If things carry on as they are, we will eventually bury the planet in plastics. That is the conclusion of a new study that has looked into just how much plastic humans have created, and where it all goes.
In the first global analysis of the production of plastics, researchers have calculated that we have created 8.3 billion tonnes (9.1bn tons) of the stuff since the 1950s. What’s more, the vast majority of this – around 79 percent – goes straight to landfill, where it is simply buried and forgotten. Much of this waste also makes it into the oceans. The study, published in Science Advances, found that just 9 percent of all plastics are recycled, while a further 12 percent are incinerated.
The study looked at the production of all plastics, from resin to fibers. They found that its production has increased from around 2 million tonnes (2.2m tons) a year in 1950, to a staggering 400 million tonnes (440m tons) in 2015. This makes plastic one of the most produced man-made materials, with the exception of things like steel and cement. But while these are used in construction, and will be put to use for decades, the overwhelming majority of plastic is "single use" and discarded straight away.
“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,” explains Jenna Jambeck, who co-authored the study, in a statement. “Our estimates underscore the need to think critically about the materials we use and our waste management practices.”
While the mass production of plastics started back in the '50s, they found that in recent years there has been a rapid increase in the manufacturing of the stuff. The scientists estimate that while over 8 billion tonnes of plastic has so far been created, incredibly over half of this has been within the last 13 years. There is now enough plastic in the world to completely cover a country the size of Argentina.
The study feeds into a wider picture about our heavy reliance on and use of plastics, and how this is impacting our planet. A recent paper found that microplastics were present in every marine environment sampled in Australia, even those thought to be remote and inaccessible. Plastic has been found in the depths of the oceans, and in the cold waters of the polar regions. It is thought that by 2050, plastic in the ocean will outweigh fish.
The researchers are careful to note that they do seek, nor think it is plausible, to completely eliminate plastic from our modern world. But they do want the research to feed into policy of how better to manage plastic production, use, and disposal around the globe.