Plastic is all around us. Everywhere you look, there’s at least one object that has some form of plastic material involved. While reusable plastic causes no harm, the effect that disposable plastic has on our world is difficult to fathom. It was recently estimated by the World Economic Forum and Ellen MacArthur Foundation that by 2050 there very well may be more plastic in our oceans than fish (by weight). The statistics can be hard to believe but maybe we can do something about it, before it’s too late.
Some of our bad habits have an impact on more than just us. Our little everyday actions have a big impact, particularly if they involve plastic. Just like most habits, we can kick them if we put in some effort. Here are some scary facts about plastic and ways to reduce them.
1. About 8.3 billion tons of plastic has been produced since the 1950’s – the weight of roughly a billion elephants or 47 million blue whales.
Mass production of plastic began in 1950’s, and since then we have created 8.3 billion metric tons; most of it in disposable products that end up as trash. According to scientists, plastic takes more than 400 years to degrade, so most of it still exists in some form. From the 8.3 billion metric tons created by human beings within the last 6 decades, 12% has been incinerated, 79% has ended up in landfills or the environment and only 9% has been recycled.
The study was published in the peer-reviewed journal Science Advances, which is the first global analysis of all plastics ever made and their fate. The 79% of the discarded plastic comes to a staggering 6.3 billion metric tons, which is accumulating landfills or floating around as litter. (source)
2. China produces the largest quantity of plastic. In 2010, 8.8 million metric tons of mismanaged plastic waste came from China, with an estimated 3.53 million metric tons of it ending up in the ocean.
When scientists analyzed plastic waste levels in the world’s oceans, they found that China and Indonesia were the top contributors of plastic bottles, bags and other rubbish floating in the seas. In 2010 alone, China produced 8.8 million metric tons of mismanaged plastic waste and an estimated 3.53 million metric tons of it ended up in the ocean. Indonesia is not far behind, with an estimated 1.29 million metric tons of plastic marine debris.
The equivalent of a truckload of plastic enters the oceans every minute; adding up to 12.7 million tons of plastic every year. There are five trillion pieces of plastic in our oceans, which is enough to circle the Earth over 400 times. (source)
3. In Turkey and Chile, waste management is not a priority. The majority of trash ends up in landfills because unregulated dumping is common among its citizens.
When it comes to recycling, Turkey, Chile and other underdeveloped countries don’t consider it a priority. Therefore, the vast majority of trash ends up in landfills. Unregulated dumping is the most common issue in such countries because the waste management system is extremely poor.
Germany, meanwhile, leads the pack with a 65% recycling rate, which has risen 16% since 2000. The country is good at recycling for a couple of reasons. First, there are color-coded containers all throughout the country, that people adhere to. Second, Germans enjoy recycling since it increases environmental sustainability. Countries such as Sweden, Poland, Estonia and UK are not considered in the statistics since since they are highly efficient at recycling. For instance, Sweden recycles so much that the country has to import trash from nearby countries to keep the process running. (source)
4. On average, plastic cups take 50 to 80 years to decompose.
According to estimates, every year we use approximately 1.6 million barrels of oil just for producing plastic water bottles. Normally, plastic items can take up to 1000 years to decompose in landfills, while plastic bottles can take up to 450 years or more. Most of the marine debris are plastic bags, plastic cups and other plastic household materials. Scientists estimate that it takes around 50-80 years for a single plastic cup to decompose. The non-renewable materials with which they are made from is what makes it hard for them to decompose at a faster rate. The little foam cups that are good for holding hot chocolate can last for over 500 years in a landfill. (source)
5. Scientists have documented 700 marine species affected by ocean plastic.
Estimates suggest that at least 100 million marine mammals become victims each year from ingesting plastic. Like many other marine animals, sea turtles mistake plastic waste for a viable food source, sometimes causing blockages in their digestive system. Fishing nets, lines, and lures cause seals and sea lions to become entangled, leading to injury and eventually death. An estimated 98% of albatross studied are found having ingested some kind of plastic debris. Other animals affected by plastic pollution are fish, whales and dolphins. (source)
6. In just the U.S. alone, one estimate suggests 500 million plastic straws are used every single day.
In July 2018, Seattle became the largest U.S. city to ban plastic straws, and for a good reason. Since being patented in 1888, the drinking straw has helped millions around the world enjoy beverages. Straws were among the many throw-away products being rapidly manufactured by large corporations. Today, our planet is struggling to recover from its plastic pollution hangover. One study published earlier this year estimated that as many as 8.3 billion plastic straws pollute the world’s beaches. (source)
7. The expiration date on bottled water is for the bottle, not for the water.
Have you ever wondered why your bottled water has an expiration date? Expiration dates on non-perishable consumer goods can look funny, especially in water bottles. Shouldn’t water last forever? Yes, it should, but the expiration date is there for two reasons. The first reason is: Water is a consumable product, therefore it is required by law to have a stamped expiration date. Besides that, the expiration date on bottled water is for the manufacturer’s advantage.
The plastic that water is packaged in is usually made of polyethylene terephthalate (PET). Even if a bottle is unopened, once the expiration date passes, PET starts bleaching into the liquid, which can affect its taste. According to LiveScience, the process won’t necessarily render the water toxic, but it might make it taste somewhat less than “mountain spring fresh”. (source)
8. Chemicals in plastic can cause you to gain weight.
Water is good for our body. It can speed up weight loss by 550% and rev energy by 89%. However, research published in the journal Nature Communications reveals that even BPA-free bottles may not be safe. The chemical in plastic water bottles are capable of disrupting hormones, causing fatigue and weight gain. During the study, scientists found that the BPA substitute fluorene-9-bisphenol (BHPF) leached into the water from 23 of the 52 bottles tested. Sara Gottfried, M.D., author of The Hormone Cure explains that “Almost all plastics, including ones marketed as BPA-free, release fake estrogens”. A safer choice: water packaged in milk carton–like containers that are better for the environment and your health. (source)
9. Most of our drinking water is contaminated by microplastics.
Microplastics are small plastic pieces, less than five millimeters long. They are extremely harmful to us as well as our environment. It is also one of the most prevalent type of marine debris found in our ocean and Great Lakes. Microplastics come from a variety of sources, including from larger plastic debris that degrades into smaller and smaller pieces. According to NOAA, microbeads, a type of microplastic, are very tiny pieces of manufactured polyethylene plastic that are added as exfoliants to health and beauty products, such as some cleansers and toothpastes.
These tiny particles easily pass through water filtration systems and end up in our oceans as well as inside us. Studies have found microplastics in 83% of tap water in major cities around the world. (source)
10. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), over 380 billion plastic bags, sacks and wraps are consumed in the U.S. each year. On average, we only recycle one plastic bag in every 200 we use. There are countries around the world that ban all forms of single-use plastic products.
Recycling alone cannot tackle the issue our planet is facing today. Many countries have joined forces to ban plastic products. For instance, Bangladesh became the first country to ban plastic bags in 2002. China, Israel, South Africa, the Netherlands, Morocco, Kenya, Rwanda, Mauritania, Sri Lanka, Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, Albania and Georgia have since implemented similar bans. The UK has a mandatory 5-pence charge for plastic bags and Australia’s two biggest supermarket chains voluntarily stopped handing out free plastic bags. In 2018, New Zealand joined the list by banning single-use plastic shopping bags. (source)