Plastic waste: the magnitude of the problem and the impact to our planet

Mar 24, 2022

The magnitude and impact of plastic waste on our environment, and some ideas on macro ways we can reduce plastic waste.

a beach littered with trash and plastic waste
How much plastic is there in the world today?
  • There’s an estimated 8.3 billion tons of plastic in the world today, of which over 75% is trash! That amounts to over 6.2 billion tons of plastic waste in the world today. Global production of plastic has increased over 200 times from 1950 to 2015, with over 400 million tons of plastic being produced every year. 
How much of that plastic is recycled?
  • Only 8.7% of plastic waste in the US in 2018 was recycled
  • This means over 91% of all plastic waste in the US went straight to the landfill
How much plastic waste is in the ocean?
  • 8 million tons of plastic waste is added into the ocean every year
 

Data Source

1960

1970

1980

1990

2000

2005

2010

2015

2017

2018

% Landfilled

100%

100%

97.7%

80.4%

78.1%

79.2%

77.6%

75.5%

75.7%

75.6%

% Combustion w/ Energy Recovery

0.0%

0.0%

2.0%

17.4%

16.1%

14.7%

14.4%

15.5%

15.8%

15.8%

% Recycled

0.0%

0.0%

0.3%

2.2%

5.8%

6.1%

8.0%

9.0%

8.5%

8.7%

% Composted

0.0%

0.0%

0.0%

0.0%

0.0%

0.0%

0.0%

0.0%

0.0%

0.0%

 

Though recycled plastics have doubled over the last 20 years or so as a percent of total plastics, it’s still less than 10% of total plastics produced by 2018 at the end of this chart. And still zero is being composted. And arguably in the last 10 years, we have made much of a meaningful improvement in these metrics, from 2010 onward there hasn’t been much improvement at all.

We need to make a shift to recyclable and compostable plastics. Is it possible to shift this number to less than 50% landfilled by 2030 and down to 0 by 2040? We believe so.

Consumer product packaging is by far the single-largest use for plastics today, with over 35% of all plastics made used for packaging in 2015. Packaging plastics also have the shortest life-span (duration of use over its lifetime) before it’s discarded and sent to a landfill of all the various uses for plastics today. It is painfully obvious to us: we need to shift our packaging to bioplastics and non-plastic materials as soon as possible. If we could migrate 100% of our packaging plastics to bioplastics or non-plastic materials, that alone would almost be enough to meet the goal of reducing landfilled plastics by 50%. 

How do we do that? Well, as consumers, we always have the choice of where we spend our money, which companies we support and purchase products from, and which companies we stay away from. We all need to lean-in, head-first, immediately, so that companies learn that they need to modify their packaging in order to maintain us as customers.