According to a report published in 2017 entitled “Production, use, and fate of all plastics ever made,” in Science Advances, a cumulative total of 7.82 billion tonnes of plastic was produced in our world by 2015 – that’s just over one tonne of plastic per person. Annually, we’re producing over 381 million tonnes of plastic. 146 million tonnes of plastic produced in 2015 was used for plastic packaging, accounting for 42 per cent of total production.
Unnecessary plastic wrapping plagues our shopping shelves. It is heart-breaking to see an incredible amount of unnecessary waste and many retailers are simply ignoring calls to smarten up and eliminate single-use plastic. According to the report, 141 million tonnes of plastic packaging ends up as waste per year. The section below accounts for waste we produced back in 2010. Since then, our annual plastic production globally has increased by 21%. If you live in Australia for example you’re estimated to generate 0.2kg of plastic waste per day or 73kg per year. If our average life expectancy in Australia is 82 then we’re estimated to generate almost 6 tonnes or 5,986kg of waste over our lifetime (about the weight of an African elephant).
According to the data from 2010’s worst producer was China, who produced an annual amount of 59.08 million tonnes per year of plastic waste. Followed somewhat closely by the United States with 37.83 million tonnes per year of waste with Germany, Egypt and India close by.
Looking at waste management, high-income countries in Europe as well as Australia, North America, New Zealand, Japan and South Korea have adequate waste management systems. Discarded plastic usually ends up in landfills that are properly covered (that’s not to say that plastic can’t enter public waterways, reserves and natural areas). Due to low income areas not having sufficient funds to manage their waste properly, countries in South America as well as India, Pakistan, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and the Philippines have ineffective waste management systems.
According to the report, one of the most prominent ways plastic enters the ocean is through our river systems. “This can transport plastic waste from further inland to coastal areas where it can enter the ocean,” the report continued. “The top 20 polluting rivers accounted for more than two-thirds (67 percent) of the global annual river input. Geographically we see that the majority of the top 20 rivers are located in Asia. River Yangtze, the top polluting river, had an input of approximately 333,000 tonnes in 2015 —just over 4 percent of annual ocean plastic pollution.”
Once the plastic enters the ocean it severely impacts natural coastlines, wildlife on the coast and in the ocean. In 2014 it was estimated that there is approximately 268,950 tonnes of plastic in our ocean. Of that weight it’s estimated that there are over 5 trillion plastic particles in the world’s ocean surfaces.
“The most well-known example of large plastic accumulations in surface waters is the so-called ‘Great Pacific Garbage Patch’ (GPGP).” In a study conducted by Lebreton et al. (2018) the vast majority of the GPGP material is plastics. After trawling the patch and collecting samples they estimate that 99.9 per cent of all floating debris within the patch is plastic. The authors also estimate that the GPGB spanned 1.6 million km2 . “This is just over three times the area of Spain, and slightly larger in area to Alaska (the USA’s largest state).” The GPGP comprised of 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic, with a mass of 79,000 tonnes (approximately 29 percent of the 269,000 tonnes in the world’s surface oceans).”
In regards to the content of the GPBP it is estimated that around 52 per cent of the plastics originated from fishing activity (including fishing lines, nets and ropes) with a further 47 per cent coming from hard plastics, sheets and films.
The impacts of plastic pollution on our marine and wildlife is significant. Animals can become entangled in plastic debris which has been recorded for “344 marine species to date, including all marine turtle species, more than two-thirds of seal species, one-third of whale species, and one-quarter of seabirds.” Animals can ingest the plastic, either unintentionally, intentionally or indirectly through eating prey. Ingestion of plastic debris has been recorded for at least “233 marine species including all marine turtle species, more than one-third of seal species, 59% of whale species, and 59% of seabirds.”
What can we collectively do?
According to Greenpeace – in a published article from 2017 – there are a few ways you can help reduce your plastic waste. Remember, all good things take time and cutting out plastic ‘cold turkey’ can be a difficult thing for a lot of people, especially if you’ve grown up without having to think about your waste or what you buy.
Our advice is to reduce your plastic waste day-by-day or week-by-week and slowly get accustomed to doing things a little differently. It might be a little difficult at first but once you get into a routine it’ll become a part of your habits in no time. Be smart where you shop and refuse to buy unnecessarily wrapped plastic items such as fruits and vegetables. Take notice of how much plastic you accumulate and be wary of the impact you have on our global waste.
Carrying a reusable bottle is a big bonus as plastic bottles you purchase from the shop are single use and are most often, just glorified tap water without any added benefits. Carrying a bottle is a great way to immediately reduce your plastic waste on a day-to-day basis.
If you’re an avid coffee drinker then bringing a reusable coffee cup to your local cafe or restaurant is another big bonus. Most importantly, make it convenient for yourself. If you can, purchase 2 or 3 cups to keep in your car, bag and home so you’re never around without one and it’s there, ready to go. According to the British Coffee Association, their aim is to have UK retailers switch to 100% recyclable packing by 2025.
Shop smarter – although it might not feel like it but money and shopping choices really is your power to change the world. As we mentioned, be smart about how you shop and buy items that are plastic-free as much as you can. Buying power lies with the consumer and if we collectively shop smarter, refuse unnecessary plastic and make a conscious decision to be better shoppers, the world will be better off for it.
A large UK retailer recently opted to remove plastic packaging from some of its fruits and vegetables which means there will be 9,000 tonnes of plastic waste saved from entering into our landfill. However, there is still a great number of shopping retailers including Tesco, Coop, Walmart, Costco, Woolworths, Coles, Foodland, Morrisons (to roll out their plan across all stores), M&S and many more who need to develop a plan to reduce or completely eliminate unnecessary, single-use plastic wrapping.
We encourage you to look around at items on your next shopping trip. How many items are wrapped in plastic that is not necessary? Fruits and vegetables have their own protective coatings (nature is pretty smart that way!) and they do not need to be wrapped in plastic.