The Most Common Plastics That Pollute U.S. Watersheds

Plastic has its benefits. It's cheap, convenient, light, durable, easily formed and helps keep food safe.

But it's piling up in our rivers, lakes and oceans.

The fish sculpture pictured here in Oregon, part of a traveling exhibit called Washed Ashore, Art to Save the Sea, is made entirely of plastic trash found in the beaches and waters of the Pacific coast.

Globally, an average of eight million tons of plastic escapes collection systems, winding up in the environment and eventually the ocean, according to a report by Break Free From Plastics, an organized movement calling on corporations and consumers to reduce their use of single-use plastic.

The report, Better Alternatives Now, says that the combination of toxic chemicals in manufacturing of plastic, and plastic's persistence in the environment point to the need to reduce and redesign the use of plastics.

To identify the types of products and packaging that are causing the most harm in the environment and to human health in the U.S., several organizations partnered to examine data sources from Ocean Conservancy's International Coastal Cleanup Day, NOAA's Marine Debris Tracker, Clean Ocean Action, Project Aware, and Heal the Bay.

Available data on the top 20 items by count were combined, resulting in a hierarchy beginning with the most common plastic, which was food wrappers. Nine of the 20 categories had data on the most prevalent brands; those brands are included here where available.

Recommended alternatives are also from the BAN report. Read on to see what you can do to reduce plastic waste.

These are the worst plastic products, and some of the most common brands polluting U.S. rivers, lakes and oceans.

Photo: WashedAshore.org

1. Food Wrappers (candy, chips, etc.)
1. Food Wrappers (candy, chips, etc.)

1. Food Wrappers (candy, chips, etc.)

  • Total count: 350,818
  • Percent of all plastics found: 18.6%
  • Type of plastics: Several types

Animals like these otters often mistake plastic trash for food.

Photo: Shutterstock

Most Common Brands of Food Wrappers Found:
Most Common Brands of Food Wrappers Found:

Most Common Brands of Food Wrappers Found:

  • Wrigley's
  • Trident
  • Starburst
  • Snickers

Alternatives: Bulk purchasing of food in reusable containers

Photo: Wrigley's

2. Plastic Bottle Caps
2. Plastic Bottle Caps

2. Plastic Bottle Caps 

  • Total count: 315,488
  • Percent of all plastics found: 16.7%
  • Type of plastics: Polypropylene (PP #5)

Photo: NOAA

Most Common Brands of Plastic Bottle Caps Found:
Most Common Brands of Plastic Bottle Caps Found:

Most Common Brands of Plastic Bottle Caps Found:

  • Coke (KO - Get Report)
  • Gatorade
  • Naked
  • Snapple
  • Crystal Geyser

Alternatives: Connected caps, or 'leashed lids,' reusable bottles.

Photo: Roland Magnusson / Shutterstock

3. Plastic Beverage Bottles
3. Plastic Beverage Bottles

3. Plastic Beverage Bottles

  • Total count: 227,018
  • Percent of all plastics found: 12%
  • Type of plastics: Polyethylene terephthalate (PET #1)

Photo: Shutterstock

Most Common Brands of Plastic Beverage Bottles Found:
Most Common Brands of Plastic Beverage Bottles Found:

Most Common Brands of Plastic Beverage Bottles Found:

  • Poland Springs
  • Gatorade
  • Coke
  • Crystal Geyser
  • Arrowhead

Alternatives: Increase deposit to increase collection rates, reusables

Photo: Pack-Shot / Shutterstock

4. Plastic Bags
4. Plastic Bags

4. Plastic Bags

  • Total count: 178,144
  • Percent of all plastics found: 9.4%
  • Type of plastics: Primarily Low‑Density polyethylene (LDPE #4)

Photo: Shutterstock

Most Common Brands of Plastic Bags Found:
Most Common Brands of Plastic Bags Found:

Most Common Brands of Plastic Bags Found:

Alternatives: Reusables

Photo: abdul hafiz ab hamid / Shutterstock

5. Straws, Stirrers
5. Straws, Stirrers

5. Straws, Stirrers

  • Total count: 142,745
  • Percent of all plastics found: 7.5%
  • Type of plastics: Polypropylene (PP #5)

