World’s Plastic Burden: Weight Of A Billion African Elephants
If all plastic bottles humans use in a year were to be stacked on top of each other, you could build at least 190 towers to the moon.
Add to it bags, plates, and everything plastic consumed globally. All that is buried in landfills, dumped in rivers, and carried into oceans. About 6.3 billion tonnes of plastic waste has been generated in the world so far, according to a 2015 study by Britain’s Ellen McArthur Foundation. That’s equivalent to the average weight of more than 1 billion African bush elephants. Around 90 percent of this plastic will not decompose for at least 500 years — polluting food, water and air.
The theme of the Earth Day 2018, being observed on 22 April across the globe, is to end plastic pollution by 2020. That won’t be easy.
Plastic is one of the most widely used materials on the planet. It’s easily available, durable and can be moulded into anything from bottles to Rubik's cubes. About 480 billion plastic bottles are consumed every year, according to Euromonitor data cited by the Guardian. And that’s just one of its myriad uses.
Here are some charts that show the extent of plastic pollution on the planet...
Get Ready For An Ocean of Plastic
If business goes on as usual, plastic pollution will double over the next thirty years. That would mean there'll be more plastic in the ocean than fish.
China Has The Most Plastic Waste
China is leagues ahead of any other country in mismanaged plastic waste. That's also because a chunk of the world's plastic trash is sent to China for recycling. There's no reliable information, according to the International Solid Waste Association, about what happens to that plastic after reaching China.
A joint study by the Ellen McArthur Foundation and the World Economic Forum had found that at least 8 million tonnes of plastic is dumped into the oceans every year. That's equivalent to one garbage truck a minute. It’s set to grow to two per minute by 2030 and four by 2050.
The world's largest ever ocean cleanup exercise in 2017 revealed that among the trash that pollutes the ocean, four out of the top five items are plastic. The biggest polluter, though, were cigarette butts.
India is addicted to plastic. It generates over 4,354 tonnes of such non-biodegradable waste every day, according to a 2016 report by the Central Pollution Control Board. That's enough to fill over seven Airbus A380 aircraft — the world's largest passenger airliner.
Plastics have several health hazards, both for humans and animals. Not just that, it is detrimental for the environment too. Every year, according to Trucost, a research arm of Standard & Poor's, it costs nearly $75 billion in environmental damages.
Sea animals choke on plastic debris. Sea turtle eats polythene mistaking it for jelly fish. A 2011 study found that fish in the North Pacific ocean ingested between 12,000 and 24,000 tonnes of plastic every year. That moves up the food chain while upsetting natural processes.
...But Isn’t It Useful?
Humans need plastic for just about everything. Replacing it completely also won’t be a good thing. Alternatives to plastics, a separate study by Trucost found, would quadruple the environmental costs by increasing the carbon footprint.
- Plastic waste inputs from land into the ocean (J. Jambeck, R. Geyer et al, Science vol 347)
- Production, use, and fate of all plastics ever made (R. Geyer, J. Jambeck et al, Science Advances)
- International Coastal Cleanup 2017 Report
- The New Plastics Economy: Rethinking The Future Of Plastics & Catalysing Action (Ellen McArthur Foundation)
- CPCB Plastic Waste Management Report 2015-16
- Plastics and Sustainabilty: A Valuation of Environmental Benefits, Costs and Opportunities for Continuous Improvement (Trucost)
- Small plastic debris changes water movement and heat transfer through beach sediments (Carswon HS, Colbert SL et al)
(This article is being republished for World Environment Day on 5 June, it was originally published on 23 April, 2018 on BloombergQuint.)