Up to 12.7 million tons of plastic waste are dumped into the ocean every year: about one garbage-truck of waste every minute. How harmful is plastic, and how can you use less?
So how much plastic is there in the world?
A lot. According to scientists, humans have produced around 8.3 billion tons of the stuff since 1950. And the vast majority of it just ends up as waste — about 6.3 billion tons to be precise. That is the same weight as over 17,000 Empire State Buildings.
But doesn’t a lot of plastic rubbish get recycled?
Afraid not. Only about 9% of the plastic that we produce ends up being recycled. And that figure could be about to drop. For years, Britain and the US have relied on China to help recycle their rubbish, sending millions of tons of waste there to be processed. But, this year, the Chinese government banned all foreign imports of plastic waste — leaving other countries to deal with their own rising piles of rubbish.
So what happens to plastic that isn’t recycled?
Most of it just gets buried in landfill sites. And, unlike organic waste like banana skins, plastic takes over 500 years to biodegrade.
What causes more issues is the plastic that ends up in the sea. Up to 12.7 million tons of plastic waste is dumped into the ocean every year: about one garbage-truck of waste every minute.
And the effect is devastating. Each year, more than 100,000 marine mammals, including turtles, dolphins and whales, die from ingesting plastic. Even tiny specks of the material can disrupt entire food webs. Microbeads (small plastic balls used in cosmetics) are often eaten by plankton. Lots of these creatures are then eaten by bigger fish, which inadvertently consume lethal amounts of plastic.
What are people doing about it?
At the end of 2017, the United Nations agreed on a resolution that states the world must stop plastics from entering the ocean. However, a proposed agreement that would have forced governments to hit specific, waste-reduction targets was rejected by several countries, including the US, India and China.
So, nothing is really going to change?
Not necessarily. It is as much down to the behaviour of individuals as the actions of governments. The environmental charity Surfers Against Sewage estimated that the average person throws away the equivalent of 1,212 Coca Cola bottles every year. If everyone made an effort to drink from reusable bottles, that alone would save a lot of waste.
And there are many other choices you can make on a daily basis to help fight against plastic pollution. Do you enjoy a morning coffee? Try taking your own mug to a coffee shop instead of using a disposable cup. And if you need a straw, choose a paper one over plastic.
Taking reusable shopping bags to the supermarket will also help, as will buying food like fruit, vegetables and cereal in bulk — rather than as single servings that are often wrapped in plastic. Also, be sure to store your food or packed lunch in reusable containers, rather than in plastic sandwich bags or cling film.
But how much of a difference will that make?
Individual choices can have a huge impact. It is estimated that 50% of plastic products are used just once and thrown away. For example, the average plastic shopping bag is used for just 12 minutes. It then spends centuries underground or, worse, floating across the ocean and potentially killing wildlife.
If many people make the simple decision to stop using disposable plastic items, from shopping bags to coffee cups, plastic consumption in general will take a big dent. What is more, governments are starting to see that large numbers of people care passionately about the issue. From 2020, the UK Government is banning plastic straws.
- Overall, has plastic had a positive or negative impact on the world?
- Look around the classroom. In two minutes, list all the items that contain plastic. How many of these objects could be made from an alternative, eco-friendly product?
- 8.3 billion
- According to the paper “Production, use and fate of all plastics ever made”, by Roland Geyer, Jenna R Jambeck and Kara Lavender Law.
- According to the paper cited above.
- In 2016 alone, China imported 7.3 million tons of plastic waste from developed countries, including the US, the UK and Japan.
- The process by which substances naturally break down and decompose.
- 12.7 million
- According to Greenpeace. Some of this plastic gets pooled into specific regions, for example the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. However, in the Mariana Trench (the deepest part of the ocean), creatures have also been found with traces of plastic in their stomachs.
- Both the UK and the US have now banned the addition of microbeads to cosmetic products.
- The agreement has no timetable and is not legally binding.
- According to the Plastic Oceans Foundation.