How big is the plastic pollution? How much plastic is in the sea? And how much is actually recycled?
How big is the plastic pollution? How much plastic is in the sea? And how much is actually recycled? These are all questions that are not easy to answer. We have only been aware of the ‘plastics soup’ phenomenon for about 25 years.
Slowly but surely, the answers are trickling in from the hundreds of scientists around the world who are trying to get a handle on both the extent and the consequences of the problem. To provide you with the following plastic facts and figures, we have made a selection from the scientific research we consider reliable.
MORE AND MORE PLASTIC
The amount of plastic that is produced in the world every year has increased explosively in just a human lifetime. From 2 million tons in 1950 to 368 million tons in 2019¹. These are the figures from the plastics industry itself, but they do not include synthetic fibres so the real production is a lot higher.
More than half the total amount of plastic produced was only brought to market after 2000. The expectation is that the production will further increase to about 600 million tons in 2025². This is roughly twice the total weight of the world’s population today!
How big is the plastic pollution?
More than half the total amount of plastic produced was only brought to market after 2000.
WHAT DO WE USE ALL THAT PLASTIC FOR?
By far the most plastic, almost 40%, is used for packaging. This is at least the case in Europe, so presumably this is the case for the rest of the world too. So this is where the most environmental gains can be made if we want to reduce our plastic consumption. In the second and third places are the construction and the automotive industries respectively.
WHAT HAPPENS TO ALL THAT PLASTIC AFTER PURCHASE?
Between the 1950s and 2017, an estimated 9.2 billion tons of plastic have been manufactured. Of this, a little more than one quarter is still in use and only 600 million tons has been recycled¹. About 40% of all plastic products are thrown away within one month². Year after year we saddle the earth with about 300 million tons of plastic waste.
WHICH COUNTRIES ARE THE BIGGEST PLASTIC POLLUTERS?
The average European throws away 174 kilos of packaging waste away every year, of which 19% is plastic. So on average, every person in Europe adds 33 kilos of plastic packaging to the mountain of plastic waste every year.¹
These figures are often a lot higher in other regions of the world. According to research in 2016, the Americans are the biggest plastic polluters.
WHICH BRANDS ARE THE BIGGEST PLASTIC POLLUTERS?
On World Cleanup Day we always ask the people who clean up to note the litter they find and record the type of waste and the brand. So in the Netherlands, we know that Red Bull has been at number 1 for years. International research in 2020 shows that Coca-Cola products were the products that ended up in the environment the most.¹ Worldwide, Coca-Cola produces 167,000 plastic bottles every minute. If you would put them in a line, they would go to the moon and back 31 times.
HOW MUCH PLASTIC ENDS UP IN THE PLASTIC SOUP?
More than half the 9.2 billion tons of plastic that has been produced up to now – about 5 billion tons – has ended up as waste in landfill or has simply ended up in the environment.¹ Of this, between 5 and 13 million tons of plastic enter the oceans
WHAT ARE THE ‘INGREDIENTS’ OF THE PLASTIC SOUP?
Plastic never degrades, instead it fragments into ever smaller pieces until it cannot be seen with the naked eye. The map below shows the composition of the plastic soup in the various oceans and you can see the type of plastic floating around in them
Not all microplastics are caused by fragmentation, but may arise from the wearing out of car tyres, wearing and washing synthetic clothing, rinsing off toiletries and cosmetics, and the ‘spilling’ of nurdles, small plastic granules, by the plastics industry.
Only 0.5% of the plastic in the ocean actually floats on the surface of the water. The rest drifts deeper in the water column or lies on the seabed.² So cleaning up the water surface only solves a tiny bit of the problem.