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42 Plastic Bag Ocean Pollution Statistics and Facts (2022 Update)

Brooke Billingsley

By Brooke Billingsley

plastic garbage in sea shore

It’s no secret that we’re killing the oceans with pollution. Every year, animals and plants are killed by trash and waste that are tossed into the ocean by humans. One of the most common types of plastic that ends up in the ocean and has a noticeable detrimental effect is plastic bags.

Plastic bags are incredibly dangerous to ocean life because of their thin material, tendency to catch onto items, and similar resemblance to ocean animals, like jellyfish. Plastic bags in the oceans are a completely preventable problem, and one that we should be actively working to improve and prevent. Here are some important facts about ocean pollution related to plastic bags.

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  • Over 100,000 marine animals die from plastic bag pollution annually, and over 1 million seabirds die from pollution related to plastic annually.
  • Annually, the global usage of plastic bags is somewhere between 500 billion to 1 trillion, or around 150-300 plastic bags for every person on the planet.
  • Of these plastic bags, approximately 10% find their way into the ocean. That’s between 50 billion and 100 billion bags added to the ocean for every year’s worth of plastic bags that are manufactured.
  • The US is estimated to be responsible for over 300 billion plastic bags entering the ocean every year.
  • Between 60-95% of the waste currently in the ocean is believed to be plastics.
sea turtle eating plastic
Image Credit: Willyam Bradberry, Shutterstock
  • People in the US are estimated to use around 365 plastic bags annually per person. This is in stark contrast to the estimated four plastic bags per person in the country of Denmark.
  • The average amount of time a disposable plastic bag is used for is approximately 15 minutes.
  • If the plastic bags used globally every year were connected to each other end to end, they would be able to circle the planet around 4200 times.
  • Some of the plastic waste found in the ocean ends up there due to runoff from irresponsible plastic manufacturing practices.
  • Almost all baby sea turtles have plastic in their stomachs due to accidentally ingesting it, believing it to be food.
  • 100% of deceased baby sea turtles that have been examined in recent years have been found to have plastic in their stomach.
water pollution
Image Credit: Piqsels
  • Around 34% of all Leatherback sea turtles discovered dead were found to have plastic of some form in their stomachs.
  • Approximately 50% of all sea turtles in the world are believed to have consumed some form of plastic waste.
  • It’s estimated that around 60% of all seabirds have consumed plastic waste at some point in their life.
  • It’s extremely common to find plastic waste in the stomach of deceased seabirds that are examined.
  • Plastic waste in the ocean is dangerous enough to kill Blue Whales, which are believed to be the largest animals that have ever lived.
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  • Just in the North Pacific Ocean, fish annually consume between 24 million and 48 million pounds of plastic waste.
  • In one study, over ¼ of the fish in markets in the state of California contained some form of plastic waste or microplastics in their gastrointestinal tracts. These fish are captured for human consumption.
  • The world produces 381 million tonnes, or 839,961,218,924 pounds, of plastic every year. Of this, 50% is a form of single use plastic.
  • Only 9% of the plastic produced has been recycled and 12% of these plastics are incinerated.
  • Less than 14% of the plastic bags used annually are recycled.
  • Every minute, approximately 1 million plastic bags end up in the trash.
ocean pollution
Image Credit: giogio55, Pixabay
  • Just in the US, approximately 100 billion plastic bags are used every year, which means that around 12 million barrels of oil are used to manufacture these.
  • It is believed that the number of pieces of plastic in the ocean will outnumber fish by 2050.
  • Around 269,000 tonnes, or 593,043,485 pounds, of plastic waste currently floats on the surface of the ocean.
  • Of this floating waste, it’s estimated that 99% more plastic waste lies below the ocean’s surface.
  • Just because of plastic pollution in the ocean, around 700 million marine species could go extinct.
water pollution
Image Credit: glenrichardphoto, Shutterstock
  • Plastics are created from fossil fuels and the manufacturing process releases dangerous chemicals into the air that are worsening the climate crisis.
  • The types of plastics that are usually used to make plastic bags often contain certain chemical additives that function as endocrine disruptors, which can lead to birth defects, cancer, and depression in the immune system in both animals and humans.
  • Some of the chemicals leached from plastic bags cause impaired growth in some organisms. This includes Prochlorococcus, a microorganism that is responsible for producing around 10% of the oxygen in the world.
  • Plastic bags are extremely resistant to deterioration and can take anywhere from 20-1000 years to decompose.
  • As plastic bags degrade, they are converted into microplastics and do not fully decompose.
  • Plastic in general is so resistant to deterioration that the EPA has announced that 100% of all plastic humans have ever made still exists in some form.
ocean pollution
Image Credit: Piqsels
  • By 2020, 127 countries had created some form of legislation that specifically regulated the production and use of plastic bags.
  • The country of Kenya passed legislation fully banning the production and use of single-use plastic bags.
  • California was the first state in the US to ban the production and use of plastic bags. This ban began with legislation passed in 2014.
  • In 2019, Oregon passed legislation that is the most comprehensive plastic bag ban in the United States. This legislation includes banning the use of single-use plastic bags and includes fees to the consumer if they choose to have businesses provide them with recycled paper bags or reusable plastic bags at checkout.
  • More than 25 states in the US have created some form of local or state-wide legislation that limits the use of plastic bags.
  • In 2020, the US passed the “Break Free From Plastic Pollution” Act, which includes stipulations on the production and use of plastics, such as making manufacturers responsible for recycling programs and having to use a “minimum recycled content” level in the manufacturing process.
plastic floating in ocean
Image Credit: Piqsels
  • In 2021, the European Union passed legislation banning the use of any of the single-use plastic items that are the most common plastic waste items found on beaches, including plastic bags.
  • The country of India has announced their intention to fully ban the use of single-use plastics by 2022.
  • The last time an international treaty was passed that related to plastics debris in the oceans was in 1988 and it placed a ban on ships dumping plastics directly into the ocean.

