Plastic Pollution Causes, Facts & Figures
Plastic pollution is a global problem that is growing exponentially due to both an increase in consumerism and an increase in the number of plastics used to manufacture the things we use on a daily basis.
Many of these items are single-use items, which are used once and then tossed in the trash. But what happens to this plastic once the trash can gets emptied? It doesn’t simply disappear into thin air.
It usually ends up in the environment in some manner or form, with a great deal of it eventually ending up in the ocean. Within the plastic pollution sphere, one of the most pressing environmental challenges that we are faced with today is marine plastic debris.
The two common sources marine debris originates from are:
1land-based, which includes litter from beach-goers, as well as debris that has either blown into the ocean or been washed in with stormwater runoff; and
2 ocean-based, which includes garbage disposed at sea by ships and boats, as well as fishing debris, such as plastic strapping from bait boxes, discarded fishing line or nets, and derelict fishing gear.
While discarded fishing gear takes its toll on the marine environment by entangling marine life and destroying coral reefs, it only comprises an estimated 20% of all marine debris – a staggering 80% of all marine debris stems from land-based sources.
This is not that surprising, considering that around 50% of all plastics are used to manufacture single-use items which are discarded soon after they are first used.
How Much Plastic Pollution is in the Ocean?
Plastic is a majoy contributor to ocean pollution, but ‘how much plastic is in the ocean’, you ask? A study published in 2017 estimated between 1.15 to 2.41 million tonnes of plastic enters the oceans via rivers annually, with peak months being between May and October. The top 20 contributing rivers, which according to the report are mostly found in Asia, contribute around 67% of all plastics flowing into the ocean from rivers around the world.
The demand for plastic has increased dramatically over the last 70 years. According to Plastic Ocean, 300 million tons of plastic is produced globally every year. Half of that plastic is used for disposable items that will only be used once. As a result, more than 8 million tons of discarded plastic ends up in our oceans every single year. Once it is there it doesn’t readily go away.
The Worldwatch Institute estimates that the average American or European person typically uses 100 kilograms of plastic every year, most of which consists of packaging, and while it is estimated that Asians currently only use an average of 20 kilograms per person, this is expected to rise due to economic growth in the region.
Plastic Pollution Facts, Figures & Statistics
Tons of plastic ends up in our oceans every year, according to a report released by the Worldwatch Institute in 2015.
estimated number of plastic particles currently floating around in world’s oceans.
number of estimated losses per year associated with marine plastic debris due to the negative impact on marine ecosystems.
How Does Plastic Breakdown?
One of the characteristics that make plastic so popular for use in a wide range of industries is that it is extremely durable and long-lasting. However, this trait also makes it persist in the environment.
Plastics are photodegradable – meaning that they break up into smaller and smaller pieces when exposed to sunlight. Because the temperature they are exposed to in the ocean is much lower than that on land, the breakdown process takes much longer in the marine environment.
But while plastic debris is slowly breaking down in the ocean, more and more plastic is being tossed or washed into the sea – at a rate far faster than what it is breaking down. Consequently, there is a LOT of plastic in the ocean – it comes in all shapes, forms, and sizes, and is found floating on the surface, suspended in the water column or littering the ocean floor, and eventually washes up on beaches around the world, wreaking havoc with marine life in all these ecosystems.