Plastic was introduced to us just over a century ago. The end of World War II marked the beginning of the production and development of 1000s of new plastic products. Made from fossil fuel, plastic revolutionized safety, medicine, space travel, and automobile sectors. But over-use and the concept of use and throw culture unveiled the dark side of this material. With world’s plastic pollution crisis explained different organizations aim to take preventive and control measures.

Did You Know: Single-use plastic today accounts for more than 40% of the plastic produced every year. We use most of these items, like plastic bags or food wrappers, merely for minutes to hours.

World’s Plastic Pollution Crisis: A Glimpse

WWF conducted a review and examined 2,000 studies on plastic pollution. The organization issues a warning about the pervasive presence of plastic in the oceans. They disclosed plastic has taken over the ocean ecosystem, from the tiniest plankton to the huge whales.

World Plastic pollution crisis to triple by 2040
Pic Credits: Pew Trusts

WWF concluded that plastic pollution is expected to triple by 2040. This means plastic pollution would quadruple by 2050 in the oceans. Marine levels will have dangerous levels of plastic debris by the end of the century.

Further, due to the durable nature of plastic, it will end up with accumulation of nano plastic and microplastic in the marine food chain. Now the scary fact here is, even if we stop all pollution completely today, the microplastic pollution will still double by 2050.

Yes, our forests and oceans already have unlimited plastic dumped in them. Instead of decreasing, this plastic would become tiny particles known as nanoplastic, that is invisible to naked eyes. This makes it more difficult to retrieve them.

Petition signed by 28 countries to tackle world plastic pollution by strong rules
Pic Credits: WWF International
  • There have been constant pressure on the international community to form a global plastic treaty. Until 2022, more than 2.2 million people of the world have already signed a WWF petition.
  • In a survey, 9 in 10 people across 28 countries consider it is important to solve the plastic pollution with a global plastic treaty.
  • Even leading businesses and financial institutions have called for such a pact.
  • Talking about virgin plastic, currently its price is set so low that it fails to reflect the full costs of plastic pollution throughout its lifecycle. According to the estimates, these costs will reach US$7.1 trillion annually by 2040.

Cross References: The world’s plastic pollution crisis explained

Regions Affected the Most

Although, plastic pollution is a worldwide problem but it is most obvious in less-wealthy nations in Africa and Asia. Children in these nations are seen playing among plastic waste on the Manila Bay shore.

There garbage collection systems are inefficient and in some places it does not even exist. The funny side here is that wealthy nations with proper systems have low recycling rates. They, too, have trouble in properly collecting discarded plastics.

Some Interesting Yet Shocking Facts

  • Plastic waste is present in air, soil, sea, and even freshwater.
  • More than 50% of all plastics ever manufactured took place in the past 15 years.
  • 60% of all plastic ever produced became waste by 2015.
  • From 2.3 million tons in 1950 to 448 million tonnes in 2015, plastic has increased rapidly.
  • By 2050, plastic production is expected to double.
  • 8 million tons of plastic waste enters our oceans every year. It is equal to dumping 5 garbage bags on every single foot of coastline around the world.
  • Additives present in plastic make them last longer, sometimes even more than 400 years.

Did You Know: The Mediterranean Sea is known as the global plastic pollution hotspot in comparison to the 5 subtropical gyres. Its semi-enclosed basin consists of huge amounts of marine litter. The Great Garbage Patch of the North Pacific is one of them.

Plastics in the Ocean and Coasts

marine microplastics-global distribution
Pic Credits: Grid-UNEP
  • Estimated 14 million metric tons plastic enters the ocean every year.
  • 170 trillion plastic particles are floating in the oceans.
  • According to a report by UNEP in 2021, the amount of plastic entering and floating in the oceans is going to triple in coming 20 years.
  • Every year plastic pollution causes around $13 billion in environmental damage in the ocean. As per a recent research in the Philippine Trench, they discovered that plastic bags are erasing natural structures in deep-sea floors (>6000 m). Moreover, its ecological impacts are still unknown, which is highly concerning.

