9 Billion Tons of Plastic Made Since 1950 – and Most Is Now Trash

An infographic on plastic pollution. (Janet A. Buckley)

(CN) – Humans have produced more than 9 billion tons of plastics since 1950 – with more than half made in the past 13 years, a new study finds.

About 80 percent of all plastic ever produced now resides in nature or landfills, scientists reported Wednesday in the journal Science Advances.

Plastics production surged following World War II and is now on pace to reach a total of 13.2 billion tons by 2060 – roughly 35,000 times heavier than the Empire State Building.

“Most plastics don’t biodegrade in any meaningful sense, so the plastic waste humans have generated could be with us for hundreds or even thousands of years.” said study co-author Jenna Jambeck, an associate professor of engineering at the University of Georgia. “Our estimates underscore the need to think critically about the materials we use and our waste management practices.”

By 2015, 6.9 billion tons of plastic had already become waste, of which only 9 percent was recycled, 12 percent was incinerated and 79 percent now occupies landfills or litters the natural environment.

Global plastics production increased from 2.2 million tons in 1950 to more 440 million tons in 2015, outgrowing the manufacturing of most other manmade materials, according to the study. Exceptions include materials that are used in the construction sector, such as cement and steel.

While steel and cement are used primarily for construction, plastics are mainly used for packaging – mostly used once and discarded.

“Roughly half of all the steel we make goes into construction, so it will have decades of use – plastic is the opposite,” said lead author Roland Geyer, an associate professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “Half of all plastics become waste after four or fewer years of use.”

The researchers collected production statistics for fibers, resins and additives from various industry sources and incorporated them based on the type and consuming sector.

“There are people alive today who remember a world without plastics,” Jambeck said. “But they have become so ubiquitous that you can’t go anywhere without finding plastic waste in our environment, including our oceans.”

The team also led a 2015 study that calculated the magnitude of plastic waste going into the ocean: 8.8 million tons of plastic in 2010.

“What we are trying to do is to create the foundation for sustainable-materials management,” Geyer said. “Put simply, you can’t manage what you don’t measure, and so we think policy discussions will be more informed and fact-based now that we have these numbers.”

The team recommends a critical analysis of plastic use, rather than removing it entirely from the marketplace.

“There are areas where plastics are indispensable, especially in products designed for durability,” Kara Lavender Law, a professor at the Sea Education Association and co-author of the new research, said.

“But I think we need to take a careful look at our expansive use of plastics and ask when the use of these materials does or does not make sense.”

 

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