Photo: Shutterstock

Most Common Brands of Straws and Stirrers Found:
Most Common Brands of Straws and Stirrers Found:

Most Common Brands of Straws and Stirrers Found:

  • Starbucks
  • McDonald's
  • Dunkin Donuts (DNKN - Get Report)
  • Burger King
  • Subway

Alternatives: Paper or wood straws/stirrers; reusable straws/stirrers

Photo: Wan Fahmy Redzuan / Shutterstock

6. Plastic Lids
6. Plastic Lids

6. Plastic Lids

  • Total count: 97,751
  • Percent of all plastics found: 5.1%
  • Type of plastics: Polystyrene (PS #6)

Alternatives: More work needed on bio‑benign alternatives; reusable cups

Photo: Shutterstock

7. Utensils
7. Utensils

7. Utensils

  • Total count: 93,829
  • Percent of all plastics found: 4.9%
  • Type of plastics: Polystyrene (PS #6)

Alternatives: Natural, bio‑based biodegradable utensils (bamboo/wood) and reusable utensils.

Photo: Shutterstock

8. Cigarette Butts
8. Cigarette Butts

8. Cigarette Butts

  • Total count: 61,342
  • Percent of all plastics found: 3.2%
  • Type of plastics: Cellulose Acetate Fiber

Counts of cigarette butts were divided by 20 to represent packs rather than individual cigarettes.

Photo: Shutterstock

Most Common Brands of Cigarette Butts Found:
Most Common Brands of Cigarette Butts Found:

Most Common Brands of Cigarette Butts Found:

  • Marlboro (MO - Get Report)
  • Camel
  • Parliament
  • Newport
  • Pall Mall

Alternatives: Filterless cigarettes and plant‑based biodegradable cigarette filters

Photo: Grzegorz Czapski / Shutterstock

9. Foam Take-Out Containers
9. Foam Take-Out Containers

9. Foam Take-Out Containers

  • Total count: 60,698
  • Percent of all plastics found: 3.2%
  • Type of plastics: Polystyrene (PS #6)

Alternatives: Plant‑based biodegradable take‑out containers; reusable take‑out containers; health codes may need to be changed for these alternatives.

Photo: Shutterstock

10. Plastic Take-Out Containers
10. Plastic Take-Out Containers

10. Plastic Take-Out Containers 

  • Total count: 56,789
  • Percent of all plastics found: 3%
  • Type of plastics: Several different plastics

Alternatives: Plant‑based biodegradable take‑out containers and functional replacement with reusable containers.

Photo: Shutterstock

11. Plastic Cups, Plates
11. Plastic Cups, Plates

11. Plastic Cups, Plates

  • Total count: 52,944
  • Percent of all plastics found: 2.8%
  • Type of plastics: (PS #6) and (PET #1)

Photo: Shutterstock

Most Common Brands of Plastic Cups and Plates Found:
Most Common Brands of Plastic Cups and Plates Found:

Most Common Brands of Plastic Cups and Plates Found:

  • Starbucks
  • McDonald's
  • Taco Bell
  • Dunkin Donuts
  • Peets

Alternatives: Plant‑based biodegradable cups and reusable cups

Photo: Boyloso / Shutterstock

12. Cigar Tips
12. Cigar Tips

12. Cigar Tips

  • Total count: 50,196
  • Percent of all plastics found: 2.6%
  • Type of plastics: Polystyrene (PS #6)

Alternatives: reusable cigar tips, ban of smoking in public spaces.

Photo: NOAA

13. Foam Cups and Plates
13. Foam Cups and Plates

13. Foam Cups and Plates

  • Total count: 49,275
  • Percent of all plastics found: 2.6%
  • Type of plastics: Polystyrene (PS #6)

Alternatives: Plant‑based biodegradable cups, reusable cups.

