Six data visualizations that explain the plastic problem

Every single piece of plastic that has ever been produced still exists today. It isn't in the same place anymore, and probably unrecognizable - but it's certainly still there, just no longer visible to most of us. As the global production of plastic increases, so does the amount of "invisible" plastic garbage somewhere in the world. 

How much plastic do we produce and use? 

Since its invention, the production of plastic has been growing almost exponentially. Today, 4 percent of the world's oil goes directly toward its production, with another 4 percent being used to supply the necessary energy to produce plastic.

That alone makes plastic a material that isn't particularly environmentally friendly. Furthermore, a lot of plastic is used to make disposable products rather than lasting ones.

Today, plastic products in all shapes and sizes exist throughout the world. But while the average human uses 45 kilograms (99 pounds) of plastic per year, there are vast differences among the different geographic regions. 

With a share of 26 percent, China may be the largest plastic producer in the world - yet the largest plastic consumer is neighboring Japan. The people living in the island nation have a consumption that exceeds even that of the entire rest of Asia and Africa combined.

What happens to plastic waste? 

Depending on the country, a little more than 22 to 43 percent of plastic waste ends up in landfills. 

How much plastic trash a country recycles on average is not recorded in a standardized manner throughout the world. In defense of big plastic consumer Japan, it has to be said that its recycling rate of 77 percent is among the highest in the world. Many countries don't even get close: the European Union, which is often a pioneer when it comes to environmental issues, only recycles 26 percent of its plastic trash. 

However, there is recycling - and then there is recycling. The EU, for example, exports half of its plastic recycling trash abroad, most of to China. Nobody knows what happens to it there. According to a report by the International Solid Waste Association, there is no reliable information about what happens to the imported material once it has reached China.

One thing is clear, however: not all plastic trash stays on land. A portion of it ends up in the ocean, where it causes damages amounting to at least $13 billion (about 12.3 billion euros) per year.