Facts about plastic pollution and what you can do to minimize your footprint

By Lauren Melnick 3 months ago

It seems nearly impossible to escape plastic in our everyday lives, doesn’t it?

From our keyboards and computer screens, to televisions and cellphones – plastic is always at our fingertips.

Our reliance on plastic has become an epidemic.

Plastic can take almost five to six decades to decompose. In some cases, the process takes millions of years. This means that most of the plastic we have produced since its discovery in 1852 is still polluting our planet, and we continue to make more.

Ocean pollution facts

The ocean covers more than 70% of our planet. It’s our most valuable resource: helping to feed the world, create jobs, govern weather and keep our air clean.

The oceans are also home to microscopic algae, the gigantic blue whale and hundreds of other species we have yet to discover. We might not get that chance if we continue polluting oceans with plastic at such an alarming rate.

  • What is ocean pollution?

Ocean pollution is the act of dumping harmful substances such as plastic, oil, chemicals and industrial and agricultural waste into the ocean. Plastic pollution is the worst offender.

The majority of trash that enters the ocean is single-use plastics – and it’s here to stay.

Unlike other types of trash, plastic doesn’t biodegrade. It can take between 70–450 years for a single plastic bottle to break down. During that time, it pollutes our beaches, endangers our marine life, and affects our health.

How much plastic is in the ocean?

ocean pollution facts

Participants of the Fiji Caqalai program celebrate World Oceans Day with a dive against ocean debris.

Each year eight million metric tons of plastic pollution ends up in the ocean. Essentially, humans are emptying a garbage truck of plastic into the ocean every minute.

Crazy, right?

Well, according to a study published in the journal Science, this number is predicted to increase tenfold over the next decade. But that’s not all. Environmentalists believe that there is more microplastic in the ocean than there are stars in the Milky Way.

So how does all that plastic get into the ocean?

According to a report by independent consultancy Eunomia Research & Consulting, 80% of plastic pollution in the ocean is from land-based sources.

In one year, the worst offenders ­– 192 countries along the coastline – created 275 million metric tons of plastic waste. Most of the plastic pollution came from people who live less than 30 miles away from the beach.

Even when plastic pollution is collected and transported to landfill sites, it can still make its way back to the ocean. All it takes is a strong wind to blow the waste back into our rivers, seas and oceans. Indeed, major rivers around the world are estimated to carry 1.15-2.41 million tons of plastic pollution the ocean each year.

Another less noticeable way plastic enters the ocean is through microbeads. You’ll find these tiny pieces of plastic in all kinds of products, like face wash, shower gels and toothpaste. Many of these microbeads are too small to be filtered out by wastewater plants and end up making their way into the sea.

Where is ocean pollution the worst?

California might be known for its iconic Hollywood sign, Disneyland and San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge. But just off its coast lies a collection of garbage that’s estimated to be twice the size of Texas.

Known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, it’s the largest garbage site on Earth. Its plastic pieces outnumber the marine life in the area by six to one, not to mention the destruction that is going on beneath the surface. With 70% of debris sinking to the ocean floor, ecologists estimate that there is probably a giant underwater trash heap underneath the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

ocean cleanup

GVI volunteers participate in a lake cleanup in Phang Nga, Thailand

Plastic straw pollution and the ocean

Over 500 million straws are used every day in the United States. If we continue at our current rate of plastic consumption, there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish by 2050.

  • Why aren’t plastic straws recyclable?

As they are lightweight, straws don’t make it through the mechanical recycling sorter. Instead, they are mixed in with other materials and are too small to separate. The result is straws contaminating recycling loads or ending up in landfills.

  • How do plastic straws end up in the ocean?

The most common way straws end up in the ocean is through littering. People often discard plastic straws on beaches or throw them out of boats and vehicles. The wind also blows straws out of trash cans.

  • Will compostable plastic straws help reduce waste in the oceans?

Unfortunately not. Compostable plastic straws are designed to break down in compost conditions, not in sea water. Paper straws are a far better alternative.

plastic bag pollution

GVI volunteers partner with the local community to clean up debris along the water’s edge in Phang Nga, Thailand.

Facts about plastic bag pollution

Whether it’s for picking up a few items from the grocery store, grabbing some Chinese take-out or buying new clothes: almost all of us use plastic bags in our day-to-day life.

While single-use disposable plastic bags are a convenient part of modern life, they are destroying the planet. A typical lifespan of a plastic bag is 12 minutes. Despite this, they are made using non-renewable resources that contribute to climate change.

Americans use 100 billion plastic bags each year. If you had to tie all that plastic waste together, it would reach around the Earth’s equator 773 times. Our dependency on single-use plastic bags shows no sign of slowing down. Distributors send two million bags every minute to countries around the world.

  • Why are plastic bags bad?

Plastic bags are a danger to our environment because we only recycle 5% of the bags we produce. Instead, they are sent to landfill sites. Due to the lack of oxygen and light, plastic bags don’t break down and instead release dangerous chemicals.

  • What is the effect of plastic bags on the environment?

Did you know that 60,000 plastic bags are used in the United States every 5 seconds? Or that about that 93% of US citizens test positive for bisphenol A (BPA) – a chemical toxin found in plastic items such as bags, utensils and water bottles.

