Visualizing the Scale of Plastic Bottle Waste Against Major Landmarks

By the time you’re finished reading this sentence, tens of thousands of plastic bottles will have been sold around the world.

The ubiquitous plastic bottle has proven to be a versatile and cost-effective vessel for everything from water to household cleaning products. Despite this undeniable utility, it’s becoming harder to ignore the sheer volume of waste created by the world’s 7.5 billion people.

Today’s data visualization from Simon Scarr and Marco Hernandez at Reuters Graphics puts into perspective the immense scale of plastic bottle waste by comparing it to recognizable global landmarks, and even the entirety of Manhattan.

Plastic Wasted in One Hour

One Hour of Plastic Bottles

Original image from REUTERS/Simon Scarr, Marco Hernandez.

Every hour, close to 55 million bottles are discarded worldwide. When accumulated, the pile would be higher than the Brazilian Art Deco statue, Christ the Redeemer.

Towering over Rio de Janeiro at 125 feet (38 meters) and with arms outstretched to 98ft (30m), the statue still pales in comparison next to the combined plastic bottle waste over this time period.

Plastic Bottle Waste: Daily and Monthly

One Day of Plastic Bottles

Original image from REUTERS/Simon Scarr, Marco Hernandez.

In the span of a day, over 1.3 billion bottles are discarded. If you were to take the elevator up the Eiffel Tower (which has a total height of 1,063ft or 324m), you’d reach the tip of this pile about halfway up.

Fast forward this by a month, however, and it’s a different story. The Eiffel Tower seems like a figurine next to a heap of approximately 40 billion tossed plastic bottles.

plastic bottle waste one month

Original image from REUTERS/Simon Scarr, Marco Hernandez.

Scaling this up, data from Euromonitor International reveals that over 481 billion plastic bottles are now wasted annually.

Accumulated, this would dwarf even Dubai’s famous Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest structure at an impressive 2,722ft (830m).

A Decade of Plastic

According to Reuters, nearly 4 trillion bottles were sold in the past ten years, each contributing to a 7,874ft high pile of plastic (2.4km).

plastic bottles decade

Original image from REUTERS/Simon Scarr, Marco Hernandez.

If all plastic bottle waste were piled up in this manner, New Yorkers would see a translucent mountain every time they looked out their window rising to over half the elevation of the tallest peak in the Rocky Mountains, which is 14,440ft (4.4km) high.

The Global Flow of Plastic Waste Since 1950

Plastic bottles are just the tip of the iceberg for single-use plastics. Other examples include plastic bags, food packaging, coffee cup lids, and straws. As plastic use continues to flourish, even our best attempts at managing waste are falling short.

In fact, only an abysmal 6% of all plastic produced since 1950 has been recycled, with the majority ending up in landfills as litter, or getting incinerated.

Global Plastic Consumption Flow

Original image from REUTERS/Simon Scarr, Marco Hernandez.

Our plastic use is on an unsustainable trajectory, but countries are taking specific actions to curb use. Canada and the European Union (EU) will ban certain single-use plastics by 2021—and they are among 60 other nations enacting similar policies.

Corporations are also taking steps to reduce impact. A good example of this is Unilever, which made a commitment to make all its packaging reusable, recyclable, or compostable by 2025.