55 Disturbing Plastic Waste Statistics [2020 Update]

In 2020, plastic is a dirty word. An average environmentally conscious individual could probably recite several plastic waste statistics in any given conversation to spread awareness about the material’s dangers to the planet. Such a negative view of plastic did not always exist, though.

There was a time when plastic used to be a symbol of human innovation. Plastics have helped make a vast array of commodities more affordable, which in turn have added vitality to most, if not all, economies. The surge in plastic production over the decades has contributed to the prosperity of many people.

Unfortunately, the world’s plastic appreciation has turned into an addiction. What was once instrumental in conserving nature is now destroying the planet. The plastic pollution statistics and facts below paint an inconvenient picture of our unhealthy dependence on this synthetic material.

Unnerving Plastic Waste Stats (Editor’s Choice)

  • The amount of plastic in the world exploded from 1.5 million tons in 1950 to 340 million tons in 2016.
  • Over 300 million tons of plastic are produced every year.
  • The world uses 500 billion single-use plastic bags every year.
  • A plastic bag is used for only 15 minutes on average but can last for a millennium.
  • China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam, and Sri Lanka are the top plastic polluters on the planet.
  • 10 rivers are responsible for channeling over 90% of plastic from land to the ocean.
  • About 269,000 tons of plastic waste floats in the ocean.
  • 91% of all the plastic ever created has not been recycled.
  • Plastic will outnumber fish by 2050.

The World of Plastic

1. 1869 was the year John Wesley Hyatt invented celluloid, the first synthetic polymer.

It was a watershed moment in the history of manufacturing. It marked the onset of artificial material development, enabling us to create products not limited by finite natural resources. Back then, celluloid was dubbed as the savior of wildlife. It helped decrease the demand for ivory and tortoiseshell, after all.

Source: Science History Institute

2. Bakelite, the first fully synthetic polymer, saw the light of day in 1907.

It was the brainchild of Leo Baekeland. The material was used as an alternative to shellac, a resin secreted by the female lac bug found on trees in Thai and Indian forests, which was used for insulation. Apart from its good thermal properties, Bakelite lent itself to mechanical mass production because of its durability and heat resistance.

The commercial successes of celluloid and Bakelite inspired massive R&D funding from major chemical companies. The investment gave birth to new plastics, and the rest is history.

Source: Science History Institute

3. There were only 1.5 million tons of plastic in 1950 when the global population was just 2.5 billion people.

66 years later, the world population reached seven billion, and the production of plastic hit 340 million tons. This figure describes the increase of plastic waste statistics over time best. But this number is expected to explode by a mind-blowing 200% in less than two decades.

Source: Surfers Against Sewage

4. 44% of all the plastics made in history were manufactured since the turn of the 21st century.

How much plastic waste does the US produce? Along with Canada and Mexico, the US has been responsible for only 18% of the world’s plastics. However, the plastic recycling rate of the US is just 9%.

Source: National Geographic

5. More than 300 million tons of plastic are made every 12 months.

So, how much plastic waste is produced each year? The above estimation answers the question. Half of the plastic we make are single-use products, which are destined to be used just for a few moments and then be discarded—but will last for many centuries.

Source: Plastic Oceans International

6. The average working life of a plastic bag is 15 minutes.

This is the origin of many plastic bag waste statistics. Plastic bags are often used just once and then tossed. Due to poor management, our trash is usually not recycled, which is why it eventually finds its way into the ocean, staying there for at least half a millennium.

Let that sink in for a minute.

Sources: National Geographic

7. In 2018, Collins Dictionary declared “single-use” word of the year.

This recognition is a testament to the troubling plastic shopping bag waste statistics. The usage of the word increased fourfold between 2013 and 2018, which may also point to the increasing awareness about the world’s “single-use plastic” conundrum.

Source: National Geographic

8. More or less eight million pieces of plastic debris reach marine environments every day.

How much plastic is in the ocean as of 2019

Experts believe there are now 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic pollution across our planet’s oceans.

Sources: Surfers Against Sewage & Ocean Crusaders Foundation

9. About 269,000 tons of plastic waste are floating on the surface of the ocean.

This is just the tip of the iceberg, though. One of the most disturbing plastic waste in the ocean statistics is that about four billion microfibers of plastic pollute the deep sea per square kilometer.

