Drowning in plastic

6 mins read

Visualising the world’s addiction to plastic bottles

By  Simon Scarr and Marco Hernandez

Around the world, almost 1 million plastic bottles are purchased every minute. As the environmental impact of that tide of plastic becomes a growing political issue, major packaged goods sellers and retailers are under pressure to cut the flow of the single-use bottles and containers that are clogging the world’s waterways.

Plastic production has surged in the last 50 years, leading to widespread use of inexpensive disposable products that are having a devastating effect on the environment. Images of plastic debris-strewn beaches and dead animals with stomachs full of plastic have sparked outrage.

Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles are commonly used for soft drinks and mineral water, but can also be used in other household or personal care products. Data from Euromonitor International, shows that more than 480 billion of these bottles were sold last year alone. That’s almost 1 million every minute. The illustrations below show what that pile of plastic would look like if it was collected over a longer period of time.

Every hour

54.9 million bottles
The pile would be higher than Rio de Janeiro’s Christ the Redeemer.

Christ the Redeemer, 38m

Every day

1.3 billion bottles
Every day the equivalent of a bottle pile half the size of the Eiffel Tower in Paris is sold around the world.

Eiffel Tower, 324m

One month

40 billion bottles
In one month’s time, the Eiffel Tower looks dwarfed next to the mountain of bottles that have accumulated.

In a full year

481.6 billion bottles
If all of the plastic bottles sold in 2018 were gathered in a pile, it would be higher than the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai.

Burj Khalifa, 830m

Past 10 years

4 trillion bottles
The plastic bottles sold worldwide since 2009 would tower above New York’s Manhattan Island. Data from Euromonitor International shows that more than 480 billion of these bottles were sold last year alone. The 2018 annual figure of almost 482 billion is up more than 50% since 2009. The pile visualised below is around 2.4 km high and dwarfs the glittering skyscrapers of the Financial District at the tip of Lower Manhattan.

Manhattan and the New York City area

Drinking bottles are one of many types of plastic pollution currently causing environmental problems.

Half of all plastic produced is designed to be used only once. The world produced about 380 million metric tons of plastic in 2015, according to research published in Science Advances journal. About 55% of that plastic waste was discarded, 25% incinerated and 20% recycled, meaning the majority of the bottles visualised above would likely end up in the environment, landfill sites, or oceans around the world.

The amount recycled is even smaller when calculated over the past 65 years. Globally, 8.3 billion tons of plastic was produced from 1950 to 2015. Most was single-use plastic, now discarded, and only 6% of the cumulative total has been recycled, the Science Advances study shows.

Rosemarie Downey, global head of packaging research at Euromonitor International, told Reuters that adopting circular design principles in packaging, which considers the entire life cycle of a product, including use and reuse, is one way for brands to address surplus waste at the outset and can assist recovery, recycling, and reuse in order to reduce the damaging impact of plastic waste in the environment.

However, the responsibility to address the problem goes beyond the manufacturers. “Ultimately, mindful consumption of plastic is a global duty of everyone. Consumers have their part to play to help realise zero-litter, as do corporate players in their use and handling and governments in providing the necessary, optimised waste management infrastructure,” Downey said.

The EU has voted to outlaw 10 single-use plastic items, including straws, forks and knives, by 2021. It has also set targets for all plastic packaging, the top source of plastic waste, to be recyclable by 2030.

Such moves are setting up a showdown with the oil industry, which is pouring billions into new facilities to produce more plastic and other petrochemical products, particularly in Asia, the world’s biggest producer of the material and its waste.

Despite environmental concerns, plastic output seems poised to increase.

Sources: Euromonitor International; Science Advances; Geyer et al (2017), Our World in Data; Reuters

By Simon Scarr and Marco Hernandez
Additional editing by Manas Sharma and Alex Richardson


How Can You Help Reduce Waste?

It really isn’t difficult to reduce waste, which is why it’s so shocking that over 8 million metric tons of plastic waste end up in the ocean each year.

  • First and foremost, Reduce the amount of single use plastic consumed by your household. If you buy less, large plastic producers will make less and what is not produced doesn’t need recycling and can’t do harm.

Publisher & editor of The Climate Embassy, Manuel Desrochers is a life long environmental advocate and earth lover. He is the co-founder and Chief Design Officer of The AQUAOVO Experience, launched over 12 years ago as an eco-chic alternative to bottled water.


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