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Plastic Pollution – Facts and Information

Plastic pollution is everywhere. Plastic is so widely used and in (or around) so many products, that we’ve almost become blind to it. But it’s filling the oceans, and harming all kinds of marine life, including whales and dolphins.

Facts about plastic pollution

  • Humans have created 8300 million metric tonnes of plastic in the last 60+ years
  • Between 4.7 million and 12.7 million tonnes of plastic leak into the world’s oceans every year. That’s more than the combined weight of every single blue whale on Earth.
  • A single 1L plastic bottle could break down into enough small fragments to put one on every mile of beach in the entire world.
  • 56% of all cetacean species have been recorded eating plastic they’ve mistaken for food.
  • One dead pilot whale was found to contain 80 plastic bags in its stomach.
  • A single use plastic bottle that makes its way into the ocean can take 450 years to break down, meaning it lives twice as long as a Bowhead Whale – one of the longest living creatures on the planet.

Since its invention over 100 years ago[1], plastic has been sold to us as something that makes life easy; because you can use it and then just throw it away.

It’s that ease and frequency of use that’s led us to where we are now. Humans have created 8300 million metric tonnes of plastic in the last 60+ years and every year between 4.8 and 12.7 million tonnes end up in our oceans, either floating in garbage patches, sinking to the seabed or washing up on beaches around the world. Plastic pollution is a global environmental crisis, because it never goes away.

Over time, plastic breaks down into smaller fragments due to exposure to the sun, wind and waves. It never really disappears though; the pieces just get smaller and smaller, becoming microplastics.

[1] Bakelite, the first fully-synthetic and commercially successful plastic.

What are microplastics?

Microplastic have been defined by the international scientific community as synthetic polymer particles <5 mm in diameter. Ubiquitous in the global marine environment, they are created either by the weathering and fragmentation of plastic litter or are released directly as preproduction pellets and powders, polymer particles in personal care products (PCPs) and medicines, etc.

Microplastics contain a cocktail of chemical compounds, such as plastic additives, which may leach out to the surrounding environment or when ingested. In addition, contaminants from other sources tend to adsorb to microplastics. Studies have shown that plastic debris meeting other pollutants in the oceans absorbs harmful chemicals from the seawater they float in, acting likepollution sponges. It was shown that plastic pellets suck up these dangerous persistent organic pollutants (POPs) and toxins with a concentration factor that’s almost 1 million times greater compared to the overall concentration of the chemicals in seawater. In other words, the more hydrophobic a chemical, the greater its affinity for microplastics, thus making plastic far more deadly in the ocean than it would be on land.

There are also primary microplastics which have been created for use in personal-care products and other applications. Scientists call these particles “mermaid tears” and they have been found across all the world’s seas and beaches. They are not absorbed into nature, but float around and ultimately enter the food chain through ingestion by marine plankton, fish and filter feeders like the big whales (baleen whales).

Plastic pollution on beach

What are the different types of plastic?

In chemistry, plastics are large molecules, called polymers, composed of repeated segments, called monomers, with carbon backbones. A polymer is simply a very large molecule made up of many smaller units joined together, generally end to end, to create a long chain. Polymers are divided into two distinct groups: thermoplastics (moldable) and thermosets (not). The word “plastics” generally applies to the synthetic products of chemistry.

Alexander Parkes created the first man-made plastic and publicly demonstrated it at the 1862 Great International Exhibition in London. The material, called Parkesine, was an organic material derived from cellulose that, once heated, could be molded and retained its shape when cooled.

Many, but not all, plastic products have a number – the resin identification code – molded, formed or imprinted in or on the container, often on the bottom. This system of coding was developed in 1988 by the U.S.-based Society of the Plastics Industry to facilitate the recycling of post-consumer plastics. It is indeed, quite interesting to go through the fine lines.

Why doesn’t plastic  decompose?

Because plastic is a combination of elements extracted from crude oil or gas which are then remixed in the lab, it doesn’t readily decompose, as enzymes and microorganisms responsible for breaking down naturally occurring organic materials such as plants, dead animals, rocks and minerals do not recognise plastics. [2]

Plastic is normally classified, based on size, into four main categories:

Macroplastics

size greater than 200 mm

Mesoplastics 

size between 5 and 200 mm

Microplastics

size between 0.001 mm and 5 mm

Nanoplastics

size smaller than 0.001 mm

[2] Except for the newly discovered enzyme that can break down plastics.

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