The Plastic Problem

Photos by James Wakibia

After a rapid increase in production during the 20th century, plastics can now be found everywhere. Plastic is useful in many ways – it is low cost, light weight, durable and easily manipulated to create products. It has revolutionised various sectors, from food packaging to automotive parts to medical equipment. But, plastic doesn’t naturally break down in the environment, and can lead to toxic chemical leaching.

  • In 2020, we created 900% more plastic products than we did in 1980.
  • Nearly 100% of all plastics humankind has ever created are still in existence.
  • Plastics account for 3.4% of global greenhouse gas emissions.
  • 100,000 marine mammals and turtles and 1 million sea birds are killed by marine plastic pollution annually.

Video by Big Blue Communications

The problem

Most plastics are not biodegradable and can take hundreds of years to decompose. This makes the disposal and complete removal of the material after use extremely difficult. Plastic has now been found in every corner of the planet – from the tallest mountain tops, the deepest ocean trenches, and the human body.
Once plastic is in the environment, and it breaks down into microplastics, it is hard to contain or control.

Plastic has been found in our lungs and our blood.

80% of marine plastic pollution comes from land.

This includes:

  • Litter
  • Leakage from production and manufacturing of products
  • Poorly managed waste
  • Debris from construction, ports, commercial and industrial facilities
  • Trash blown out of garbage containers, trucks, and landfills.
  • Ocean-based sources, such as, overboard discharges from ships and discarded fishing gear, account for the other 20%.

The build up of plastic waste globally is causing major pollution from mismanaged landfills, clogging up river basins and waterways thus contaminating our seas, air and land, negatively impacting human health, wildlife, ecosystems, and the natural environment.

Culture and society are impacted too.

While we have benefited from its usefulness, we have also taken advantage of its convenience. Single use plastics for example, have created a disposable lifestyle for those in more affluent societies whilst the brunt of the consequences are felt by the most vulnerable communities around the world.

Globally, managing plastic waste costs US$32 billion, which includes collection, recycling, sorting and disposal of waste- imagine what else this money could be spent on. 

The build up of plastic waste globally is causing major pollution from mismanaged landfills, clogging up river basins and waterways: contaminating our seas, air and land, negatively impacting human health, wildlife, ecosystems, and the natural environment. The social impacts are enormous, including:

  • Flooding
  • Migration
  • Loss of livelihoods
  • Changes in the availability of drinking water
  • Disruptions to health and sanitation

Ocean health is critical in regulating the climate.

As well as the physical impacts of plastic in the ocean,  like ingestion or entanglement of marine animals, plastic production directly contributes to climate change.


In 2019, the plastics industry released greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to 189 coal-fired power plants, a whopping 850 million metric tonnes of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere.

The pollution in the ocean also inhibits the ability of the ocean to regulate the world’s climate, only exacerbating the effects of climate change.



A number of countries around the world have adopted various measures to reduce plastic pollution. These include plastic bag bans, offering substitution materials and introducing economic regulations such as taxes or fees to help curb the reliance on certain types of plastics.

Here at the Global Plastic Policy Centre, we have found that the existing plastic policy landscape often addresses specific plastic products or stages within the plastic lifecycle in a siloed approach that inhibits the effectiveness of innovative measures to tackle the plastic problem.

It is not enough however to look simply at downstream interventions (waste management – recycling, reuse). The entire lifecycle of plastics must be addressed and re-designed towards more sustainable use of plastics through a more circular economy. This includes looking at extraction of resources, production and design.

To combat the plastic crisis, we need systemic change and transitions towards sustainable solutions. To do so, evidence-based analysis of existing policies are needed to help inform better decision making around plastic policies and bring evidence-based approaches to plastic policy-making.

The Global Plastics Policy Centre is addressing this knowledge gap. Our first project is “A global review of plastics policies to support improved decision making and public accountability.”

@DrSFletcher from @UoPPlastics: A #CircularEconomy is where the resources that we produce, once they've been used, they're then used again: they recirculate in the economy, time after time. ♻️

🎧Listen to @WorldBank_IEG 's latest episode:

Professor Steve Fletcher @DrSFletcher, Director of #RevolutionPlastics @portsmouthuni, has been announced as the Editor in Chief of @CambridgePrisms Plastics — a new academic #journal dedicated to finding solutions to #plasticpollution

We're excited to announce @DrSFletcher is leading a new journal dedicated finding solutions to plastic pollution @CambridgePrisms @UoPPlastics