Statistical Grok: Trash Talk Or a Look at Plastic Waste

“Just one word. … Plastics.” This classic line predicting the rise of an industry from director Mike Nichols’s The Graduate was prescient. Consider the increased use of plastic since the film’s 1967 release. From DVDs and prepackaged foods to that iced coffee to-go (right down to the straw) and the ubiquitous water bottle toted by so many Americans, plastic is pervasive and it’s wreaking havoc on our environment. You know what happens to the stuff when we’re done with it?

Some makes it into landfills. Lots float out into the ocean where marine life mistake it for food and suffer dire consequences. And a lot washes up on shore, polluting our beaches. Plastic stays with us longer than we think. Because it can’t biodegrade, it just breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces that last hundreds of years. A quick look at the numbers suggests cutting back on plastics could go a long way toward cleaning up our coasts without even having to step foot on a beach.

Some Plastic Numbers

U.S. GDP for plastics and rubber products in 1977: $16,900,000,000
U.S. GDP for plastics and rubber products in 2006: $71,400,000,000
U.S. GDP increase from 1977 to 2006: 420%

Number of plastic bags used worldwide each year: 4,000,000,000,000 to 5,000,000,000,000
Amount of oil used annually to produce plastic bags: 17,200,000,000 to 21,500,000,000 gallons
How long this amount of oil would fuel the entire U.S. economy: about 20 to 25 days
Number of plastic bags used by Americans each year: 110,000,000,000
Amount of plastic bags recycled in the United States in 2006: 2%

Amount of plastic used worldwide every year just to bottle water: 1,500,000 to 2,700,000 tons
Number of plastic water bottles sold in the United States in 1997: 4,000,000,000
Number of plastic water bottles sold here in 2005: 26,000,000,000
Increase in plastic water bottles sold between 1997 and 2005: 650%
Number of water bottles recycled in the United States in 2004: 1 in 6

Number of Styrofoam cups Americans toss out every year: 25,000,000,000
How long those cups will last in a landfill: centuries

Trash on our Beaches

Percentage of beach debris from land-based sources: 60 to 80%

Average number of items found per beach survey performed between 2001 and 2006: 95.4
Most common items found in these surveys: plastic drinking straws, plastic beverage bottles, and plastic bags

Trash in the Oceans

Number of floating garbage zones in world’s oceans: 5

Area of ocean covered by garbage zones: 40%
Amount of trash in the Pacific garbage patch: 3,500,000 tons
Number of plastic items found floating per square mile in Pacific garbage patch: 865,987 pieces
Percent of Pacific garbage patch made up of plastics: 80%
Most common items: thin plastic films, fishing line and unidentified plastic and plastic fragments

Number of species impacted by plastic marine debris: 267
Percentage of all marine mammal species impacted by marine debris: 43%
Percentage of all sea bird species impacted by marine debris: 44%
Percentage of sea turtle species impacted by plastic marine debris: 86%

Bucking the Plastic Trend

Number of countries banning free thin plastic bags, or considering action to reduce their use: at least 14
Countries include: Bangladesh, Belgium, China, Eritrea, Germany, Holland, Ireland, Italy, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, South Africa, Switzerland, Taiwan
Countries considering a ban or tax: UK, Spain, Australia, Norway
Number of cities in U.S. banning common plastic bags in certain stores: 2
The cities are San Francisco and Oakland
Number of cities with proposed laws to restrict or ban plastic bags: 28

Percent of U.S. population with access to curbside recycling: 56%
Percent of plastics recycled in United States: almost 6%


BBC News, “East African Ban on Plastic Bags” 6/14/2007 -

Bureau of Economic Analysis, Gross Domestic Product by Industry -

Container Recycling Institute, “Down the Drain: Plastic Water Bottles Should No Longer Be a Wasted Resource” -

Demos, Telis. “Bag Revolution,” Fortune, 5/12/2008, Vol. 157 Issue 10, pp. 18-19.

Design Boom, “PET Bottles” -

Dineen, Shauna. “The Throwaway Generation: 25 Billion Styrofoam Cups a Year,” E – The Environmental Magazine, Nov/Dec 2005, Vol. 16 Issue 6, pp. 35-342

E-Wire Press Release, “”AF&PA Reports 86 Percent of U.S. Population Have Access to Community Recycling Programs”” -

“Fun Facts About Recycling” –

Gorn, David. “San Francisco Plastic Bag Ban Interests Other Cities,” NPR, 3/27/2008 -

Jean-Michel Cousteau Ocean Adventures, “Your Are What You Eat” [pdf] –

Moore, C. J., S. L. Moore, M. K. Leecaster, and S. B. Weisberg, 2001. A comparison of plastic and plankton in the North Pacific Central Gyre. In: Marine Pollution Bulletin 42, 1297-1300.

National Solid Waste Management Association, “Recycling” -

Ocean Conservancy National Marine Debris Monitoring Program -

Plastic Debris in the World’s Oceans [pdf] -

Roach, John. “Plastic-Bag Bans Gaining Momentum Around the World,” National Geographic News, 4/4/2008 –

San Francisco’s Plastic Bag Ban -

San Francisco’s Plastic Bag Reduction Ordinance 81-07- 106883 -

Worldwatch Institute, China Watch: Plastic Bag Ban Trumps Market and Consumer Efforts -


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