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A million plastic bottles are bought around the world every minute and the number will jump another 20% by 2021, creating an environmental crisis some campaigners predict will be as serious as climate change.
New figures obtained by the Guardian reveal the surge in usage of plastic bottles, more than half a trillion of which will be sold annually by the end of the decade.
The demand, equivalent to about 20,000 bottles being bought every second, is driven by an apparently insatiable desire for bottled water and the spread of a western, urbanised “on the go” culture to China and the Asia Pacific region.
More than 480bn plastic drinking bottles were sold in 2016 across the world, up from about 300bn a decade ago. If placed end to end, they would extend more than halfway to the sun. By 2021 this will increase to 583.3bn, according to the most up-to-date estimates from Euromonitor International’s global packaging trends report.
Most plastic bottles used for soft drinks and water are made from polyethylene terephthalate (Pet), which is highly recyclable. But as their use soars across the globe, efforts to collect and recycle the bottles to keep them from polluting the oceans, are failing to keep up.
Humans produce almost 20,000 plastic bottles every second
Fewer than half of the bottles bought in 2016 were collected for recycling and just 7% of those collected were turned into new bottles. Instead most plastic bottles produced end up in landfill or in the ocean.
Between 5m and 13m tonnes of plastic leaks into the world’s oceans each year to be ingested by sea birds, fish and other organisms, and by 2050 the ocean will contain more plastic by weight than fish, according to research by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.
Experts warn that some of it is already finding its way into the human food chain.
Scientists at Ghent University in Belgium recently calculated people who eat seafood ingest up to 11,000 tiny pieces of plastic every year. Last August, the results of a study by Plymouth University reported plastic was found in a third of UK-caught fish, including cod, haddock, mackerel and shellfish. Last year, the European Food Safety Authority called for urgent research, citing increasing concern for human health and food safety “given the potential for microplastic pollution in edible tissues of commercial fish”.
Dame Ellen MacArthur, the round the world yachtswoman, now campaigns to promote a circular economy in which plastic bottles are reused, refilled and recycled rather than used once and thrown away.
“Shifting to a real circular economy for plastics is a massive opportunity to close the loop, save billions of dollars, and decouple plastics production from fossil fuel consumption,” she said.
Hugo Tagholm, of the marine conservation and campaigning group Surfers Against Sewage, said the figures were devastating. “The plastic pollution crisis rivals the threat of climate change as it pollutes every natural system and an increasing number of organisms on planet Earth.
“Current science shows that plastics cannot be usefully assimilated into the food chain. Where they are ingested they carry toxins that work their way on to our dinner plates.” Surfers Against Sewage are campaigning for a refundable deposit scheme to be introduced in the UK as a way of encouraging reuse.
Tagholm added: “Whilst the production of throwaway plastics has grown dramatically over the last 20 years, the systems to contain, control, reuse and recycle them just haven’t kept pace.”
In the UK 38.5m plastic bottles are used every day – only just over half make it to recycling, while more than 16m are put into landfill, burnt or leak into the environment and oceans each day.
“Plastic production is set to double in the next 20 years and quadruple by 2050 so the time to act is now,” said Tagholm.