Plastic facts and figures
The causes and effects of the plastic soup are difficult to capture in precise figures. There are many factors that can play a role, and these can differ per location and over time. Most figures concerning the plastic soup are estimates, sometimes taken from old research. At the same time, new studies appear every week with new plastic facts and figures. There are hundreds of scientists around the world who are trying to get to the bottom of the problem of plastic soup. The German Heinrich Boll Foundation, working together with the German environmental organisation BUND, published the Plastic Atlas in 2019. This publication explains and documents the problems of plastic soup using the most current scientific insights. The following plastic facts and data is taken from this report.
Plastic production facts
- Every year, more than 400 million tons of plastic are produced worldwide. More than one-third of this plastic is packaging.
- Between 1950 and 2015, 8.3 billion tons of plastic were produced. That is more than 1000 kilos per head of the present worldwide population.
- Of that 8.3 billion tons, about 30% (2500 million tons) is still in use.
- Between 1950 and 2015, some 6300 million tons of plastic rubbish has been created: this figure includes both single-use and recycled plastic rubbish. Some 12% (800 million tons) of this rubbish has been burnt, and 9% (600 million tons) has been recycled. Of the recycled plastic, only 10% is again recycled. The remaining 79% of the plastic rubbish ended up on rubbish tips or thrown away in the environment.
- If production continues at the present rate, there will be approximately 1.2 billion tons of plastic rubbish on rubbish tips or dumped in the environment in 2050.
- Almost half (44%) of all the plastic produced globally has been put on the market since the year 2000.
- Of all plastic that is produced at present, 9% is recycled (almost always resulting in products of inferior quality), 40% is subject to controlled dumping, 14% is subject to controlled burning, and 32% ends up in the environment (this includes uncontrolled burning).
- There were more than 1.13 trillion pieces of plastic packaging used in the European Union in 2018.
- In 2025, more than 600 million tons of plastic will be produced globally. Recycling systems are not able of handling this much plastic: the only thing that will help is a reduction in the production and the use of plastic.
- Forty per cent of all plastic products have become rubbish within one month.
- Up to 2018, 86 million tons of plastic have ended up in the sea. Of this amount, 0.5% is floating on the surface. 23 million tons (26.8%) can be found in coastal waters, 29 million tons (33.7%) are stranded on the coast or have sunk to the ocean floor, and 34 million tons (39%) can be found in the water columns of the oceans.
- Of the 120 species of sea mammals on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, 54 are known to eat or to become entangled, in plastic.
- 95% of the fulmar population in the North Sea have plastic in their stomachs: on average, 34 pieces (with a total weight of 0,31 grams). Converted to human proportions, this represents a plate full of plastic.
- Plastic from fishing nets has been found in 95% of all gannet nests on the islands of Heligoland. One third of all the gannet deaths on these islands in the North Sea is caused by entanglement: the birds have hung themselves in the nylon threads during breeding.
- Plastic in water attracts toxins such as PCB and DDT. Animals and birds that ingest the plastic also ingest these toxins, as well as the harmful additives that were added to the plastic during production.
- It is known that at least 387 marine species travel long distances over water as hitch-hikers on plastic rubbish. This leads to a disturbance of eco-systems through invasion by new species.
- It is estimated that the Rhine discharges 893.000 microplastics per square kilometer into the sea. Of all the large rivers in the world, Asiatic rivers discharge the most plastic into the sea.
- In many European countries, sewage slib is spread over agricultural land as fertilizer. This slib is full of microplastics that have been filtered from wastewater. That accounted for 11.653 tons of microplastics in France in 2016…..
- Synthetic textiles (clothing, carpets) account for some 15% of annual global plastic production.
- 70% of all textiles produced in 2017 were made of plastic. That is approximately 53.7 million tons. 94% of the total is produced in Asia. 80% is polyester.
- One machine-wash of 5 kilos of synthetic textiles produces nine million microfibers. One single fleece sweater sheds 250.000 fibers.
