Q14 – Plastic in oceans

This question was asked to the public in Sweden, Norway, Finland, Denmark and the UK in the Sustainable Development Misconception Study 2020

In December 2020 Gapminder launches a brand new service for upgrading your worldview, where you will be able to take this (and many other) tests and become certified gapm.io/upgrader


What share of all plastic waste in the world ends up in the oceans?

a) Less than 6%

b) Around 36%

c) More than 66%

Correct answer

Less than 6% of plastic waste ends up in the oceans.

Almost all plastic stays on land

If you thought most plastic waste ends up in the sea, the problem might seem overwhelming. You may also wrongly assume that your own plastic waste is a part of the problem. While, in fact, the problem is that more than two billion people live in communities with no waste management at all, and some of these are along rivers and coastlines. Many of them have almost no plastic waste but, for those who do and also live close to a coast or river, there is nothing to prevent their plastic waste from ending up in the ocean. When rich countries such as the U.S. sell their plastic garbage to middle-income countries, some of it ends up in the ocean because those countries aren’t able to handle all of their waste. Every day, a lot of poor people are working hard to separate out plastic by hand from garbage piles, because they can get a little money from recycling it. They are stopping tons of plastic from reaching the oceans and deserve proper employment, better pay and job security.

With the right actions a huge reduction in plastic waste generation can be made but, even with that, if the share that reaches the oceans is reduced to just a fraction of a percent, it still means large amounts of plastic will keep accumulating year by year, and people might think no improvement has happened. That’s why it’s important to gather data to both measure the problem and to see if measures are working.

Data sources

Mismanagement of waste is a large problem across the world, but nobody knows exactly how much plastic waste there is, and nobody knows exactly what share ends up in the oceans. Many experts have tried to estimate it, and we have done the calculation to get the highest possible percent, but still it’s less than 6%. To avoid understating the share that ends up in oceans, we give “less than 6%” as the correct answer option, instead of a precise number. The total global plastic waste in 2015 was somewhere in the range between 215 and 302 Mega tonnes(Mt), according to Jambeck[1]. The plastic that enters the oceans every year is somewhere in the large range between 0.47 to 12 million tonnes, according to six different studies listed here[6]. When we take the highest estimate for the amount of plastic entering the oceans, 12Mt, and divide it with the lowest estimate of total plastic waste, 215Mt, this is 5.5%. We asked four waste researchers for feedback about the calculation and they all agreed that 6% is most likely above the real number, and “less than 6% is definitely “more true” than the other two options we present. Even if the data is not certain, those who guessed 36% and 66% are definitely wrong. New surveys of ocean plastics are planned and we will probably have more certain numbers within the coming years.[3] The estimate that 2 billion people have no waste management at all comes from UNEP[7].

Source 1 – The best estimate we’ve found for total plastic waste in a year: “Production, use, and fate of all plastics ever made” article published in Science, 19 July 2017 by Roland Geyer, Jenna R. Jambeck and Kara Lavender Law

Source 2 – The most well known and cited estimate for plastic entering the ocean: “Plastic waste inputs from land into the ocean” article published in Science, 13 Feb 2015 by Jenna R. Jambeck,*, Roland Geyer, Chris Wilcox, Theodore R. Siegler, Miriam Perryman, Anthony Andrady, Ramani Narayan, Kara Lavender Law

Source 3 – “Evaluating scenarios toward zero plastic pollution” article published in Science, 18 Sep 2020 by Winnie W. Y. Lau, Yonathan Shiran, Richard M. Bailey, Ed Cook, Martin R. Stuchtey, Julia Koskella , Costas A. Velis, Linda Godfrey, Julien Boucher, Margaret B. Murphy, Richard C. Thompson, Emilia Jankowska, Arturo Castillo Castillo, Toby D. Pilditch, Ben Dixon, Laura Koerselman, Edward Kosior, Enzo Favoino, Jutta Gutberlet, Sarah Baulch, Meera E. Atreya, David Fischer, Kevin K. He, Milan M. Petit, U. Rashid Sumaila, Emily Neil, Mark V. Bernhofen, Keith Lawrence, James E. Palardy

Source 4 – World Bank, What A Waste 2.0

Source 5 – Leeds University team studying plastic pollution

Source 6 – Compilation of 6 studies estimating how much plastic enters oceans, by Gapminder Oct 2020

Source 7 – Global Waste Management Outlook, UNEP Page 52