While plastic has many valuable uses, we have become addicted to single-use or disposable plastic — with severe environmental consequences. Around the world, one million plastic drinking bottles are purchased every minute, while 5 trillion single-use plastic bags are used worldwide every year. In total, half of all plastic produced is designed to be used only once — and then thrown away. Plastic waste is now so ubiquitous in the natural environment that scientists have even suggested it could serve as a geological indicator of the Anthropocene era.
Researchers estimate that more than 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic has been produced since the early 1950s. About 60% of that plastic has ended up in either a landfill or the natural environment.
We’re seeing some other worrying trends. Since the 1950s, the rate of plastic production has grown faster than that of any other material. We’ve also seen a shift away from the production of durable plastic, and towards plastics that are meant to be thrown away after a single use. More than 99% of plastics are produced from chemicals derived from oil, natural gas and coal — all of which are dirty, non-renewable resources. If current trends continue, by 2050 the plastic industry could account for 20% of the world’s total oil consumption.
These single-use plastic products are everywhere. For many of us, they’ve become integral to our daily lives.
We need to slow the flow of plastic at its source, but we also need to improve the way we manage our plastic waste. Because right now, a lot of it ends up in the environment.
Only 9% of all plastic waste ever produced has been recycled. About 12% has been incinerated, while the rest — 79% — has accumulated in landfills, dumps or the natural environment. Cigarette butts — whose filters contain tiny plastic fibres — were the most common type of plastic waste found in the environment in a recent global survey. Drink bottles, bottle caps, food wrappers, grocery bags, drink lids, straws and stirrers were the next most common items. Many of us use these products every day, without even thinking about where they might end up.
Rivers carry plastic waste from deep inland to the sea, making them major contributors to ocean pollution
A staggering 8 million tonnes of plastic end up in the world’s oceans every year. How does it get there? A lot of it comes from the world’s rivers, which serve as direct conduits of trash from the world’s cities to the marine environment.