Atmospheric Plastic Pollution

Arctic ecosystem - Plastic pollution recorded in different ecosystem
Pic Credits: Nature

Cross-Reference: Plastic Pollution Around the World

  • Every year approx. 400 million tonnes production of plastics laden with polymers, according to the United Nations Environment Programme.
  • Global pandemic resulted in excess medical waste generation, ranging between 18% to 425% in 2021 alone. Just the test kits have potentially generated 2,600 tonnes of plastic (non-infectious) waste.
  • Global plastic waste crisis are not only affecting the environment but its harmful impact on human health is also evident.
  • Microplastics are affecting crops and vegetation too. According to UNECE research, atmospheric microplastics are increasingly detectable in mosses. Findings from the UK, France, Lithuania, and Italy show a variety of polymers detected in mosses.

Plastics Affecting Wildlife

The World's Plastic Pollution Crisis in food chain and ecosystem
Pic Credits: WWF Panda
  • Elephants, zebras, hyenas, camels, tigers, cattle, and other large mammals die after consuming plastic.
  • Plastic ingestion affects the reproductive system of species like oysters, causing fewer eggs production, according to the tests.
  • Larval fish are eating nanofibers in the first days of their life, shows research.
  • Nearly 700 species have been affected by plastics, including the endangered ones.
  • Every seabird species eats plastic.
  • Entanglement or starvation causes most animal deaths. As plastic blocks the digestive tract reducing the urge to eat leading to starvation.
  • Thrown fishing gear or 6-pack rings strangle marine animals.
  • More than 100 aquatic species that we eat contain microplastics.

Where is this Plastic Coming From?

  • Land contributes to overall 80% of marine plastic debris.
  • Ocean-based sources like shipping, aquaculture, and fishing produce 20% of marine plastic pollution.
  • A major part of all plastic pollution domestic and industrial wastes from urban and metropolitan areas.
  • According to the estimate, 94% of plastic pollution in the Mediterranean is microplastics.
  • Land-based microplastic sources include polyethylene sheets used in agriculture. They break down over time by sewage sludge and biosolids from wastewater treatment plants.
  • Municipal treatment systems treating sewage are also high in microfibres from the textile industry, microplastics from degraded consumer and personal care products.
  • 80% to 90% microplastics remain in residual sewage sludge that serves as agricultural fertilizers.
  • According to a recent study, due to low light and oxygen concentrations in light, microplastics can persist in soil for more than a century (100 years). This affects soil quality and fertility largely.

How Plastic Travel around the World

A major part of world plastic pollution is travels from land to ocean via rivers as they pick more trash as they move downstream. Most of the waste remains in coastal waters but once it enters in ocean currents it travels around the world.

An uninhabited atoll located between New Zealand and Chile, known as Henderson Island, holds plastic waste from various countries. The list includes China, Japan, Russia, Europe, the United States, and South America. The South Pacific gyre carries waste to the South Pacific . It is a circular ocean current.

How Microplastics Enters the Ecosystem

Plastic in the sea breaks down into small particles by wind, sunlight, and wave action. These pieces are often less than half-centimeters, thus known as microplastics. These further break into smaller pieces known as macrofibres or even smaller versions known as nanofibers.

While microplastics travel to every corner of the world and are found everywhere, nanofibers or microfibers drift through the air and our municipal drinking waters. Ultimately affecting our air and water at large.

Did You Know: Traces of microplastics are present on the highest peak Mount Everest and the deepest trough the Mariana Trench.

Cross-Reference: The World’s Plastic Pollution Crisis Explained

Confronting the Global Plastic Crisis

To accurately tackle this issue, we need a well-coordinated methodology and a global agreement. In March 2024, world leaders signed a UN resolution to end plastic pollution. They have till the end of 2024 to negotiate and agree this treaty to tackle this global crisis. This treaty deals with the entire plastic lifecycle to prevent it from the start instead of simply cleaning it up afterwards.

The World's Plastic Pollution Crisis and Solutions Explained
Pic Credits: IUCN

Although it is not impossible to retrieve plastic waste from the oceans but only in its large forms. Mr. Trash Wheel, a litter interceptor in Baltimore Harbor, Maryland, is working in this regard. They pick up large plastic pieces, like food containers and foam cups, from inland waters.