Source: Ocean Crusaders Foundation

10. Among the grimmest plastic pollution facts of 2019 is that no beach on the planet today is free of plastic trash.

Overtourism could be the primary catalyst for this phenomenon. However, even the least visited uninhabited tropical islands in the world could no longer claim to be absolutely pristine due to plastic.

Source: Surfers Against Sewage

11. In the United Kingdom, about 5,000 pieces of plastic waste per mile litter the beach.

If you walk on an average British beach, you will likely find more than 150 plastic bottles every mile. According to the latest plastic waste recycling stats, Europe scores the highest in terms of trash management. But the UK clearly needs to do more.

Sources: Surfers Against Sewage and National Geographic

12. The world’s five ocean gyres are causing millions of pieces of garbage (most of which is plastic) to collect in one area due to current circulation.

The sheer size of these garbage patches, which give us some visual representation of many plastic waste statistics, attract countless marine creatures and endanger those that use them as feeding grounds. Of all these trash vortexes, the most popular one is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which was discovered in the 1980s.

In 2017, another garbage patch was discovered within the South Pacific Gyre. Its size was estimated to be four times as big as the United Kingdom or as large as Mexico. Few facts about plastic water bottles waste are more shocking than these ones.

Sources: Ocean Crusaders Foundation & IFLScience

Plastic waste statistics - plastic bags

The Top Polluters

13. China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam, and Sri Lanka together account for about 60% of all the plastic in the ocean.

Collectively, these five Asian nations are home to more than 1.9 billion people. 3 of them belong to the 15 countries with the longest coastlines on the planet.

Sources: Ocean Crusaders Foundation, Worldometers, & World by Map

14. Over 90% of plastics in the oceans are brought by 10 rivers alone; 8 of them are in Asia, and 2 are in Africa.

If you want to know more facts about plastic waste and where it comes from, pay attention to the rivers of Chang Jiang, Indus, Huang He, Hai He, Nile, Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna, Zhujiang, Amur, Niger, and Mekong. These bodies of water serve as the world’s primary channels of plastic pollution from deep inland to vast marine environments.

Source: United Nations Environment Programme

15. In 2014, more than 100 billion plastic beverage containers were sold in the United States.

This translates to 315 pieces per American that year. Why should US residents be bothered by the said statistics on plastic water bottle waste? It is because America is the 20th-highest contributor of plastic pollution on Earth.

Sources: Plastic Oceans International & Ocean Crusaders Foundation

16. Australians add 4,000 plastic bags to landfills every minute.

Nearly seven billion plastic bags are used in the Land Down Under every year. More than a third of them are used for shopping. One of the noteworthy plastic bags waste statistics every Aussie should know is that the world would have 253 million fewer bags to worry about each year if every household in the country would use one less each week.

Source: Ocean Crusaders Foundation

17. About 500 billion single-use plastic bags are used worldwide every year.

It is among the most concerning single-use plastic waste statistics ever recorded. Many parties are to blame, but shoppers and retailers deserve special mentions.

Source: Ocean Crusaders Foundation

The Victims of Plastic Pollution

18. 1 million seabirds as well as 100,000 turtles and marine mammals die due to plastic entanglement and/or ingestion every year.

This plastic waste stat is alarming in itself, but recent research has shown that 100% of sea turtles examined were affected by plastic pollution. The same results were found in 59% of whales, 40% of seabird species, and 35% of seals.

Sources: Surfers Against Sewage & Ocean Crusaders Foundation

19. More than 800 marine species, including 15 that have been classified as endangered, are affected by our inability to manage plastic trash effectively.

What percentage of waste is plastic? The United Nations believes that anywhere between 60% and 90% of the garbage found littering the shorelines, floating on the surface, and reaching the seabed is plastic. Sooner or later, the problem will come back to land and hurt us through seafood consumption.

Source: United Nations

20. Being able to last for up to 1,000 years means every plastic bag can kill numerous animals before it finally disappears.

Lengthy disintegration is a well-known plastic bag waste fact. For this reason, every piece of plastic debris could have countless casualties throughout its life span. Once swallowed by a creature, the plastic will be re-released in the environment after the body of its victim decomposes. Then, the material can continue harming more in the wild for hundreds of years.

Source: Ocean Crusaders Foundation & Plastic Recycling Library

21. At least 800kgs of plastic were found in the stomachs of Minke whales.

Such an unnerving discovery is easily one of many stats about plastic waste affecting animals and other facts that have become a common occurrence in the natural world.

