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A study by the University of California Santa Barbara’s National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis found between 4.8 and 12.7 million metric tons of plastic material end up in the oceans every year. The amount of plastic pollution to enter the ocean each year will massively increase by 2025. How much plastic is there, where does it all come from, and what are its effects? Here are 15 facts and statistics to put it all into perspective.

  • Half of the 300 million tons of plastic produced each year is used only once.
  • More than 40 percent of plastic is used to create packaging, including the hundreds of billions of plastic bags used around the globe. Each minute, one million of them are used, and the typical bag is used for 15 minutes before being discarded, according to Plastic Oceans.
  • In 2014, the U.S. sold over 100 billion plastic beverage bottles, the Container Recycling Institute estimated; 57 percent of them were for water. That is a large increase from 1996, when the U.S. sold an estimated 3.8 billion plastic water containers. These account for 14 percent of litter, without considering the labels and caps that are thrown out.
  • It takes plastic a very long time to breakdown in the ocean. Even then, it continues to break up into smaller and smaller fragments. Pieces from a one-liter bottle can eventually end up on every mile of beach on every continent.
  • A collection of garbage off the California coast is twice the size of Texas. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch has six times as much plastic as there is sea life in the area. A system of ocean currents and wind patterns helps keep the garbage circulating. In fact, four different currents help create a 7.7 million square mile area in the North Pacific with calm, stable waters, where plastic and other debris become trapped.
  • The concept of the garbage patch in the Pacific Ocean is not like an island of trash, as many people envision. Tiny fragments called microplastics float in the ocean. They are often not easily seen with the naked eye, nor does satellite imagery pick them up as a giant collection of garbage. Although the occasional pair of shoes or fishing equipment may be seen, the water generally looks cloudy from the small suspended plastic particles.
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  • About 70 percent of debris in the ocean sinks to the bottom. Ecologists and oceanographers have speculated there may be underwater trash heaps beneath the middle of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. A racing boat captain first discovered the patch during a yachting race.
  • Of the material in the collection of garbage in the Pacific Ocean, 80 percent comes from the land (coastal deposits of plastic from North America take six years to reach the patch), and 20 percent comes from oil rigs, boaters, and cargo ships – most of this is fishing nets. Shipping containers lost at sea dump plastic items such as parts of computer monitors, and even LEGOs, directly into the water.
  • Chemicals in plastic, such as BPA, can be absorbed by the human body. Some can trigger various health effects and even to alter hormones. High exposure can increase the risk of heart disease and diabetes, according to a study, while tests on animals have shown the potential for damage to developing brain and reproductive systems. Plastics can be ingested by marine animals that are eventually caught as seafood and consumed by people. When buried in landfills, plastics can release chemicals that find their way into groundwater.
  • The chemicals in plastic, like BPA, are found in 93 percent of people over age six and in food and beverage can linings. Phthalates are also found in human bodies and come from food packaging, vinyl flooring, wall coverings, and medical devices. Premature infants are often exposed to these compounds when treated in neonatal intensive care units.
  • Plastic takes anywhere from 500 to 1,000 years to degrade, so one can argue that every piece of it ever produced, except for what has been incinerated, is still in existence. Much of what is in lakes and oceans is smaller than two-tenths of an inch, and a great deal of it is even microscopic. The American Chemical Society collected samples from Lake Erie and found as many as 1.7 million particles per square mile.
  • The amount of plastic being produced is increasing exponentially. In the past decade, more of it was produced than compared to the entire century before that. Only five percent of the products produced with it is recovered.
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  • People unknowingly discard and disperse tiny plastic particles. Tiny beads in toothpaste, facial scrubs, and other toiletries can be found in waters all over the world and contribute to the problem of plastic pollution that cannot be easily seen.
  • Scientists estimate that 1 million seabirds are killed by consuming plastics every year, as are 100,000 mammals. In fact, 44 percent of marine bird species have been studied to show that such materials have affected them in some way. Cetaceans and sea turtle species have also been documented to have plastic around or inside their bodies.
  • Plastic pollution doesn’t only impact water quality. The chemicals found in plastic are found in air, dust, and food.

Sources: Plastic Pollution, Ecowatch.com, UCSB, Nat Geo, Environmentalhealthnews.org, acs.org.

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