BPA poses a serious health hazard over time and can contaminate our water supplies. But plastic bag pollution also affects our quality of life. Buildups of plastic bags cause blockages in drainage systems, especially in developing countries.

In urban areas, discarded plastic bags often form clumps in storm sewers, blocking the flow of water. Not to mention that many marine and terrestrial animals end up eating plastic bags by mistake.

plastic pollution

Plastic pollution endangers marine life. Here, a GVI volunteer helps clean up the ocean floor during a dive against debris, in Mexico.

On the island of Midway Atoll in the North Pacific Ocean – home to the largest albatross colony in the world – hundreds of birds have been found dead due to eating pieces of plastic bags. National Geographic reported that plastic trash is currently found in 90% of seabirds. They predict that all seabirds will be eating plastic by 2050.

Plastic bags also ruin the appearance of the environment, which is not something to be taken lightly.

The Earth’s natural habitats and green spaces in our cities have numerous benefits. Studies have shown a decrease in recovery times for hospital patients, lower crime rates and an increase in property values. But when these spaces become littered with plastic bags, our quality of life takes a massive knock.

How does plastic pollution affect animals?

Plastic bags aren’t the only thing hurting wildlife populations around the world.

Microplastics, abandoned fishing gear and other plastic pollution has a massive impact on the health of ecosystems.

In the ocean, small fish eat tiny pieces of plastic, causing plastic pollution to enter the food chain. When larger fish feed on these smaller species, it passes on the problem until this plastic eventually lands up on our dinner plates.

The shards of plastic inside animals’ stomachs don’t leave room for actual food. In a February 2018 autopsy of a beached whale, scientists found 20 square feet of single-use plastic shopping bags inside its stomach.

Often mistaking plastic bags for jellyfish, researchers from the University of Queensland estimate that more than 50% of sea turtles have consumed plastic debris. The result is more than 100,000 sea turtles dying from plastic pollution each year.

  • The effect of ghost gear on marine life

Ghost gear is abandoned or lost fishing equipment. Nets and other equipment can easily entangle marine life like whales, dolphins and seals causing them to drown or starve to death.

The World Animal Protection organization estimates that sea life is being threatened by 640,000 tons of ghost gear. As this equipment floats around in the ocean, it slowly breaks down into microplastics. As a result, more animals are prone to poisoning and ingesting these small amounts by mistake.

Facts about plastic bottle pollution

Every second 20,000 plastic bottles are purchased across the globe. While most plastic bottles are made from polyethylene terephthalate – a recyclable substance – we are struggling to keep up with the demand.

Of the 480 billion drinking bottles sold in 2016, only 7% were collected and re-used. According to Euromonitor International’s global packaging trends report, during the year 2021 583.3 billion plastic drinking bottles will be manufactured and sold.

If you had to place all those bottles end to end, it would extend halfway to the sun.

plastic cleanup

GVI volunteers help to ensure the safety of marine and terrestrial animals by completing a beach cleanup in Mexico.

What you can do to reduce plastic pollution

The best way to protect the oceans, wildlife, our health and the environment is to keep as much plastic as possible out of the waste stream.

It might seem like an impossibly mammoth task, but there are myriad small things you can do to make a difference.

1) Cut down on your single-use plastics

Buy reusable bags for your shopping or reuse your plastic bags. Get into the habit of saying no to bags at the till, and keeping your own bags in your handbag or car.

Ever thought of how many shampoo and conditioner bottles you go through in a year? What about in your lifetime?

Nip your reliance on plastic in the bud by using shampoo and conditioner bars. Lush, an environmentally responsible cosmetic retailer, sells several options that will help you minimize your plastic pollution footprint.

2) Buy a steel or glass straw

Next time you buy a drink at your favorite restaurant or cafe, don’t ask for a straw. Instead, buy a couple of steel or glass straws and keep one in your handbag.

It’s a small lifestyle change that makes a tangible difference. With more and more people opting to go strawless, many retailers have started listening to their consumers. Woolworths, a multinational retail company, is in the process of phasing out single-use plastics in their stores around the world.

3) Stop buying bottled water

Cut down on the 20 billion plastic bottles tossed into the trash each year by carrying a reusable bottle. Just make sure the bottle is BPA-free and top up as you go.

If you live in a country that doesn’t have good quality local tap water, look for a bottle that has a built-in filter. Some places in the world, like Bali and Thailand, have clean water stations for the public to use. For a few coins, you can fill up without contributing to the enormity of the plastic pollution problem in these countries.

4) Join a marine conservation project

marine conservation volunteer

All of GVI’s wildlife and marine conservation projects are run in partnership with local organizations to ensure long-term impact.

If you want to do more for the environment than just making a few lifestyle changes, consider volunteering on a marine conservation project.

GVI runs sustainable projects in countries the world over, including Fiji, Mexico, Seychelles and Thailand.

You’ll work side-by-side grassroots organizations that are committed to raising awareness and developing solutions. Whether you’re organizing a beach clean or helping to monitor the health of a reef, your project will have a long-term impact on the community and the environment.

Speak to a member of our team today.