Source: The Disruptive Environmentalist

22. 98% of Pacific seabird parents have accidentally fed their chicks with some form of plastic.

The vast majority avian adults that live in the Midway Atoll located thousands of miles north of Hawaii have been mistaking pieces of blue, red, pink, and brown plastic for food because of their colors. Although the material would not instantly poison the chicks, a third of them would choke to death.

These depressing statistics about plastic waste are proof that even the animals living in the most isolated places on the planet are not safe.

Sources: The Disruptive Environmentalist and Plastic Pollution

23.  Australia’s bottled water industry, which is worth over half a billion dollars, generates more than 60,000 tons of greenhouse gas emissions every year.

This is the same level of air pollution 13,000 cars can emit over the course of 12 months. This is perhaps one of the facts about human health and plastic waste that has yet to enter the public consciousness.

Source: Ocean Crusaders Foundation

Plastic Waste Statistics - photo

The Current State of Recycling

24. About 91% of plastic is not recycled.

Six decades of mass production of plastics have resulted in 6.3 metric tons of trash, only 12% of which has been incinerated. The remaining 79% of plastic waste either sits idly in landfills or find its way into the natural environment.

Considering that plastic degradation is a process that can take centuries to complete, a recycling rate of 9% is definitely one of the most worrying statistics on global plastic waste you’re likely to come across.

Source: National Geographic

25. 90.5% of plastic waste ever made has never been recycled.

In 2018, the UK’s Royal Statistical Society made this stat of the year.

Indeed, it is one of the telling facts about plastic waste out there.

Source: Royal Statistical Society

26. By 2050, landfill plastic waste will be 35,000x as heavy as the Empire State Building.

This statistic about plastic waste will become a reality if our recycling efforts don’t improve in the future. Posterity will have to deal with at least 12 metric tons of plastic in landfills and face the consequences that come with such mountains of long-lasting litter.

Source: National Geographic

27. Ocean plastic trash will outnumber fish in 30 years.

It is probably one of the crazy facts about plastic waste environmentalists like to throw around. But not doing anything about it is more insane. If this prediction comes true, most fish could literally drown in their own habitats, which would have devastating consequences for terrestrial ecosystems alike.

Source: United Nations Environment Programme

28. In 2017, the US generated more than 35 million tons of plastics but recycled just 8.3% of it.

According to the latest official statistics on plastic bottle waste, the country’s recycling rates for polyethylene terephthalate (PET) and high-density polyethylene (HDPE) bottles were just 29.1% and 31.2%, respectively.

For a nation that has the largest economy and represents only 4% of the global population but produces 12% of the municipal waste worldwide, America has to do more.

Sources: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency & The Guardian

29. All 50 American states have been struggling to develop the necessary infrastructure to recycle plastic after China banned the importation of most plastics in 2018.

According to the US plastic waste statistics by state, most of America was caught unprepared by the Chinese policy. For instance, Arizona has been struggling to convince communities to recycle because of high collection and processing costs.

Sources: Waste Dive, Yale Environment 360, & KJZZ

30. America recycled about 280,000 tons of plastic garbage less in 2017 than it did in 2016.

Related US plastic waste facts have shown that the country landfilled 530,000 tons of plastics more during the same period.

Source: US Environmental Protection Agency

31. Between 2009 and 2010, Australia recycled just 36% of PET bottles.

Approximately 373 million liter bottles made from PET, which is highly recyclable, were expected to have ended up as waste. These are some of the saddest plastic bottle waste statistics, as Aussies generally do not have to use as many PET products thanks to the widespread availability of quality tap water in the country.

Sources: Ocean Crusaders Foundation & CHOICE

32. In 2017, South Africa set the record for the most recycled PET bottles, with 2.15 billion pieces.

Despite a 13% decline in the PET market that year, the country managed to exceed its yearly recycling rate target of 58% and attained an impressive 65%. In the same period, the South African plastics industry recycled about 5.9 million PET bottles a day.

The country did more than enough not to make the plastic water bottle waste facts much worse until large-scale solutions are developed.

Sources: Recycling International

33. South Africa has turned nearly 40,000 liters of plastic milk bottles into over 400 meters of roads.

Recyclers in the country have been using pellets made from recycled HDPE as a substitute for 6% of the asphalt’s bitumen binder. As a result, one ton of asphalt can contain up to 128 recycled milk bottles.

Other than preventing the plastic waste in the Atlantic Ocean stats from going out of control, South Africa’s HDPE recycling efforts have helped minimize the emission of toxic fumes and bring more savings to taxpayers.

