It is estimated that by 2025 there will be 1kg of plastic for every 3kg of fish in the ocean. Picture: REUTERS/ERIK DE CASTRO
It is estimated that by 2025 there will be 1kg of plastic for every 3kg of fish in the ocean. Picture: REUTERS/ERIK DE CASTRO

New Delhi — Up to five-trillion grocery bags are used each year and like most plastic rubbish, barely any is recycled, the UN said on Tuesday as it warned that the world was choking on trash.

In a report for International Environment Day, the UN warned that at current levels the earth could be awash with 12-billion tonnes of plastic trash by the middle of the century.

"Our oceans have been used as a dumping ground, choking marine life and transforming some marine areas into a plastic soup," said Erik Solheim, head of UN Environment, in the report released in New Delhi.

"In cities around the world, plastic waste clogs drains, causing food [diseases] and breeding diseases. Consumed by livestock, it also finds its way into the food chain."

Most of this plastic rubbish clogging waterways and landfill is single-use items such as straws, bags and cutlery. The report said the five-trillion plastic bags consumed each year equalled nearly 10-million plastic bags used per minute.

"If tied together, all these plastic bags could be wrapped around the world seven times every hour."

About 79% of the plastic ever made has ended up dumped, with hardly any reused or destroyed despite recycling and other initiatives to curb use, the report said.

Just 9% of the nine-billion tonnes of plastic the world has ever produced has been recycled. Only a little more — 12% — has been incinerated.

This leaves only landfill, oceans and waterways as the resting place for the world’s plastic trash, where it takes thousands of years to decompose.

Plastic clogging sewers — a major problem in Delhi and slums across the developing world — can spread disease or wind up in the stomachs of animals, the UN said.

In India, plastic has been found inside dead cows while a whale in Thailand died after consuming waste bags.

Garbage floating at sea costs fishing, shipping and tourism industries in Asia-Pacific $1.3bn a year, the report says. The UN said more than 60 countries had introduced bans and levies on single-use plastic items such as bags.

But better waste management, financial incentives to change consumers’ buying habits and research into alternative materials were needed to make any real change, it added.

"To meet the rising tide of plastics, we urgently need strong government leadership and intervention," the report said.