This guide lists some key statistics and numbers that explain what happens to all the plastic we produce, use, send to waste management, and deal with as pollution in society.
The aim of the guide is to shed more light on each stage of the plastic lifecycle, how one stage feeds into the next, and where plastic eventually ends up.
Summary – What Happens To Plastic Over It’s Life Cycle In Society
From the stats and numbers below, we can see that …
Most of the plastic we produce ends up either in landfill, or as micro and nanoplastics that can end up essentially anywhere on Earth (in the ocean, in soil and sediments, in tap water, in fresh water sources, in animals, in humans, and more).
Plastic, no matter where it ends up, mostly takes hundreds and thousands of years to break down and decompose, which means it has a much longer lifecycle than many other materials
Three of the biggest goals we might strive for as a society in the future (based off the numbers and stats of the lifecycle of plastic) to address the plastic problem might be to:
1) Reduce the use of problem plastics and plastic products that have the highest plastic pollution, waste and littering rates,
2) Improve waste management and containment of plastic,
and 3) Improve the design and make up of plastic as a material, and plastic products to make them more recyclable or reusable.
But, overall, addressing the use and management of plastic in society has many potential solutions that need to be implemented across various levels
The General Life Cycle Of Plastic In Society
A very general life cycle of plastic in society might be (in order or each step):
Different types of plastic, and different plastic products are manufactured (usually from oil and fossil fuels as a feedstock)
Use Of Plastic
Different types of plastic and plastic products are used for different applications and over different timescales.
For example, plastic packaging might have a much shorter lifespan of say a few minutes, compared to a construction plastic used in piping that lasts decades
Plastic Becomes Waste
At some point, plastic becomes waste when it no longer used, or can no longer be used in it’s current form
Plastic Waste Management
Plastic waste is managed by being sent to either Landfill, Recycling/Re-Use, Or Incineration.
It should be noted that plastic might be rejected from a recycling plant and re-directed to landfill.
Furthermore, in some countries with unsecure or open landfills, plastic might leak from the dumping site.
So, the waste management option chosen for the plastic waste isn’t always the final destination
Mismanaged Plastic (Inadequately Disposed Of, Or Littered Plastic)
Plastic waste can be littered, or inadequately disposed of to an open or unsecure landfill site where it escapes to the environment.
Both contribute to plastic pollution.
The pollution by plastic in the air, land or in the ocean.
Plastic pollution encompasses a range of different issues.
Break Down & Decomposition Of Plastic
Plastic can take decades, and often hundreds and thousands of years to break down in landfills, on land and in the ocean.
Most of the plastic ever produced is present somewhere on Earth because of how long plastic takes to fully breakdown.
*Micro and Nano Plastics
Very very small particles of plastic like micro and nano plastics can break off from larger pieces of plastic at any stage of the plastic lifecycle.
These tiny particles can end up anywhere – inside humans, inside animals, in the ocean, in soil, in freshwater sources, and more.
Key Stats & Numbers That Outline What Happens To Plastic
Generation/Production Of Plastic
Total Plastic Produced Throughout History
8.3 billion metric tons of [plastic has been manufactured up to the year 2015] (sciencemag.org)
Graph of annual plastic production from 1917 to 2017 available at https://www.darrinqualman.com/global-plastics-production/
Increase In Plastic Production Since 1950
In 1950 the world produced only 2 million tonnes per year. Since then, annual production has increased nearly 200-fold, reaching 381 million tonnes in 2015 (ourworldindata.org)
How Much Plastic Is Produced Globally Per Day
More than a billion kilograms per day (darrinqualman.com)
How Much Plastic Gets Produced Globally Each Year
Over 400 million tons of plastic are produced globally each year (sciencedaily.com)
China Leads Plastic Waste Generation
With the largest population, China produced the largest quantity of plastic, at nearly 60 million tonnes. This was followed by the United States at 38 million, Germany at 14.5 million and Brazil at 12 million tonnes.(ourworldindata.org)
Plastic Packaging The Most Produced Primary Plastic
Plastic packaging by far was the most produced primary plastic in 2015 at 146 million tonnes, with building and construction in second place at 65 million tonnes (ourworldindata.org)
Plastic Packaging As A % of Total Plastic Production
Plastic packaging … is plastics’ largest application, representing 26% of the total volume (weforum.org)
Oil Used In Plastic Production
4% of the world’s annual petroleum production is diverted to making plastic, and another 4% gets burned in the refining process (wwf.org.au)
Plastic Production Forecast For The Future
Worldwide plastic production is expected to double within the next 20 years [from 2016 to 2036]—having already multiplied by 20 since 1964 (qz.com)
Plastics production is expected to double again in 20 years and almost quadruple by 2050 (weforum.org)