Photo: Shutterstock

14. Tobacco Packaging/Wrap
14. Tobacco Packaging/Wrap

14. Tobacco Packaging/Wrap

  • Total count: 35,186
  • Percent of all plastics found: 1.8%
  • Type of plastics: Polypropylene or Polyethylene (#5 or #2)

Photo: Geoffrey Gallaway from St Louis, MO, USA/Wikipedia

Most Common Brands of Tobacco Packaging Found:
Most Common Brands of Tobacco Packaging Found:

Most Common Brands of Tobacco Packaging Found:

  • Swisher Sweets
  • Dutch
  • Backwoods

Alternatives: Plant‑based biodegradable alternatives, natural bio‑based materials, like cellulose.

Photo: Swisher Sweets

15. Balloons
15. Balloons

15. Balloons

  • Total count: 30,709
  • Percent of all plastics found: 1.6%
  • Type of plastics: Latex or Mylar

Alternatives: Plant‑based biodegradable alternatives and cultural alternatives to balloon releases.

Above, this mylar balloon was found on the shores of the Great Lakes.

Photo: NOAA

16. Other Plastic Bottles
16. Other Plastic Bottles

16. Other Plastic Bottles

  • Total count: 25,396
  • Percent of all plastics found: 1.3%
  • Type of plastics: Several different plastics

Alternatives: Increase deposit to increase collection rates; reusable bottles

Above, bottles found on a California beach.

Photo: California Coast National Monument Task Force via NOAA

17. Cigarette Lighters
17. Cigarette Lighters

17. Cigarette Lighters

  • Total count: 22,609
  • Percent of all plastics found: 1.2%
  • Type of plastics: Polycarbonate (PC #7)

Alternatives: Functional replacement with matches or refillable non‑plastic lighters.

These disposable cigarette lighters were collected in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands during a cleanup cruise.

Photo: NOAA

18. Personal Care Products (Condoms and Tampon Applicators)
18. Personal Care Products (Condoms and Tampon Applicators)

18. Personal Care Products (Condoms and Tampon Applicators)

  • Total count: 16,522
  • Percent of all plastics found: 0.8%
  • Type of plastics: Several different plastics

Photo: Shutterstock

Most Common Personal Care Product Brands Found:
Most Common Personal Care Product Brands Found:

Most Common Personal Care Product Brands Found:

  • Trojan
  • Lifestyles
  • Pleasure Plus

Alternatives: Natural bio‑based materials

Photo: Roman Tiraspolsky / Shutterstock

19. Six-Pack Holders
19. Six-Pack Holders

19. Six-Pack Holders

  • Total count: 9,188
  • Percent of all plastics found: 0.4%
  • Type of plastics: Low density polyethylene (LDPE #4)

Alternatives: Plant‑based biodegradable alternatives, paper box beverage holders

Photo: Shutterstock

20. Diapers
20. Diapers

20. Diapers

  • Total count: 6,467
  • Percent of all plastics found: 0.3%
  • Type of plastics: Several different plastics

Alternatives: Plant‑based biodegradable alternatives; cloth diaper services when available

Above, volunteers found this trash, including diapers, in Little Hunting Creek in Fairfax County, Va.

Photo: Fairfax County, Va.

Six Ways You Can Reduce Plastic Trash
Six Ways You Can Reduce Plastic Trash

Six Ways You Can Reduce Plastic Trash

Above, another sculpture on exhibit from the The Washed Ashore art project, which makes these recommendations for reducing plastic trash:

Rethink before you buy - use products and packaging that are multi-use, recyclable, reusable.

Reduce the amount of waste you produce.

Reuse your own water bottle, coffee mug, silverware, and bags.

Recycle all aluminum, glass, paper and plastic products.

Reinvent trash by making it into art or functional items.

Refuse single-use plastics. Buy in bulk and bring your own containers and bags.

The Washed Ashore non-profit community art project was founded by an artist and educator who started the project when she saw the amount of plastic washing up on the beaches of Bandon, Ore., The artists have processed tons of plastic pollution from Pacific beaches since 2010 to create the art. Dates and locations of current exhibits, which include the Smithsonian and Disney's Epcot are listed at WashedAshore.org.

Visit BreakFreeFromPlastics to read the full report and methodology on plastic alternatives.

Photo: Naples Zoo

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