Ever Wondered What 8 Million Tonnes of Ocean Plastic Would Look Like? Part 2


The Great Pyramid of Giza
The Great Pyramid of Giza (image by Mikhail Nekrasov/Shutterstock)

In the first part of this series, we calculated that you could build over 29 Empire State-shaped towers from bales of plastic bottles collectively weighing 8 million tonnes. Those 8 million tonnes are the weight of plastic estimated to enter the oceans every year. In this part, I want to do something similar to give you another visual aid for all that ocean plastic. While writing the first blog in this series, it struck me that bales of plastic familiar from recycling facilities worldwide appear similar in dimensions to the massive stones used to construct the pyramids Egypt. So then I thought, ‘what would it look like if we took 8 million tonnes of plastic, baled it and used those bales to build plastic versions of the Great Pyramid of Giza?’. The Great Pyramid also struck me as a fitting structure to replicate in plastic. As the oldest of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, built over 4,500 years ago, it is a monument to the lasting marks that humans can leave on the planet. A pyramid made of plastic would last nowhere near as long (plastic bottles are estimated to take 450 years to decompose in landfill), but it still raises questions about the legacy we are leaving for future generations by failing to deal with plastic pollution.

Plastic bales
Substituting pyramid stones for plastic bales (image by Peter von Bechen)


So, let’s see how many Great Pyramids we could build from the 8 million tonnes of plastic that enters the ocean every year. Again, we’ll convert all 8 million tonnes into half-litre plastic bottles to keep things easy. With 50 bottles weighing 1kg, that’s 400,000,000,000 plastic bottles we have to play with. As with part 1 of this series, we’ll also bale these bottles using the Super High Density Baler (60” vertical). This baler can compact about 18,100 bottles into one bale with a volume of 1.39m3 and a typical weight of 363kg.

Now that we have this information about each bale, let’s think about the Great Pyramid of Giza (also known as the Great Pyramid of Khufu/Cheops). I found a few different figures about the pyramid. Working out the volume of masonry used in the construction of the Great Pyramid is complicated, particularly because of the multiple inner chambers, such as the Queen’s Chamber and the King’s Chamber, and a slight mound of earth underneath the pyramid. Instead of diving into these numbers, we are just going to have to cheat here and pretend that the pyramid is a solid structure. The pyramid has also lost a lot of its outer casing over the years, but we will go with its modern measurements. With base dimensions of 230m2 and a current height of 137m, that gives us a rough volume of 2,415,767m3.

Interior of the Great Pyramid of Giza
The inner workings of the pyramid (image by Encyclopædia Britannica Inc./Patrick O'Neill Riley)

In order to build a similar sized pyramid out of our plastic bales, we would therefore need 1,737,962 bales to complete one pyramid. With the pyramid estimated to have been built with 2,300,000 stones, you can sort of see what I mean about the similarity in size between plastic bales and the stones used to build the pyramid. With each bale containing 18,100 bottles, that’s 31,457,109,847 plastic bottles needed for each pyramid. Based on the weight of each bale, one pyramid would weigh 629,142,197 kg or 629,142.2 metric tonnes. Nothing much compared to the actual weight of the Great Pyramid, which comes in at around 6 million tonnes, but still a whole lot of plastic.

We can now finally work out how many plastic replicas of the Great Pyramid are entering the oceans each year. If we divide the 8 million tonnes of annual ocean plastic by the weight of one plastic pyramid, we get our answer: 12.7 pyramids. It goes without saying that that’s way too much plastic.


plastic pollution in the Nile
'Dirty old river...' as the Kinks sang (image by Peter Schwartzstein/BBC News)

Another reason I wanted to use the Great Pyramid to visualise all that ocean plastic is to provide a spotlight on a more specific and local issue: the pollution of the River Nile. In addition to sewage, agricultural run-off and metal contaminants polluting Africa’s largest river, plastic waste in and around the Nile is a real issue. According to one study, three-quarters of fish in the Nile now contain microplastics. Cattle that graze nearby also cannot help but eat plastic. The knock-on effects for the people who rely on the Nile for their food and livelihoods are yet to be seen in full. To get a more in-depth picture of the plastic pollution in the Nile, you can watch the documentary The Plastic Nile, which was broadcast in 2020, for free here.

Fortunately, our partners at Plastic Bank are helping to tackle the issue. They have expanded their operations into Egypt with the aim of collecting 5,000 tonnes of ocean bound plastic there every year. You can help our shared mission to clean up plastic pollution by signing up to our newsletter. By doing so, you’ll be cleaning up 1kg of plastic on us. Or to go further, subscribe to one of our three subscription plans and clean up 3.5kg, 6kg or 9kg every month.