How Can I Make Sure My Plastic Bags Get Recycled?

person with plastic bag
Image Credit: Pixabay

Many people aren’t aware that most companies responsible for residential recycling won’t accept single-use plastic bags. This means that every time these bags are sent to these recycling facilities, they are at risk for ending up in the same landfill they would’ve gone to if you had simply tossed them into the trash. So how do you make sure that the single-use plastic bags you use end up actually getting recycled?

The best way to make sure your plastic bags get recycled is to take them directly to places with plastic bag recycling bins. These are commonly found in places like grocery stores and other types of retail stores. These companies are then able to send these bags off for recycling to facilities that have the capacity to properly recycle single-use plastic bags.

What are the Best Options to Replace Single-Use Plastic Bags?

None of the available options are without their cons, but you do have options that are either biodegradable or more easily recycled than single-use plastic bags. The most eco-friendly option seems to be recycled or partially recycled paper bags. Unfortunately, there are fossil fuels associated with the recycling process and, due to their heavier weight than plastic bags, transportation costs are higher after manufacturing.


reuseable shopping bag
Image Credit: Yee Hui Lau, Shutterstock

Reusable plastic bags are another potential option to replace single-use plastics, but you have to ensure you’re using the reusable bag through its useful life. Unfortunately, many people forget to reuse these bags or forget to bring them to the store with them at all, leading to more waste. If you choose to use reusable plastic bags made from partially recycled content, make sure you use them until they are no longer usable.

Cotton- and fiber-based

Cotton-based reusable bags are another option that can be beneficial, but there is a large amount of water and energy required in the growing and processing of cotton. However, these bags are reusable hundreds to thousands of times, and they are washable, ensuring they stay clean and safe to use. Non-woven polypropylene bags are commonly provided as freebies with purchases through small businesses or with any business that is attempting to increase marketing. These bags are made from recycled plastics but do need to be washed to ensure they are safe.

Natural materials, like jute and hemp, can be great alternative materials for reusable bags that are more eco-friendly to grow and process than cotton. This also avoids the creation and use of plastics that will never fully degrade.


paper bag
Image Credit: Matthias Böckel, Pixabay

Compostable bags are one of the best options since they will rapidly break down in the environment, leaving no trace behind. However, these bags can be difficult to store and do have a limited shelf life due to the materials they are made with. If kept in damp or humid environments, or environments that are too warm, these bags can break down without ever being used. These are a really great option to replace single-use plastic bags you already use on a daily basis, though, like doggy poo bags.

aquarium plant dividerIn Conclusion

Keeping plastic bags out of the ocean is absolutely necessary to the survival of many species and, when it comes down to it, our survival as well. The ocean provides food, oxygen, and other necessary resources for our livelihood and survival as a species. It’s our responsibility to care for our planet, and this includes keeping single-use plastics out of the ocean.

We have already done irreversible damage to the oceans with single-use plastic bags. Plants and animals are dying, including corals and endangered species, like Monk seals and Blue Whales. If we can reel in our plastic bag use now, and work to clean up the damage that has already been done, then we have a chance to save multiple species and make the world a healthier place for everyone. However, this takes time and dedication to creating legislation, monitoring production and use, and using our voices to force unethical companies to begin implementing ethical manufacturing practices, including manufacturing safe products and preventing manufacturing runoff.

Featured Image Credit: Piqsels

Brooke Billingsley

Authored by

Brooke Billingsley spent nine years as a veterinary assistant before becoming a human nurse in 2013. She resides in Arkansas with her boyfriend of five years. She loves all animals and currently shares a home with three dogs, two cats, five fish, and two snails. She has a soft spot for special needs animals and has a three-legged senior dog and an internet famous cat with acromegaly and cerebellar hypoplasia. Fish keeping...Read more

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