- Clothing brands flood the market with cheap clothes that are quickly replaced. Fast Fashion is an important catalyst for plastic pollution from textiles.
Plastic and climate
- If plastic production is not curbed, it will be responsible for the emission of 56 gigatons of CO2, which represents 10-13% of the CO2-budget. As per the Paris Climate Agreement, it is necessary to stay within this budget in order to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.
- The CO2 emission for the production of one single polyester shirt is somewhere between 3.8 and 7.1 kilos.
- The production of synthetic textiles contributes to the climate crisis. The CO2 emission in 2015 was already 706 billion tons. A forest of 597 million hectares – almost 1.5 billion acres – would be needed to absorb this amount of CO2.
- The global market for pellets, the raw material from which plastic is produced, is controlled by a handful of multinational companies
- The largest plastics manufacturers have their headquarters in Western countries, but production takes place in more than 200 countries. The sector lobbies actively to exert a major influence on policy. This explains why attention is directed towards recycling and waste management rather than (a reduction of) plastic production and the willingness to take responsibility for the plastic produced. The American Chemistry Council, which represents more than 150 chemical companies, spent almost 89 million euros on lobbying activities in the last decade.
- The British chemical giant INEOS is the largest producer of plastic in Europe. This company has its own supportive infrastructure: they use their own tankers to pick up ethane – which is made from shale gas – from the United States. INEOS are investing 3 billion euros in new plastics factories in Antwerp in Belgium.
- Coca-Cola produces 167.000 plastic bottles per minute globally: a massive 88 billion per year. If you placed all those bottles end-to-end, they would reach to the moon and back….31 times! Coca-Cola began replacing re-usable glass bottles with single-use plastic bottles back in 1978.
- In Germany, more than half of the plastic rubbish is burnt. This leads to the release of harmful substances which need to be stored, for example in a saline solution.
- Every European citizen creates an average of 31 kilos of plastic rubbish per year (2018 figures). There are big differences per country: from 12 kilos per person in Croatia to 60 kilos per person in the Republic of Ireland.
- It’s unrealistic to speak of a substantial recycling effort. Plastic producers prefer to use virgin plastic rather than recycled plastic: it’s cheaper, and also of better quality.
- There was 5.2 million tons of plastic rubbish in Germany in 2017: of this, only 15.6% (0.81 million tons) was used as raw material for new plastic products.
- Until China banned the import of almost all plastic rubbish in 2018, approximately half of all the world’s plastic rubbish ended up in that country. In 2016, the monthly import was 600.000 tons per month: in 2018 it dropped to 30.000 tons. Western countries shifted the export flows to other Asiatic countries, who in turn initiated their own restrictive measures. One result is that more plastic is now burnt in Western countries.
- Waste-pickers in developing countries sort the plastic rubbish and sell those plastics that can be recycled – this is only a limited number of types of plastic, for example, PET.
Plastic and Health Issues
- The blood of American women contains an average of 56 different chemical substances. Many of these are present in plastic products. These so-called additives are added to the plastic to give it the desired properties.
- Hormone-disrupting substances, for example, additive plasticizers, have been associated with health issues such as breast cancer, infertility, early adolescence, overweight, allergies and diabetes.
- Harmful substances – for example, carbon monoxide, nitrogen, dioxins and furans – are released when plastic is burnt. These substances have been associated with a whole series of diseases. The resulting ash can contaminate soil and water.
- Although manufacturers of personal care products in Europe must indicate which chemicals have been used in the production process, the same rules do not apply to producers of toys, furniture and textiles.
- Farmland used to grow crops is between 4 and 23 times as contaminated with microplastics as the sea.
- Microplastics penetrate into groundwater and drinking water. In Illinois (USA), microplastics have been found in underground reservoirs.
- Nanoplastics can penetrate the placenta.
- In developing countries, millions of people search through rubbish tips looking for valuable plastic. They work in pitiful and unhealthy conditions.