A Journal of People report
Plastic weighing the equivalent of one billion elephants has been created since the 1950s and most of it has ended up in landfill, an alarming new study has shown. The research report – Production, use, and fate of all plastics ever made – was published in the journal Science Advances (July 19, 2017, Vol. 3, no. 7, e1700782
Recent figures from Recycle Now show that Britain bins around 16 million plastic bottles a day and if a year’s worth of the UK’s unrecycled plastic bottles were placed end to end, they’d reach around the world 31 times, covering just over 780,000 miles.
Roland Geyer, Jenna R. Jambeck and Kara Lavender Law, scientists from the University of Georgia and the University of California found in their research:
# By 2015 humans had generated 8.3 billion tons of plastics and 6.3 billion tons had become waste.
# Only nine per cent of the waste plastic was recycled, 12 per cent was incinerated and 79 per cent had accumulated in landfill or the natural environment.
# Around eight million tons of plastic end up in the world’s oceans annually.
# If current trends continue, roughly 12 billion tons of plastic waste will be in landfills or polluting oceans by 2050. If current production and waste management trends continue, roughly 12,000 Mt of plastic waste will be in landfills or in the natural environment by 2050.
# Global production of plastics increased annually from two million metric tons in 1950 to over 400 million metric tons in 2015 outgrowing most other man-made materials. Only steep and cement are more ubiquitous, but unlike the building materials which last for decades, most plastic is quickly discarded.
# Plastics’ largest market is packaging, an application whose growth was accelerated by a global shift from reusable to single-use containers. As a result, the share of plastics in municipal solid waste (by mass) increased from less than 1% in 1960 to more than 10% by 2005 in middle- and high-income countries.
# The pace of plastic production shows no signs of slowing. Of the total amount of plastics produced from 1950 to 2015, roughly half was produced in just the last 13 years.
The scientists’ research is the first global analysis of all mass-produced plastics ever made by developing and combining global data on production, use, and end-of-life fate of polymer resins, synthetic fibers, and additives into a comprehensive material flow model.
Plastics have outgrown most man-made materials and have long been under environmental scrutiny.
The scientists compiled production statistics for resins, fibres and additives from a variety of industry sources dating back to 1950 to calculate the amount of plastic created in the following 65 years. They combined plastic production data with product lifetime distributions for eight different industrial use sectors, or product categories, to model how long plastics are in use before they reach the end of their useful lifetimes and are discarded.
The research report said:
“Although the first synthetic plastics, such as Bakelite, appeared in the early 20th century, widespread use of plastics outside of the military did not occur until after World War II.”
“The vast majority of monomers used to make plastics, such as ethylene and propylene, are derived from fossil hydrocarbons. None of the commonly used plastics are biodegradable. As a result, they accumulate, rather than decompose, in landfills or the natural environment. The only way to permanently eliminate plastic waste is by destructive thermal treatment, such as combustion or pyrolysis. Thus, near-permanent contamination of the natural environment with plastic waste is a growing concern. Plastic debris has been found in all major ocean basins, with an estimated 4 to 12 million metric tons (Mt) of plastic waste generated on land entering the marine environment in 2010 alone. Contamination of freshwater systems and terrestrial habitats is also increasingly reported, as is environmental contamination with synthetic fibers.
“Roughly half of all the steel we make goes into construction, so it will have decades of use – plastic is the opposite,” said Dr Roland Geyer, lead author of the paper and associate professor in University of California.
“Half of all plastics become waste after four or fewer years of use.”
“There are people alive today who remember a world without plastics,” added Dr Jambeck.
“But they have become so ubiquitous that you can’t go anywhere without finding plastic waste in our environment, including our oceans.”
A recent study estimated that nine in 10 of the world’s seabirds now have pieces of plastic in their guts.
Some albatross and shearwater have been found to have nearly 3,000 pieces of plastic – up to 8 kg – in their stomachs, the equivalent of a human eating 12 pizzas worth of food. It can’t be digested, so the birds eventually die through lack of nutrition.
Earlier, a report by Dame Ellen’s foundation calculated that by 2050 the world’s oceans are expected to contain more plastics than fish, by weight.
“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 Associate Professor Jenna Jambeck.
“Our estimates underscore the need to think critically about the materials we use and our waste management practices.”
China, Europe and North America are the largest plastic producers worldwide, but Europe and China also recycle the most at 30 percent and 25 percent, respectively. The United States’ plastic recycling, on the other hand, has remained steady at 9 percent since 2012.