that long. Since it takes upwards of 450 years to break down, that means the very first pieces of plastic created won’t break down for another 200 or more years. 

15. Most of us consume 70,000 microplastics each year. 

When this is broken down, we eat roughly 100 pieces of microplastic with every meal. Let’s throw some ketchup on that plastic to make it go down tastier! This number is likely to get worse before it gets better as more plastic makes its way into oceans and soil. The more plants and animals get contaminated with plastic, the more humans will be too. 

The Bottom Line

There are plenty of alternatives to plastic being produced every day, but it is not enough. We as a species are not doing enough. Consumers are quick to point the finger at retailers and producers to do more. Plastic pollution is a global crisis, so everyone is responsible for doing their part. Let’s start making more sustainable choices and putting more effort into recycling so we don’t all turn into walking plastic by 2050.