[There is a] projected four-fold increase in [plastic] production tonnage by 2050 (darrinqualman.com)
Cumulative Production of Polymers, Synthetic Fibers and Additives In Plastic From 1950 to 2015
8300 million tonnes (ourworldindata.org)
Total Plastic Waste Generated Throughout History
[there has been] 6.3 billion metric tons of plastic waste [throughout history up to the year 2015] – (sciencemag.org)
Industry That Produces The Most Plastic Waste
The plastic packaging industry by far produces the most plastic waste at 141 million tonnes, with ‘other sectors’ in second at 42 million tonnes (ourworldindata.org)
Plastic Waste In The Future
In the next 30 years [until 2050], we may produce four times more plastic waste than we ever did – (sciencemag.org)
If [current] trends continue, by 2050 we’ll have produced 26 billion metric tons of plastic waste (sciencemag.org)
Waste Management (Landfill, Recycling, Incineration etc.)
How Plastic Waste Is Managed Globally in 2015
19.5% is recycled, 25.5% is incinerated, and 55% is discarded (ourworldindata.org)
What Has Happened To All Plastic Waste Up To 2015?
9% was recycled and 12% incinerated. The vast majority, 79%, was tossed (sciencemag.org)
From 1950 to 2015, of all the plastic that has been produced, 30 percent was still in use, 55 percent went straight to landfill or was discarded, 8 percent was incinerated, and 6 percent was recycled (100 million tonnes of recycled plastic was still in use; 100 million tonnes was later incinerated; and 300 million tonnes was later discarded or sent to landfill) (ourworldindata.org)
What Might Happen To Plastic Waste In The Future?
If [current] trends continue, by 2050 we’ll have … dumped in landfills and the environment (sciencemag.org)
Recycling Rate Of Plastic
Only 18 percent of plastic is recycled. This is the rate for plastics overall, including plastics in cars and buildings (darrinqualman.com)
… many plastics simply cannot be effectively recycled. Even the most recyclable plastic, PET – or polyethylene terephthalate – is only recycled at a rate of 20-30%, with the rest typically going to incinerators or landfills (forbes.com)
Plastic Packaging Waste Management Stats
95% of plastic packaging material value or $80–120 billion annually is lost to the economy after a short first use.
More than 40 years after the launch of the well known recycling symbol, only 14% of plastic packaging is collected for recycling … In addition to the 14% of plastic packaging collected for recycling, another 14% is sent to an incineration and/or energy recovery process, mostly through incineration in mixed solid waste incinerators, but also through the combustion of refuse-derived fuel in industrial processes such as cement kilns, and (at a limited scale) pyrolysis or gasification …
Furthermore, an overwhelming 72% of plastic packaging is not recovered at all: 40% is landfilled, and 32% leaks out of the collection system – that is, either it is not collected at all, or it is collected but then illegally dumped or mismanaged
Recycling Rate Of Plastic Packaging Specifically
For plastic packaging (water bottles, chip bags, supermarket packaging, etc.) the recycling rate is just 14 percent. But much of that plastic inflow is excluded during the sorting and recycling process, such that only 5 percent of plastic packaging material is actually returned to use through recycling (darrinqualman.com)
Mismanaged Plastic Waste, Inadequately Disposed Of Plastic Waste, Plastic Litter, & Plastic Pollution
Most Common Plastic Litter Items
Littering Rate Of Plastic
Some sources ‘assume a rate of littering of 2 percent of total plastic waste generation across all countries’ (ourworldindata.org)
Inadequately Disposed Of Plastic Waste %
Across many low to middle income countries in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, 80-90 percent of plastic waste is inadequately disposed of, and therefore at risk of polluting rivers and oceans. High income countries see far lower rates. (ourworldindata.org)
Inadequately Disposed Of Rate Of Plastic Packaging
One third of plastic packaging escapes garbage collection systems entirely and is lost directly into the environment: onto roadsides or into streams, lakes, and oceans (darrinqualman.com)
Global Share Of Mismanaged Plastic Waste
A high share of the world’s ocean plastics pollution has its origin in Asia. China contributes the highest share of mismanaged plastic waste with around 28 percent of the global total, followed by 10 percent in Indonesia, 6 percent for both the Philippines and Vietnam (ourworldindata.org)
Plastic Additives In The Ocean
The 150 billion kilograms of plastics currently in the oceans includes 23 billion kgs of additives, all of which will eventually be released into those ocean ecosystems (darrinqualman.com)
Greenhouse Gases From Plastic
Globally, in this year alone, researchers estimate that the production and incineration of plastic will pump more than 850 million tonnes of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. By 2050, those emissions could rise to 2.8 billion tonnes (wwf.org.au)
Breakdown & Decomposition
Break Down Of Plastic In The Environment & In Landfills
All The Plastic We’ve Ever Produced Exists Somewhere
Except for the tonnage we’ve incinerated, nearly all the plastic ever produced still exists somewhere in the biosphere, although much of it is now invisible to humans, reduced to tiny particles in ocean and land ecosystems (darrinqualman.com)
Plastic On Land
Where Does Plastic On Land End Up?
