Our plastic addiction is killing the oceans

We are currently producing around 300 million tons of plastic per year, with this figure increasing annually.

Key Numbers

  • 8.3bn tons: The amount of plastic produced since 1950
  • 10 to 20 million tons: The amount of plastic entering the oceans annually
  • 34bn tons: The projected amount of plastic humanity will have produced by 2050

We’re addicted to plastic. There is no disputing the usefulness of plastic and the important role it plays in modern society. It’s used in a wide variety of industries and for a huge range of applications, including everything from electronics to agriculture, sport and the automotive industry, but our overuse and treatment of it is bringing us to a crisis point.

Since 1950 humanity has produced a whopping 8.3bn tons of the stuff. We are currently producing around 300 million tons per year, with this figure increasing annually. By the 2050 it is projected that we will have produced 34bn tons. Around the world, we buy one million plastic bottles every minute. That’s an obscene amount of plastic.

The problem with plastic is that it doesn’t biodegrade and so tends to last for an incredibly long time. In fact, all of the plastic ever produced by humanity still exists in one form or another. After use, there are three potential fates bestowed upon it. Either the plastic is recycled, used to generate energy, or sent to a landfill. Obviously the most desirable option is recycling. Burning the plastic to generate energy results in harmful emissions that need monitored, and sending it to landfill is purely wasteful. Depending on the country, the ratios between these three options varies wildly. Even the EU, which has a relatively good track record on recycling, still sends 38% of the plastic waste to landfill. In the US, only 9% of plastic is recycled.

10 to 20 million tons of plastic added to oceans annually

But not all of the plastic sent to landfill stays on land. Around 10 to 20 million tons of plastic enter the oceans every year, and there are currently an estimated 5.25 trillion plastic particles floating in the world’s water. Half of all the plastic in the ocean is contained in five soup-like trash patches, one of which is the size of France.

This plastic is causing untold damage to marine wildlife and the ecosystem. According to a report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 260 species are already known to be affected by plastic debris through ingestion or entanglement. Annually one million seabirds, 100,000 sea mammals and huge numbers of fish are said to be been killed as a result of plastic pollution. Nowhere is safe from the far-reaching tentacles of polluting plastic. One of the most remote islands in the world is strewn with almost 38 million pieces of plastic, and synthetic fibres have been found in the stomachs of creatures living at depths of 11km in the sea.

When the plastic is ingested by fish, clams and so on, it makes its way into our food system, and it’s already present in almost all of our tap water. We don’t know what the future health issues raised by this may be, but what we do know is that the current trend of increasing plastic production is unsustainable. We need to address the problems now before they get any worse.

Saving our oceans is a global problem that requires a global solution.

Small steps are not enough

There have been small progressive steps made along the way. Introducing a charge for single-use plastic bags in the UK reduced their usage by 85%, and Kenya made a move earlier this year to ban them outright. The UK is currently considering a tax on single-use plastics of all kinds. Biodegradable plastics are being touted as a solution, but these are accused of being more of a PR move as they still degrade very slowly, and won’t degrade in the depths of the ocean.

On an individual level, there are steps you can take to reduce your own plastic consumption, but we need stronger policies and action, and a joined-up approach from world bodies. Initiatives from the plastics industry, such as Marine Litter Solutions, should be lauded, but with a large vested interest in the production of plastic, it may be harder to expect the industry to self-regulate.

Saving our oceans is a global problem that requires a global solution. We need to act now before it’s too late.


Further Reading: Related Start Ups and Organizations


This series of articles has been prepared with the support of our partner Viessmann — they’re celebrating 100 years of their company this year (2017) and are actively involved in positively shaping the next 100 years.

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