The single use plastic problem: The scary facts

The single use plastic problem: The scary facts

We are all aware of the problems single use plastics are causing to our planet. We see the headlines. But what about some context? How do we make sense of statistics that are thrown at us one minute, then replaced by another story the next? This article takes a fresh look at the single-use plastic problem, giving real-life comparisons to illustrate the size of the problem we face.

The amount of plastic in the oceans is due to outnumber living organisms by as soon as 2050.1 Just let that sink in for a second. More pieces of plastic than fish in the sea. That would make for a very different looking version of the little mermaid!

How many pieces of plastic are needed to kill a turtle? 2

A difficult question to ask, given turtles are so cute (Who else is hearing Crush from Finding Nemo saying “Dude!” right now?). Turtles can easily eat plastic while feeding, be it because they are feeding randomly or because it resembles their favourite natural snack. The shocking reality is that just a single piece of plastic has been seen to be the cause death in turtles. 1 piece of plastic. This is simply due the plastic damaging the turtles’ gut. Research suggests that a single piece of plastic may result in death for 1 in every 5 turtles. Sadly, the more plastic a turtle eats, their risk of death due to the plastic they have eaten also increases. For sea turtles that eat 14 pieces of plastic the risk of death is raised to 50%. Globally it is estimated that 52% of all sea turtles have eaten some plastic. This figure rises to the highest possible value of 100% for turtles surveyed of the Brazilian coast.

Turtles are eating plastic. It is killing them. It can take as little as 1 piece of plastic to cause death. This is only a glimpse at the problems single use plastics are causing in these ecosystems.

How much plastic do sea creatures actually swallow?

Plastic in our waterways is a global issue, with plastics entering the marine food chain everywhere. Research has shown that 1/3 of fish surveyed in the English Channel had plastics present.3 Numerous whales have been found in the last year alone that have had literally kilos of plastic waste inside their stomachs. A Sperm Whale found in Indonesia had over 6kg of plastic inside, including 115 cups. A pilot whale that died off the coast of Thailand was found to have 80 plastic bags in its’ stomach which weighed 8kg. A Cuvier's beaked whale found on the coast of the Philippines is perhaps most shocking (so far), with over 40kg of plastic inside.

Whilst we may not be able to say what quantity of plastic the average sea creature is swallowing, we can see the devastating affect it has on those animals. Sadly, if we do not change our behaviour this situation is only likely to get worse.

How much plastic is really getting into our oceans?

More than 8 million tonnes of plastic a year is making it into our oceans. That is the equivalent of dumpling a rubbish truck full of plastic into the ocean every single minute.4 Lets consider that in a couple of different ways:

The largest animal on the planet is the Blue whale, which can weigh around 200 tonnes. This means that the weight equivalent of 5 Blue whales of plastic are ending up in the ocean EVERY HOUR. This could still be hard to imagine, seeing as most people will not get the chance to see a Blue Whale (though the folks at the Natural History Museum in London have displayed Hope in all her glory, so we can all admire her awesome scale). Consider instead the largest land animal, the African elephant, which weighs in at around 6 tonnes. This means that the weight equivalent of 152 African elephants of plastic are ending up in the ocean EVERY HOUR.

Plastic bottles make up 1/3 of all plastic waste in the sea.

Let’s take a look at some facts from closer to home. Let’s start with the single use coffee cup.

How many single use coffee cups do you think are used per year in the UK? It’s 2.5 billion! That’s 2,500,000,000 a year people! What is even more worrying is 99.75% of those are not recycled.5

How can we visualise that?

How many times does that stretch around the earth? Take the Earths circumference as 40,075,000 metres and the approximate height of a single use coffee cup as 0.134m. This would mean the single use coffee cups used and not recycled in the UK each year would stretch around the Earth over 8 times.

Put another way, 4745 single use coffee cups are used and not recycled EVERY MINUTE in the UK.

Sadly, most people still believe these single use coffee cups are recyclable. The information given about these cups can be very misleading, but in general most facilities are still unable to recycle these items. This means these coffee cups end up contaminating the recycling bins they are mistakenly put in.

Let’s move on to the single use plastic water bottle.

How many single use plastic water bottles do you think are used per year in the UK? The answer is 7.7 billion! That’s right – 7,700,000,000 single use plastic water bottles are used every year in the UK alone.1 If the average height of these bottles is around 0.24m then they would stretch around the earth over 46 times! That’s crazy!

Of the plastic bottles used every year in the UK, it is estimated around 57.7% are currently recycled. Whilst better than the single use coffee cup, it still means there are large numbers of these single use products being littered, landfilled or incinerated. The single use plastic water bottles used and not recycled in the UK each year would still stretch around the Earth more than 19.5 times.

A different way to think of this is that EVERY HOUR, the number of plastic water bottles used in the UK that are not recycled is 372, 904. That is 6,215 bottles a minute, or 104 bottles a second that are used in the UK and not recycled.

Can we think of this in any other way?

Let’s take some famous London landmarks to provide us with a comparison.

Height of Big Ben tower – the Elizabeth tower = 96 metres

Height of The Shard = 309.6 metres

Some simple maths shows the plastic water bottles used every hour in the UK that are not recycled, if laid end to end (assuming the water bottles have an average height of 0.24m), are 932 times taller than Big Ben and 289 times taller than The Shard!

That is every hour!!!

This plastic is not just a problem for our seas and oceans. It is in our rivers and other waterways as well. Plastic bottles and their bottle tops still account for 10% of all items found in the Thames. 6 Some sources estimate Londoners use 175 single use water bottles each per year. 6 Using the 7.7 billion figure from above, we come out with a slightly more conservative figure of 117 single use water bottles each, per year, for the average person in the UK.

You made it to the end. Phew! That was a lot of numbers and figures to get through. Hopefully using different ways to visualise the scale of the single-use plastic problem we have helped you appreciate the scale of this issue. We must also stress that we are not anti-plastic. Some plastics are wonderful materials which are light, flexible and tough. Those plastics provide great benefit in a range of uses. It is the single use plastics that are problematic. The disposable nature of these materials that we must address as a society.   

Heres a handy infographic with highlights from this blog post - hope you find it helpful!

References:

  1. https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201719/cmselect/cmenvaud/339/339.pdf
  2. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-45509822 and https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-018-30038-z
  3. https://www.plymouth.ac.uk/news/pr-opinion/plastic-pollution-and-the-planet
  4. http://web.unep.org/unepmap/un-declares-war-ocean-plastic
  5. https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201719/cmselect/cmenvaud/657/657.pdf and https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-43739043
  6. http://www.thames21.org.uk/thames-river-watch/litter-monitoring-results/ and https://www.onelessbottle.org/

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