Visualizing the Rivers and Oceans of Plastic Waste

Aaron Foyer

Plastic Waste Series:

Top 10 Polluting Rivers |  The Great Pacific Garbage Patch

Rivers and Oceans of Plastic Waste

It has been estimated that between 4.8 and 12.7 million tonnes of plastic waste enters the ocean every year from coastal populations worldwide from rivers and littering near beaches accompanied with tidal and wind transport. Many market sectors in this industrial economy use plastic, of which about 75% ends up as waste.

Plastic in our ecosystems affects wildlife in many ways including entanglement, ingestion, collisions, abrasions, impacts on light penetration, organic matter availability, and oxygen exchange.

Rivers are major pathways for transport into our seas and oceans.  

The percentages of plastic inadequately managed by country

High-income countries (most of Europe, North America, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and South Korea) generate more plastic waste per person than middle- and low-income countries (in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa).  However, wealthier countries tend to have more effective waste management systems than poorer ones.  Where there is inadequate management, there is a high probability of plastic ending up in rivers and oceans. 

Prior to 1980, there was little to no plastic recycling or incineration.  Slowly this has been changing overtime at an annual rate of about 0.7 percent per year.  By 2015, it is estimated that discarded plastic waste had decreased to 55 percent while incinerated had increased to 25 percent and recycle 20 percent

An estimated 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic has been produced globally (Geyer et al., 2017) of which by 2015, 6.3 billion tonnes became plastic waste (9% recycled, 12% incinerated and 79% sent to landfills or elsewhere in the environment. 


MMT = million metric tons

MMPW = mismanaged plastic waste


Metric Ton, also referred to as a Tonne = 1000 kilograms (2,204.6 pounds)