Source: CNN

Government and Corporate Policies that Target Plastic Waste

34. At least 57 countries have joined the UN Environment Clean Seas campaign since 2017 and pledged to cut down their plastic footprint sooner rather than later.

Knowing how much plastic is in the ocean now, more and more world leaders have begun to do their share in addressing one of the most pressing environmental challenges of the 21st century. Some countries have banned single-use plastics, while others have taken the initiative to build more recycling plants.

Source: United Nations Environment Programme

35. The European Union has passed legislation to ban products made from single-use plastic such as cutlery, straws, and stirrers.

The enforcement of the sweeping law will begin in 2021, so the current plastic silverware waste facts and others in EU-member states are finally going to change for the better.

Source: The Guardian

36. 100% of plastics will be recycled in France by 2025.

The French government has boldly committed to developing systemic solutions in light of the dreadful facts on plastic waste. In 2018, Brune Poirson, Secretary of State to the Minister for the Ecological and Inclusive Transition, said that the country’s circular economy roadmap is set to create new jobs and boost France’s competitiveness.

Source: World Economic Forum

37. Peru has disallowed single-use plastics in its 76 natural and cultural protected areas.

The Peruvian government’s move was a response to the bothersome single-use packaging and plastic bottles waste facts involving the country’s famed touristy sites. At Machu Picchu alone, visitors used to generate a mind-boggling 14 tons of solid waste each day.

Source: National Geographic

38. Carlsberg’s traditional beer holders have become 76% less harmful to the environment after the company bid farewell to plastic multipack rings.

The Danish brewer has begun using holders with recyclable glue instead. While the global beer industry needs to step up their game in order to pull down the statistics on plastic waste, Carlberg’s sustainability shift may pressure its competitors to follow suit.

Source: National Geographic

39. Sodexo has stopped using plastic bags and stirrers at its 13,000 locations.

The decision was made due to the growing public concern regarding controversial plastic bag waste facts. The food service giant believes this move will easily prevent 245 million single-use items from ending up in landfills or natural environments.

Although Sodexo has yet to phase out plastic straws, the company has stopped offering them and started giving them by request only.

Source: National Geographic

40.  Red Lobster will prevent the use of 150 million plastic straws at its hundreds of restaurants every year beginning in 2020.

The seafood leviathan plans to offer eco-friendly alternatives as part of its social responsibility for driving down the upsetting plastic straw waste statistics.

Source: National Geographic

41. Disney’s ban on some single-use plastic items has eliminated the use of 175 million straws and 13 million stirrers at its theme parks and resorts every year.

To further reduce its negative impact on US plastic waste statistics, the entertainment behemoth is planning to make its locations free of polystyrene cups and sell reusable shopping bags instead of disposable ones.

Source: National Geographic

Plastic Waste Statistics - recycling

Innovations that Could Combat Plastic Waste

42. The Ocean Cleanup’s Interceptor can extract up to 100,000 kilograms of garbage from rivers every day.

The Dutch non-profit’s tech promises to become the world’s first feasible equipment to prevent large quantities of solid waste from heading to the sea. The Interceptor system was designed with the stats about plastic waste in the ocean and other facts in mind.

Despite destructive environmental challenges and potential dangers to marine life, The Ocean Cleanup has been making a huge difference in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Vietnam thus far.

Source: Dezeen

43. A group of garbage-collecting vessels has removed over 900 tons of trash from Baltimore’s Jones Fall River since 2014.

Mr. Trash Wheel, Professor Trash Wheel, and Captain Trash Wheel comprise the fleet. Together, they have been working hard not just to prevent plastic waste in the ocean stats from further ballooning but also to make the water swimmable by 2020.

Source: Dezeen

44. Two types of worms have been found to eat plastics.

The Indian mealworm (Plodia interpunctella) and the wax worm caterpillar (Galleria mellonella) could be the answer to reduce the horrible plastic pollution waste statistics we have discussed so far.

However, much research is still needed. Scientists still do not know whether these little creatures truly decompose plastics without excreting something as environmentally harmful in some other ways after metabolism.

Identifying the particular enzymes such types of larva use to accelerate plastic degradation would prove to be invaluable. When identified and mass-produced, these chemicals could be applied to landfills where tons of plastics are found.

