Low rates of plastic recycling capture the essence of the times we live in. That’s the conclusion of the Royal Statistical Society which has assessed 2018’s most attention-grabbing stats as part of its annual awards.

The winning statistic of 2018 is that 90.5% of all the plastic that’s ever been produced has never been recycled.

Mass production of plastic got underway around 60 years ago and since then around 6.3 billion metric tonnes of plastic waste has been generated.

Of this, 12% of it is incinerated, with the rest ending up in landfill sites, as litter, or polluting the oceans.

Image: NCBI

“It’s very concerning that such a large proportion of plastic waste has never been recycled. The really low level of recycling has resulted in far too much waste leaching out into the world’s environment,” says Sir David Spiegelhalter, the chair of the judging panel and Royal Statistical Society president.

A mental image

One of the ways to make statistics more powerful is to make comparisons so that people can picture the scale of the problem.

In this case, the 6.3bn metric tonnes of plastic waste is equivalent to about 7.2 trillion grocery bags full of plastic, which – if stacked on top of one another – would be enough to reach all the way to the Moon and back 5,790 times. And if each of those bags contained just $1 worth of materials, that’s an astonishing $7.2 billion worth of plastic going to waste.

And that, according to one of the judges of the International Statistic of the Year, Prof Liberty Vittert , is enough money to buy Apple, Amazon, Google, Microsoft, Walmart, Exxon, GM, AT&T, Facebook, Bank of America, Visa, Intel, Home Depot, HSBC, Boeing, Citigroup, Anheuser-Busch, all the US National Football League teams, all the Major League Baseball teams, and all the English Premier League football teams.

The runners-up

The winning plastic waste statistic was just one of the key figures from 2018 considered by the Society for the award. According to the Society’s executive director Hetan Shah, the full list “captures some of the zeitgeist of 2018. We were delighted with the quality and quantity of this year’s nominations – with well over 200 received.”

Other key stats from 2018 include:

9.5%

That’s the reduction in global ‘absolute poverty’ since the 2008 global financial crash. Although many people in developed economies have experienced low wage growth, austerity and high rates of youth unemployment, the proportion of people living in absolute poverty around the world has more than halved in the last 10 years.

64,946

Between November 2017 and October 2018, the number of cases of measles reported in Europe more than doubled. For the whole of 2017 it was 25,465. That was a 15-fold increase on 2016’s 4,240 cases. But for the 12 months ending October 2018, it reached 64,946. The European measles increase is part of a global trend.

Ben Page, chief executive of Ipsos MORI and one of the judging panel, says: “The rise in fake news regarding autism and measles has caused many parents to shun vaccination. We need to highlight that these claims are false and educate parents to prevent a possible measles epidemic.”

According to the US Center for Disease Control:

  • Around 5% of children with measles develop pneumonia, which is the most common cause of measles-related death in young children
  • About one-in-1,000 children with measles will consequently develop encephalitis (swelling of the brain) that can lead to convulsions and can leave the child deaf or with intellectual disability
  • And for every 1,000 children who contract measles, one or two will die from it

40%

In June, the Russian prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev, announced an increase in the retirement age for men from 60 to 65 – coming into effect in 2028. Whereupon it came to light that 40% of Russian men don’t live to see their 65th birthday. That’s according to the World Health Organization, which says only 60,084 out of every 100,000 Russian men are currently expected to reach the age of 65. In the USA, 79% of men expect to live beyond 65, and in the UK it’s 87%.

$1.3 billion

The rise of the social media influencer is highlighted by this statistic. On 21 February, Kylie Jenner, the reality TV star and entrepreneur, sent out the following on Twitter:

“does anyone else not open Snapchat anymore?”

By the end of the next day’s stock market trading, Snapchat’s share price had fallen 6.1% from $18.64 to $17.51 – wiping $1.3 billion off the company’s value. Although there’s no proven causal link between the Tweet and the drop, it gives Ms Jenner’s Tweet a potential hit-rate of $14.8 million per character.