THEGREENGROK    Statistically Speaking

Statistical Grok: Trash Talk Or a Look at Plastic Waste

by Bill Chameides | August 1st, 2008
posted by Erica Rowell (Editor)

Permalink | 7 comments


Black-footed albatross eat garbage, mistaking it for food. (NOAA)

“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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  1. Stephany Wilson
    Aug 1, 2008

    Dear Wendy and Erica, I think that there is some serious “propagandazied” information out there that water from plastic bottles is actually cleaner, and healthier than water from the tap, (in can be in some cases i.e. hurricane katrina aftermath). Why don’t you guys do more of an outreach to people to try to educate more of the populace about plastic drinking bottles. Couldn’t you do a morning talk show circuit? Even if it was just locally in Durham, NC…it would be a start. Plastic is rampant, from baby bottles—to athletes in sports arena, why not use metal canteens? ” title=”plastic water

    • Erica Rowell
      Aug 1, 2008

      Stephany, You’re right. Misconceptions about the healthfulness of bottled water abound. Bottled water isn’t regulated, so there’s no reason to believe it’s more healthful. That said, you’re correct that bottled water can help in places deprived of clean water sources. I remember a rather shocking display of water bottles from the water exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History showing how costly (and wasteful) it is in terms of resources. There’s a picture of it on the museum’s web site, which tackles the very subject of tap vs. bottled: I also recall a spoof ad (maybe it was an actual ad) about how different the 1990s were from the ’70s. The joke was on folks in the ’90s who buy — i.e., waste money on — water that would be virtually free from the tap. See AMNH’s rather stunning stats: * Average price of tap water in the U.S. = less than $.01 a gallon * Average price of bottled water in the U.S. = about $10 a gallon So, yes, we need to get the word out about nixing bottled water. We can try via the press, and we can do it in our everyday lives. I recently bought an aluminum water bottle to take to the gym and elsewhere. Random people keep commenting on it — from a bank teller to a couple of subway riders, it’s an eye-catcher. So the more people see that there are alternatives, the quicker we’ll be able to wean us all away from bottled water. And once momentum builds, our individual efforts when done en masse effect change. – Erica” title=”More info on bottled water

      • cheryl Ririe- Kurz
        Nov 19, 2008

        Sorry to have incorrectly addressed to “DAN” when it should have gone to Erica and Wendy. And it should have gone to Dean Bill, too! (Who’s Nicholas? That was the only confusing part.) Please change the “to” if you post my comments on your site! You have my permission. ALSO, thanks for making it so friendly and easy to let you know what I think! I appreciate all the great work! It’s my experience that universities often create impediments to ease — whatever entrepreneurial spirit and business sense is alive — well, keep it up! Only in the value of the research does this seem like a university-based site! — Cheryl ” title=”THANKS

        • erica
          Nov 20, 2008

          Cheryl, You’re welcome.” title=”You’re welcome

  2. Daniel Wedgewood
    Aug 1, 2008

    Wendy & Erica, This was the first time I heard of ocean garbage zones – do you have a world map that shows them? That would help understand the scope of the problem. That was great information. When you compare the 1977 and 2006 GDP in dollars, are they adjusted for inflation, or doo they have a common scale? The amount of plastic bags that Americans use compared to worlwide usage seems to match the world-wide average; is that true? Do you know why the number of water bottles recylced is so low? In every place that I’ve lived over the last 20 years (in the Northeast U.S.) they have recycling programs. Why, with such access to curb-side recycling, is the actual amount recycled so low? Are there alternates to plastic bags (maybe cellulose) that are viable? Is it better to use paper bags because they recycle more easily? Has the percentage of beach debris from land-based sources increased over the last 50 years? Are some countries more effected than others? What happens to all that land-based debris? Does it get cleaned up, or does it go back out to sea to the garbage zones? Some of the numbers you use are difficult to visualize (like 4 trillion). It might help people to appreciate them more if they were presented in a different way. Thanks, Dan” title=”Garbage Zones and Other Questions

    • Erica Rowell
      Aug 1, 2008

      Hi, Daniel, Let me try to answer some of your questions. The Independent has a good map of the floating garbage patch – (see top image) This article has lots of good information on the “trash soup” or “garbage stew” (so-called because it’s more spread out and porous than a landfill) – The GDP numbers are from the Bureau of Economic Analysis; you can find detailed info about its methodology here – Now, onto recycling … Whether or not cities or localities recycle is often dependent on budget. Remember when New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg cut some of NYC’s recycling programs back in 2002 (see “Bloomberg and Council Agree On Budget to Close Big Deficit,” 6/20/2002 – He did so to save the city about $40 million a year. Fortunately, he found a way to make recycling cost-effective and brought it back in April 2004 ( Here’s how Atlanta’s sustainability director Mandy Schmitt explained why recycling isn’t universal in the United States: “Recycling seems like one of those things that we started to do in 1970 … that should just be part of common business. But it’s not because recycling is highly based on the local market and what [it] demands. … Here in Georgia, because we have so much land, landfills have not been an issue. It’s only been more recently that it’s getting expensive to take things to landfills. Because we haven’t had the price pressure that you’ve had in other places, recycling rates in the South have always been very low.” As for paper versus plastic, this is a big topic, and one that should be explored at length in a Grok post. Hopefully we can add it to the upcoming roster. Finally, in response to where land-based debris ends up: “The UNEP reports that today 80 percent of all marine debris that washes ashore—such as trash and toxic matter—originally comes from shore-based activities…” That quotation comes from this Discover magazine article on the garbage flowing out to and collecting in the seas – The numbers issue … you’re right — billions and trillions are tough to put into perspective. We’ll see what we can do. – Erica” title=”Garbage zones (or plastic stew) et al.

    • cheryl Kurz
      Nov 19, 2008

      Thanks for the info, Dan, . . . all the stats on plastic were what I was looking for. Also was looking for just an overall stat on percentage of plastic in all garbage. Let me know if you have one! Thanks! I appreciate the work you are doing! — Cheryl ” title=”thanks

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