Relying on these worms alone is not feasible and advisable, after all. We would need countless of these caterpillars to improve most plastic waste stats. Also, the proliferation of bugs that would enter the wild once these worms mature might cause issues of its own.

Sources: Deutsche Welle, Plastics Today, & The Guardian

45. One soil bacterium has been discovered to consume PET.

The researchers at Keio University and Kyoto Institute of Technology have found that this microorganism (Ideonella sakainsis 201-F6) can ultimately turn PET into organic compounds, which can be degraded into water and carbon dioxide. This natural discovery could improve the world’s plastic bottle waste management stats someday.

Sources: Plastics Today & Keio

46. One rare fungus in the Amazon was discovered to feast on plastics.

In 2011, Yale researchers found out that the mushroom (Pestalotiopsis microspore) can live off plastics without depending on oxygen, the first known plant to ever do so.

In theory, it could be planted in landfills and singlehandedly bring down the plastic packaging waste statistics in the US and any other leading polluter on the planet.

Source: The Science Times

47. At least 1,200 convenience stores in Chile are promoting the use of reusable containers.

Social enterprise Algramo has been enabling consumers to shop for small quantities of food without needing any single-use plastics. The startup acts as a distributor of vending machines that sell staples such as rice and sugar by the gram; hence, the company’s name in Spanish.

With enough market share, Algramo could help make certain pessimistic statistics of plastic waste more positive.

Sources: World Economic Forum & Fast Company

48. Billions of disposable coffee cups could be prevented from being discarded and not recycled every year with CupClub’s subscription service.

The UK-based company intends to brighten up one of the gloomiest plastic waste in the ocean facts by offering consumers reusable cups, which can be dropped off at any of the network’s stores.

Source: World Economic Forum

49. TrioCup’s disposable paper cups are made of 100% compostable material.

The American company unlocked the secrets of origami to eliminate the need for a plastic lid. The TrioCup team has also been working on another material that is 100% recyclable to help make the seemingly hopeless statistics about plastic waste per person in the US much rosier.

Sources: World Economic Forum

50. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation has launched the New Plastics Economy Global Commitment to galvanize more than 250 packaging producers, brands, and retailers to put an end to ocean plastic pollution.

The same organizations are responsible for the production of 20% of all plastic packaging in history, so they are culpable for the worsening worldwide plastic waste statistics. Nevertheless, the campaign gives them a chance to redeem themselves by eliminating the garbage at its source.

Source: Ellen MacArthur Foundation

51. Hundreds of billions of sachets might no longer pollute the oceans in the future because of cutting-edge packaging designs.

British company Delta’s compact technology allows restaurateurs to serve sauces in edible containers, while Indonesian startup Evoware creates dissolving seaweed-based food wrappers. Both innovations can effectively lower restaurant plastic waste statistics, especially in emerging markets.

Source: World Economic Forum

52. 55% of plastics can be used to produce fuel.

Australian company Licella has been creating biofuel out of polystyrene. This revolutionary product may not solve all of our pressing environmental issues, but it is a step in the right direction to positively change the present plastic waste facts.

Source: The Disruptive Environmentalist

53. Unlike traditional plastic bottles that can take up to 1,000 years to biodegrade, edible water containers can harmlessly break down in six weeks.  

Ooho!, Skipping Rocks Lab’s breakthrough product, is perhaps the most exciting solution to one of the most undeniable plastic bottle waste facts.

Source: SurferToday

54. Filipino company Green Antz is turning one and a half kilos of plastic sachets into an ecobrick.

Understanding the appalling plastic waste statistics in the Philippines, the social enterprise has been actively expanding throughout the archipelago via outreach, partnership with local governments, non-governing units, and corporations, as well as business franchising to intercept much more sachets and plastic bottles.

Sources: BusinessMirror & BusinessWorld

55. Seven major plastics can now be melted using one burner, thanks to Envirotech.

Another company in the Philippines is trying to sort out the country’s colossal trash problem. The startup produces a wide variety of products such as construction components and pieces of furniture out of recyclables that would otherwise have ended up in the streets, in landfills, or in rivers.

Source: SunStar

The Bottom Line

The critical first step to overcome any addiction is acknowledging that there is a problem. Judging by the forward-looking policies that have been and that are being implemented as well as the innovative solutions already being tested or developed, it is safe to say that we are past that stage.

The eye-opening plastic waste statistics have been knocking some sense into more and more of us. Beating our plastic addiction will not happen overnight, but we are finally on the road to recovery.