Did You Know: Once plastic breaks into microplastics and enters the open ocean, it is impossible to recover it.

Also See: The War between Planet vs. Plastics – 60% less Plastic by Earth Day 2040

Measures Taken to Control Plastic Leakage

Plastic leakage is a complicated problem involving various sources. It is necessary for different stakeholders to work together and take action at different levels. However, for accurate planning, economies should understand the size and source of the problem.

Just as in 2019, Resolution No. 6 on marine plastic litter and microplastic was adopted at the  Fourth Session of the UN Environment Assembly (UNEA-4). The resolution highlighted the importance of harmonized methodology in measuring plastic flow and leakage along the value chain. Thus, helpful in generating actionable data. During the Fifth UN Environment Assembly (UNEA-5) an expert group on marine litter and microplastics was created.

The group is reviewing the present situation and analyzing the effectiveness of existing response options related to it. It also formed and signed a new global agreement to provide a legal framework of global response. This will further facilitate national responses and especially countries with limited resources and capacities.

For implementation of Integrated Monitoring and Assessment Programme (IMAP) for the Pollution and Litter Noise clusters, Programme for the Assessment and Control of Marine Pollution in the Mediterranean (MEDPOL)  of the  United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) came forward.

MEDPOL supports the contracting parties for formulating and implementing pollution control, preventive, and regulatory measures.

It also promotes capacity-building and provides technical assistance on monitoring and assessment along with implementation and enforcement. Its main aim is to assist Mediterranean countries in the implementation of 3 major Barcelona Convention’s protocols.

In 2019, Beyond Plastic Med (BeMed) initiative was launched. It aimed at developing and supporting stakeholders committed to implement concrete solutions to prevent plastic pollution. This initiative is behind the major changes done in the Mediterranean in this regard.

IUCN-Med launched the Plastic Waste-Free Islands Mediterranean project in 2019.  Its aim is to drive the circular economy agenda ahead to reduce the plastic waste generation and leakages. It was a part of its global Close the Plastic Tap programme. It also aims to reduce the pollution knowledge gap.

Sufrider Europe has been advocating for enhanced environmental policies to tackle plastic pollution. They also raise awareness among the citizens and try to change their behavior.

Fondation Tara Océan conducted an expedition in 2019 on 9 major European rivers. They want to find the origins and flow of microplastic waste. The foundation raises awareness and educates the general public and mobilize political decision-makers at the highest levels.

PlastiMed Project

For a quantitative study on the impact of microplastics in Mediterranean ecosystems, researchers collected samples during the 2 main expeditions, the Tara Méditerranée 2014 and ExpeditionMED.

It was the largest study of its kind in the Mediterranean where researchers collected and analyzed around 75,000 microplastic particles. After this a database of Mediterranean plastic polymer types including their geographical distribution was also completed. This led to the development of a modelling study of plastic debris circulation in the Mediterranean.

A recent IUCH report, Mare Plasticum: The Mediterranean, talks about the quantity of plastic leaking into the Mediterranean annually. It also mentions the countries and cities having the highest plastic leakage rates.

In 2017, Zero Plastic Water Pledge was established by Région Sud (Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur). The aim was to enable local companies, associations, and authorities to commit to reduce plastic on land and at sea. IUCN and Région Sud signed a joint declaration at the World Conservation Congress.

The National Guidance on Plastic Pollution Hotspotting and Shaping Action was co-developed by IUCN and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). It contributes to filling the gaps in knowledge by providing methodological framework and practical tools applicable at national level.

Cross Reference: The plastic pollution crisis – IUCN

This guidance further offers an effective interface between policymaking and science-based assessments. By providing the guidance map about plastic leakage, it enables governments to collaborate with key stakeholders. This way they can identify and implement corresponding instruments on hotspots.


Olivia is committed to green energy and works to help ensure our planet's long-term habitability. She takes part in environmental conservation by recycling and avoiding single-use plastic.

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