Environment

An 8 Billion Ton Problem Called Plastic

pollution plastic

Humans have created more than 8 billion metric tons of plastic since synthetic materials began being produced on a large scale in the early 1950s. This volume could cover the entire country of Argentina and most of the material has been dumped in landfills, or in the natural environment.

Geyer, an associate professor at UCSB’s Bren School of Environmental Science & Management, and his team compiled a report containing production statistics for fibers, resins and additives. The data was taken from numerous industry sources and was catalogued according to type and consuming sector. The team found that global production of plastic fibers and resins increased from 2 million metric tons in 1950 to more than 400 million metric tons in 2015. This is more than most other materials made by man, except cement and steel. While cement and steel are mainly used for construction, the biggest market for plastics is packaging, where it is used once and then thrown away.

Geyer, the lead author of the paper, noted that if we don’t want a planet that is literally covered in plastic, we can’t continue with business as usual. The paper presents data on not only how much plastic has been made over the years, but also details its composition and the type and amount of additives that the plastic contains. Geyer hopes that this information will in future be used by policymakers to implement better end of life management policies for plastics.

He added that about half of all the steel that is produced is used in construction, resulting in decades of use. With plastic however, the opposite happens as more than 50% of all plastics is discarded after less than four years of use.

The rate of plastic production is showing no signs of slowing down. Of all the plastic fibers and resins produced between 1950 and 2015, about 50% was produced in the last 13 years.

Geyer’s team is attempting to create a foundation that can be used for sustainable materials management. As it is impossible to manage what you haven’t measured, they think policy discussions will be more informed and based on fact now that the numbers are available.

The study also highlighted that by 2015, man had produced 6.3 billon tons of plastic waste. Of this, only 9% was recycled; 12% was incinerated and 79% was added to landfills or the natural environment. Geyer notes that if this trend continues, about 12 billion metric tons of plastic waste will be in landfills or the natural environment by 2050. To put things in perspective, this is more than the weight of 36,000 Empire State Buildings.

An infographic on plastic pollution. (Image credit: Janet A Beckley)
An infographic on plastic pollution. (Image credit: Janet A Beckley)

Jenna Jambeck, an associate professor of engineering at the University of Georgia and co-author of the paper, noted that as most plastics don’t biodegrade in any meaningful way, the plastic waste humans have generated will probably be around for hundreds, or even thousands of years. The study results highlight the need to think about the materials we use and our waste management practices critically.

The same research team published another study in the journal Science two years ago. That study measured the amount of plastic waste going into the ocean and revealed that of the 275 million metric tons of plastic waste generated in 2010, an estimated 8 million lands up in the world’s oceans. That study used solid waste generation data to calculate the annual amount of plastic waste, while the new research used plastic production data instead.

Geyer noted that both methods, even though very different, resulted in the same waste number for 2010. This suggests that the numbers are pretty accurate.

Jambeck commented that although there are people alive today who remember a world with no plastics, plastics have become so pervasive that it is virtually impossible to go anywhere without seeing plastic waste in our environment, including in the oceans.

The investigators do however state clearly that they’re not trying to eliminate plastic from the marketplace, but are rather advocating a critical examination of the use of plastics.

Kara Lavender Law, a research professor at the Sea Education Association in Woods Hole, Massachusetts and co-author, concluded that in areas such as the medical industry, plastics are indispensable. She does however believe that we need to look at the use of plastics carefully and make sure that it makes sense.

The full study was published in the journal Science Advances.