Recent news stories have shared that less than 10% of plastics ever produced have been recycled. This statistic is referring to all types of plastics (auto parts, medical items, home furnishings, food and beverage containers), not just the items that can easily be recycled like plastic bottles and jars (#1, #2, #5). Regardless, reliance on single-use plastics has detrimental impacts to the environment. Plastics that are recyclable, rarely are able to be recycled back into the same product (unlike glass bottles or aluminum cans). Instead, they are downgraded to other items like plastic lumber that are often not recyclable at the end of their life.
Plastics have altered our ecosystem. Littered in a park, on the street or on a beach, single-use plastics can take up to 400 years to break down. Placed in a landfill, plastics that are not able to be recycled end up littered, burned for energy, or put in a landfill where they never degrade. Here are some additional facts on issues associated with the disposal of plastics.
- The average American throws away 185 pounds of plastic each year. (Source: EcoWatch)
- Plastics littered in the environment fragment into microplastics. In the environment, fish, birds and animals confuse microplastics as food. Plastic has been found in the stomachs of over 90% of seabirds tested and 100% of sea turtles. Scientists estimate that, by weight, there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish by 2050. (Source: Natural Resources Defense Council)
- Keep America Beautiful’s 2020 litter survey found there are nearly 50 billion pieces of litter along US roadways and waterways. That’s 2,000 pieces of litter per mile, and 152 littered items for every US resident. Plastic items were the most commonly littered item, making up 38.6% of all litter. (Source: Keep America Beautiful) Littered plastics include:
- 423 million fast food packaging items
- 394.7 million fast food cups
- 350 million plastic bags
- 207.1 million pieces of PPE (gloves and masks)
- Keep America Beautiful’s study (above) suggests a large portion of waste that is littered will eventually end up along waterways. The Ocean Cleanup shares that rivers are the main source of plastics ending up in our oceans. They found that 80% of river plastic comes from 1,000 rivers worldwide. (Source: The Ocean Cleanup)
- New research estimates that without an average of 8.8 million tons of plastic flow into oceans each year. This equates to one dump truck full of plastic emptying directly into the ocean every minute every day for a year. (Source: National Geographic)
- Plastic pollution often injure or trap wildlife. Plastic pollution will wash up on shorelines and threaten hundreds of thousands of hermit crabs. One study found that crabs will mistake plastic items as hollow homes. The slippery plastic will trap crabs inside until they die. This sets off an avalanche of deaths from crabs drawn to “vacant” plastic homes.(Source: EcoWatch).
- In 2016, researchers from the Rochester Institute of Technology estimate that nearly 22 million pounds of plastic debris enter the Great Lakes from the U.S. and Canada each year. Half of the plastic is going into Lake Michigan, followed by Lake Erie, Lake Ontario, Lake Huron and Lake Superior. The amount of plastic in Lake Michigan equates to 100 Olympic-sized swimming pools full of plastic bottles. (Source: WasteDive, Science Daily)
- Plastic manufacturers used advertising to market plastics as a viable alternative to aluminum, steel, and glass packaging. At the same time they were developing and promoting the recyclability of plastics, they also acknowledged that making new plastics from recycled materials may never be economically feasible. This is due to the low cost of oil needed to manufacture plastics from raw materials and the fact that most plastics are down-cycled to other products. (Source: NPR)