It’s astonishing to learn how much plastic we’ve manufactured in a relatively short period of time. Annual plastic production skyrocketed from 2 million metric tons in 1950 to 381 million metric tons in 2015. Over that same period, cumulative production reached 7.8 billion metric tons of plastic according to a 2017 study, “Production, use, and fate of all plastics ever made,” published in Science Advances. Our World in Data reports that’s more than one metric ton of plastic for every person alive today.
Plastic packaging is by far the biggest generator of plastic waste, and most of it feeds an exponentially increasing profusion of plastic waste. According to the same 2017 study, only 9 percent of all plastic waste ever produced has been recycled. About 12 percent has been incinerated, while the rest—79 percent—has accumulated in landfills, dumps, or the natural environment. (See more analysis from the UN Environment Programme’s Beat Plastic Pollution website.)
While high-income countries are by far the biggest producers of plastic waste, they also tend to have well-managed waste collection systems. Consequently, they tend not to be big contributors of plastic pollution to external environments like the world’s oceans.
Nevertheless, 4.8 to 12.7 million metric tons of plastic waste winds up in the oceans every year. How? “A lot of this waste comes from rivers where they don’t have good waste collection systems upstream,” says Johnson, standing on a waste-strewn beach in Latin America in a brief video, Ocean Plastic: Root Cause, on SC Johnson’s website. “People use the river to get rid of their trash, and it flows out into the ocean and then collects on this beach.”
Most of the plastic that makes its way down rivers and into the oceans—86 percent globally—originates in Asia, followed by Africa at 7.8 percent and South America at 4.8 percent, according to a 2017 study, “River plastic emissions to the world’s oceans,” published in Nature Communications. The concentration of mismanaged plastic waste in Southeast Asia is one reason why Indonesia plays a big role in SC Johnson’s efforts to address plastic ocean waste.
The pathway by which plastic enters the world’s oceans
Estimates of global plastics entering the oceans from land-based sources in 2010 based on the pathway from primary production to marine plastic inputs. Data from Jambeck et al (2015).