There’s a Horrifying Amount of Plastic in the Ocean. This Chart Shows Who’s to Blame.

The US isn’t as bad as you’d think…

NOAA Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center/AP


Marine scientists have long known that plastic pollution in the ocean is a huge problem. The most visible sign of it is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, an accumulation of waste (actually spanning several distinct patches) floating in the ocean. It’s at least twice the size of Texas and can be seen from space. This pollution has an incalculably lethal effect on everything from plankton to whales.

So just how much plastic is there? A new study in Science yesterday put out some pretty horrifying numbers: In 2010, the study finds, between 4.8 and 12.7 million metric tons (that’s about 10.5 billion to 28 billion pounds) of plastic entered the oceans—the median of those estimates is 1.3 times the weight of the Great Pyramid at Giza.

If we want to crack down on all that plastic, knowing where it all comes from could be as important as knowing how much there is. That’s the main idea behind this study. A team of scientists led by University of Georgia environmental engineer Jenna Jambeck set out to calculate how much plastic every one of the world’s 192 coastal countries dumps into the ocean. To do it, they combined data on each country’s per-capita waste generation, the size of the population living within 50 kilometers of the ocean, the percentage of waste that is plastic, and the percentage of plastic waste that is “mismanaged” (defined as “either littered or inadequately disposed”).

The last step is to estimate how much of the mismanaged coastal plastic waste actually washes into the sea. (This is the step that explains the wide uncertainty range in the grand totals above.) Jambeck drew on existing literature on waste streams from places like South Africa and the Bay Area to reach an estimate of 15-40 percent; she then applied that range across the board.

The chart below shows the worst offenders, in terms of total plastic pollution in the ocean in 2010, using data from the study. The top-ranks belong to middle-income countries with rapidly growing coastal populations that lack the resources to keep pace with waste management infrastructure. By contrast, even though the United States has relatively good waste management, its per-capita waste production is so high that it makes the top 20.

Tim McDonnell

That’s right: China alone dumped nearly 5 billion pounds of plastic waste into the ocean in 2010. But what’s even worse is just how much the study projects these numbers will grow in the future, based on predictions of population growth in each country by 2025. The chart below shows the top-ranked countries in terms of total mismanaged plastic waste (in other words, not all of this plastic is necessarily winding up in the ocean). China is still very much in the lead, and India shows a disturbing explosion of plastic pollution:

Tim McDonnell

More Mother Jones reporting on Climate Desk

LET’S TALK ABOUT OPTIMISM FOR A CHANGE

Democracy and journalism are in crisis mode—and have been for a while. So how about doing something different?

Mother Jones did. We just merged with the Center for Investigative Reporting, bringing the radio show Reveal, the documentary film team CIR Studios, and Mother Jones together as one bigger, bolder investigative journalism nonprofit.

And this is the first time we’re asking you to support the new organization we’re building. In “Less Dreading, More Doing,” we lay it all out for you: why we merged, how we’re stronger together, why we’re optimistic about the work ahead, and why we need to raise the First $500,000 in online donations by June 22.

It won’t be easy. There are many exciting new things to share with you, but spoiler: Wiggle room in our budget is not among them. We can’t afford missing these goals. We need this to be a big one. Falling flat would be utterly devastating right now.

A First $500,000 donation of $500, $50, or $5 would mean the world to us—a signal that you believe in the power of independent investigative reporting like we do. And whether you can pitch in or not, we have a free Strengthen Journalism sticker for you so you can help us spread the word and make the most of this huge moment.

payment methods

LET’S TALK ABOUT OPTIMISM FOR A CHANGE

Democracy and journalism are in crisis mode—and have been for a while. So how about doing something different?

Mother Jones did. We just merged with the Center for Investigative Reporting, bringing the radio show Reveal, the documentary film team CIR Studios, and Mother Jones together as one bigger, bolder investigative journalism nonprofit.

And this is the first time we’re asking you to support the new organization we’re building. In “Less Dreading, More Doing,” we lay it all out for you: why we merged, how we’re stronger together, why we’re optimistic about the work ahead, and why we need to raise the First $500,000 in online donations by June 22.

It won’t be easy. There are many exciting new things to share with you, but spoiler: Wiggle room in our budget is not among them. We can’t afford missing these goals. We need this to be a big one. Falling flat would be utterly devastating right now.

A First $500,000 donation of $500, $50, or $5 would mean the world to us—a signal that you believe in the power of independent investigative reporting like we do. And whether you can pitch in or not, we have a free Strengthen Journalism sticker for you so you can help us spread the word and make the most of this huge moment.

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate