Look around you. It isn’t too difficult to spot plastics, right? That’s because plastic has become a staple material in life. It’s in everything and everywhere you go. It’s in your trusty phones, cars, and even a turtle’s guts—wait, what?
It’s the sad truth. Although plastic has significantly advanced technology and human life, it’s also responsible for the death of at least 100,000 marine animals yearly and emissions of about 15% of the world’s carbon budget, contributing to the climate crisis.
But it’s not just plastic’s fault. It’s also your fault, our fault. Would it reach the oceans, lands, and the atmosphere had it not been for our negligence and greed? It wouldn’t.
Still unconvinced? Here are plastic litter statistics for 2023 that’ll make you realise how years of reliance on conventional plastics and littering shaped the world we know today.
Plastic litter statistics
Nations worldwide, including Australia, have benefited a lot from the wonders of plastics. Unfortunately, plastic innovations also came with plastic litter, affecting us and our environment.
- 75% of Australia’s ocean coast waste is plastic, threatening over 690 marine species.
- Australia is among the top consumers of single-use plastics, from 123 kg in 2010 to 147 kg of plastic per person in 2021. There’s a need to strengthen the implementation of the single-use plastics ban.
- Approximately 130,000 tonnes of plastics find their way to Australian marine environments yearly.
- Despite Australia’s recycling programs, a whopping 84% of plastic ends up in landfills.
- Clean Up Australia’s 2022 National Rubbish Report shows that plastics make up most of the waste picked up by volunteers from 1,075 locations in Australia. Specifically, it constitutes 79% of litter found on school grounds, 60% in parks, and 74% in bushlands.
- EA Environmental Action research reports that by 2023, approximately 158.9 million tonnes of plastic waste will be produced, and 43% of the global plastic waste will be mismanaged, leading to an extra 68.6 million tonnes of plastic polluting the environment.
- July 28th is 2023’s Plastic Overshoot Day—the day we’ve consumed more plastics than our waste system’s capacity for the year.
- According to CSIRO and Imperial College London researchers, 99% of the world’s seabird species will have plastics in their guts by 2050.
- With a 40% increase in plastic production in the next ten years, there’ll be more plastic than fish in oceans by 2050. That’s if we don’t do anything.
- Currently, our oceans have 75 to 199 million tonnes of plastic. These figures will increase as plastic waste entering our marine systems triples, specifically 23-37 million tonnes annually by 2040.
Beating plastic litter pollution
Based on 2023’s plastic litter statistics, plastic pollution is worsening daily. Now’s the time to care and learn more about how to do our bit for the environment. Starting with the following plastic litter solutions and alternatives:
1. Strengthening recycling initiatives
If we accept plastic as part of our daily lives today and in the years to come, we must be 100% committed to its recycling.
But Australia and the world are currently struggling with this, as shown below:
- Australia only recycles 18% of plastic packaging as of April 2023, which means it’ll fall short of its 70% recycling target by 2025.
- According to the new Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) report, only 9% of the world’s annual plastic waste is recycled, while 22% is mishandled.
Remember, recycling is not just the government’s responsibility. Each one of us should be responsible for our waste, even kids. If you need help with recycling, you may look for the following in your country or city:
- Kerbside Recycling Collection
- Material Recovery Facilities (MRFs)
- Local Recycling Centres
- Rubbish Removal Services
- Charities and Donation Centres
2. Single-use plastic ban
The single-use plastic ban is among the world’s boldest attempts to combat plastic pollution as it challenges the long-standing dominance of plastics in packaging. The following countries have started it on certain plastic products:
- Zimbabwe (2010): plastic packaging and bottles
- Antigua and Barbuda (2016): single-use catering and takeaway items
- Pacific Island of Vanuatu (2018): disposable containers
- European Union (2021): cotton buds, balloon sticks, single-use catering and takeaway items (e.g. polystyrene foam)
- UK (2023): single-use plastic plates, cutlery, balloon sticks, and polystyrene cups and containers supplied to restaurants, cafes and takeaways
Australia also caught up in this movement. As of 2023, 7 of 8 Australian states pledged to ban single-use plastics. The ACT, Queensland, and South Australia began the ban in 2021, NSW and Western Australia in 2022, Victoria in 2023, and the Northern Territory plans to do so by 2025.
Tasmania is yet to commit, but city councils in Hobart and Launceston have already initiated the ban.
Thanks to these initiatives, we’ve managed to cope with plastic pollution for now. However, these solutions are temporary since plastics are still in demand due to their affordability and convenience.
To truly reduce plastic, the world must adopt sustainable alternatives in the long run. Fortunately, businesses and researchers have introduced more sustainable options. Check out the list below to see how they’re doing.
3. Plastic alternatives
- Glass, metals, and paper
With the ongoing plastic crisis, people have sought materials to replace plastics. Some of these are:
Glass is crafted from natural materials like sand, soda ash, and limestone, melted at high temperatures. It’s also highly reusable and can be recycled multiple times without losing quality. But it’s heavier and more fragile than plastic.
Other emerging alternatives are metals like aluminium and copper. Although metal extraction can be environmentally damaging, aluminium and copper are lightweight and recyclable.
- Copper’s recycling rate exceeds 50% worldwide.
- In the United States, aluminium cans have an average of 68% recycled content, whereas plastic only has 3%.
- 75% of aluminium cans get recycled, significantly greater than plastic waste’s 40% recycling rate.
With these benefits, aluminium and copper water bottles and food containers have started gaining traction.
Paper is often believed to be a great alternative to plastic. Yes, it’s recyclable and generally made from natural materials. But paper recycling requires lots of energy, water, and chemicals. Plus, it’s not good at handling liquids.
What if there’s plastic made from renewable sources that would quickly decompose?
Bioplastic! It’s usually made of starch and cellulose, making it a sustainable alternative. However, you must be sure you’re using the correct ‘bioplastic’.
Today, only Polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHA) are known bioplastics to completely decompose in oceans, contrary to polylactic acid (PLA) bioplastic or corn-plastic, which only worsens the problem with microplastics.
To provide you with a brief overview of its use and impact, here are a few statistics on bioplastics:
- Bioplastic global production capacity will grow to 2.87 million metric tons by 2025.
- Bioplastics are less than 1% of the over 390 million tonnes of plastics produced yearly.
- Bioplastics will decrease the use of petroleum in plastic production by 15-20% by 2025.
- Final Thoughts
These plastic litter statistics reveal the unfortunate reality that plastics are here to stay for years, maybe even beyond our lifetime. And it will only disappear or reduce in number if we cut plastic production, recycle, stop littering, and choose sustainable alternatives.
It’s time we realise that the plastic problem isn’t so much about the plastic itself but more about what we do with it.