In Australia alone we have used almost 14 million tonnes of plastic since 2000, according to the latest industry figures. But tonnes and tones of discarded plastic wind up polluting the ocean and waterways and endangering wildlife. "Marine debris is now a real threat to marine life," said Lydia Gibson, policy manager for marine species at the World Wildlife Fund.
"Plastic garbage, which decomposes very slowly, is often mistaken for food by marine animals,'' she said.
''High concentrations of plastic material, particularly plastic bags, have been found blocking the breathing passages and stomachs of many marine species, including whales, dolphins, seals, puffins and turtles. Plastic six-pack rings for drink bottles and cans can also choke marine animals."
The UN Environment Program estimates that plastic debris causes the deaths of more than 1 million seabirds and more than 100,000 marine mammals every year. In 2006, the UN concluded that every square mile (260 hectares) of ocean contained 46,000 pieces of floating plastic.
Some of the most damaging material comes in the form of lightweight every-day items such as bottles caps and supermarket bags.
"Plastics are lighter but more damaging than heavier waste like timber and concrete," said Jeff Angel, from the Total Environment Centre. "If you [throw away] a brick, it stays in the same place, but plastic floats around."
He believes the problem is worse than previously thought, and authorities have routinely "massaged" data on consumption and recycling.
"[The Plastics and Chemical Industries Association] says that Australia consumes about 1.5 million tonnes of plastic annually, but their figures are wrong because they do not include plastic packaging on imported goods or empty plastic films imported for filling. The fact that they do not count these not insubstantial segments means their recycling rates are also wrong."
The association said Australia recycled 18 per cent of all plastics and 36 per cent of all plastic packaging. In a recent release, it boasted the 36 per cent figure was "a record high and now above the target band set under the National Packaging Covenant".
But Mr Angel, who is a member of the NPC, puts the recycling rates at more like 12 to 15 per cent and less than 30 per cent respectively.
Despite fines of up to $22,000 per individual for anyone caught dumping garbage, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority said increasing amounts of debris, such as plastics and discarded fishing line, were entering the marine environment every year.
The federal Department of Environment now believes that such pollution, including increasing amounts of plastic debris, along with oil spills and dumping of industrial waste in waterways and the sea, are leading to a bio-accumulation of toxic substances in the bodies of marine mammals.
The stomach of a rare eight-metre Bryde's whale, found washed up near Cairns in north Queensland, was found to be jammed with almost six square metres of plastic, including supermarket bags, food packaging, three large sheets of plastic and fragments of garbage bags.
An immature green turtle found dead near Moreton Bay in Brisbane had more than 50 items in its digestive tract, including plastic bags, cling film, nylon rope, lolly wrappers and balloons.
Environmentalist David de Rothschild, skipper of the Plastiki, a yacht made of recycled plastic bottles, said one of the biggest problems with plastic in the ocean was that it's "out of sight, out of mind. We have created this false dichotomy - nature and us, out there and in here. If the garbage isn't right on our doorstep, nobody seems to care."