Humans buy 1 million plastic bottles every minute. Every. Minute.
That equates to 1.3 billion bottles per day, 40 billion bottles per month, 480 billion bottles per year, and 4 trillion bottles over the last decade. The numbers are nauseating to confront. But what do they look like? Thanks to Simon Scarr and Marco Hernandez, two data visualization specialists working for Reuters, we know. Because they stacked up all these bottles next to some of the world’s most iconic structures as part of a feature called “Drowning in Plastic.”
It’s one thing to hear a stat like “40 billion bottles per month,” but it’s a whole other thing to see this gargantuan mound of plastic engulfing the Eiffel Tower like the Blob. There is simply no contest between our consumption and this famous landmark. It gets worse when the bottles produced over the last decade are stacked in a pile next to the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa. Never before as the 2,730-foot building looked so tiny as next to this literal mountain of trash.
While the concept behind these graphics is simple by design, the visuals were quite tricky to build from a technical standpoint. Over on Hernandez’s personal website, he chronicles putting his off-the-shelf laptop through the paces of rendering 1 million bottles raining into a giant pile. “Testing with a few objects was okay, but then I wasn’t able to load more than a half-million before the computer crashes so . . . big fail,” he recounts. The animation he was eventually able to produce—featured on the top of the Reuters story—necessitated some clever technical workarounds, but still required an entire week for his computer to render. Also tricky was getting the concept just right. In early versions, Hernandez rendered the bottles spilling through Manhattan like a giant river, flooding the city several stories high. The team ultimately opted to go another direction—a single, giant pile of freakin’ bottles.
I can’t say it’s the most beautiful data visualization of the year, but it’s in the running for most effective. I’ll never look at that desperate gas station Dasani the same way again.