It is estimated that one third of all plastic waste ends up in soils or freshwaters. Most of [the plastic produced each year] disintegrates into particles smaller than five millimetres, referred to as microplastics, and breaks down further into nanoparticles, which are less than 0.1 micrometre in size (sciencedaily.com)
Is Land Plastic Pollution Worse Than Ocean Plastic Pollution?
In fact, terrestrial microplastic pollution is much higher than marine microplastic pollution — an estimate of four to 23 times more, depending on the environment (sciencedaily.com)
Plastic On Beaches
Plastics make up 85% of beach litter worldwide, 61% of which are single-use plastics and mostly linked to the food industry such as crisp packets, sweet wrappers, food containers and cutlery (lr.org)
Plastic In The Ocean
How Much Of Total Plastic Ends Up In The Ocean
Of the 260 million tons of plastic the world produces each year, about 10 percent ends up in the Ocean (plastic-pollution.org)
What Happens To Plastic In The Ocean
Bigger pieces of plastic float on the surface and tend to congregate at ocean gyres and basins, whilst other plastic breaks down into micro and nano plastics and ends up in the deep sea, in marine animals and other locations.
There’s also plastic that enters the ocean that is unaccounted for.
How Much Plastic Is In The Ocean In Total Right Now
Plastic in the ocean can be divided into surface plastic, and total plastic (including underwater plastic).
Although it’s hard to tell exactly how much plastic is in the ocean, some estimates indicate there is around 150 million metric tons of plastic in the ocean in total
How Much Plastic Goes Into The Ocean Each Year
How Much Plastic In The Ocean Comes From Land Sources, & How Much Is From Marine Sources
Plastic Pollution In The Ocean By 2030
Plastic pollution at sea is on course to double by 2030 (wwf.org.au)
Plastic In The Ocean By 2050
[At current rates] by 2050, ocean plastic will … outweigh fish in the ocean
Ocean Plastic Pollution Rates Up To 2050
The proportion of plastic deposited in the ocean is expected to increase at a rate of 4.8% each year until 2025 … and at a rate of 3% from 2025 to 2050 (this operates on the assumption that the total mass of all the fish in the sea is around 1,000 million tonnes, and that this number won’t significantly increase or decrease in the coming decades. In that case, by 2025, when the ocean contains a projected 250 million tonnes of plastic, the ratio of plastic to fish will be roughly one to three. In 2050, if the pattern continues, the ratio will be one to one—with a slight edge for the plastic) (qz.com)
Importing & Exporting Of Plastic
Top Plastic Exporters
In 2018, China, the US and Germany were responsible for the highest plastic item exports (worldstopexports.com)
Hong Kong, the United States, and Japan grabbed top 3 spots [for the biggest plastic exporters] in the period 1988-2016 (ceoworld.biz)
Top Plastic Importers
Between 1988 to 2016, China, Hong Kong and the US imported the most plastic (ceoworld.biz)
3. Hannah Ritchie and Max Roser (2019) – “Plastic Pollution”. Published online at OurWorldInData.org. Retrieved from: ‘https://ourworldindata.org/plastic-pollution’ [Online Resource]