In this section we unpack the plastic puzzle by looking at the production, the planet and the recycling of plastic. We include vital statistics and end the section with ‘what are we up against?’

Plastic facts

In 2014, about 311 billion kilos of new plastic are produced. In 1950, this was only five million tons. The production of plastic has increased every year by 8 percent. More plastic was produced over the last 10 years than during the entire 20th century. About half of that is single-use plastic and is thrown away immediately after use. It is estimated that about one trillion (1,000 billion) plastic bags are used worldwide every year. This is more than one million bags a minute. One plastic bag has an average usable life of just 15 minutes. In the United States alone, more than 60 million plastic bottles are thrown away every day.

Microplastics

What is less visible is that plastic is worked into clothing and cosmetics. Clothing (fleece, nylon, acrylic, polyester) releases minute plastic fibres when washed. Each item of clothing does not release thousands of fibres during washing, but releases millions of fibres. These are so small that they pass through sewage treatment plants.

Ten percent of some cosmetic and toiletry products are made up of microplastics. The American NGO, 5Gyres, counted the microplastics in one single toiletry product (Neutrogena’s Deep Clean) and found 360,000 pieces of plastic. These go down the sink or shower drain and flow straight out to sea. They are eaten by marine animals and plankton and then enter our food chain. You could say that we are slowly eating more and more plastic. And what are the consequences? Nobody knows.

Production of plastic

8% of the world’s oil production goes on making plastic. Of this, 4% is needed for the energy to drive the plants to produce the plastic. Huge quantities of fossil fuels (oil, gas and coal) are needed to produce plastic. Producing and recycling plastic needs transport and energy, and they also generate waste and emissions. Potentially hazardous chemicals such as stabilisers, plasticisers and dyes are added during the production process to give the plastic its desired qualities. The risks that these substances pose to the environment is either barely tested or not tested at all. We know next to nothing about the long-term effects of exposure to a cumulative minimum dose. The question also remains what these substances do to our health.

Waste processing

The processing of waste plastic products has a significant impact on the environment. Most plastics are not degradable. They will remain where they are discarded until they are cleared up. The amount of land needed for landfills is an increasing concern around the world. In Europe too, landfills are still in use and many former landfill sites have not been cleaned. Only a small percentage of plastics is recycled. New plastic is mostly made of fossil raw materials, while recycled plastics are still hardly used in high-grade products.

So… What are we up against?

One quarter of a ton of plastic enters our oceans every second. That is one full lorry every minute, 1,440 lorries every day and eight million tons every year. About 94% of all this plastic sinks to the seabed. According to the Ellen McArthur Foundation, if we continue in this way our oceans will have more plastic than fish by 2050. We produce more plastic every year instead of less. We have gone from 311 million tons in 2014 to an estimated 622 million tons in 20 years. This is equivalent to 622 billion kilos!

The greatest contributor to the Plastic Soup is litter from land. We are all responsible for this, from consumers to industry and governments. Plastic litter is mostly made up of single-use packaging materials. About 3% of this ultimately ends up in the water. Reducing single-use plastics will have the biggest effect on the Plastic Soup.

In terms of waste processing, there are huge differences among countries and regions and there is a direct correlation to the leaking of plastic into the environment. If reuse and recycling can prevent plastic from being dumped, it will automatically trigger an enormous reduction of plastic leakage into the environment. Much more recycling is thus needed, especially in countries where landfills are the norm. PSF is working on defining its vision on this complicated issue.