Here's How Much Plastic Humanity Has Produced

Image David Lofink  Flickr
Image David Lofink Flickr
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21 July, 2017

More than 9 billion tonnes of plastic have been made since the 1950s, and the vast majority of it has been thrown in the trash, says a new study.

The world still makes more concrete and steel than plastic, but the big difference is that they stay longer in buildings and cars and degrade better than plastic, Geyer said.

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.

Those were really stunning numbers at the time, Geyer said, and he was compelled to get a more comprehensive view of society's plastic use and management. Most of the plastics are discarded after a few years, with the exception of products used in construction and development. "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".

Scientists have calculated the total amount of plastic ever made.

Plastics makers are working closely with NGOs, governments, and businesses in the USA and around the world to increase investment in waste management infrastructure, encourage the adoption of advanced recycling equipment, and expand opportunities for energy conversion where recycling isn't feasible.

"Of the 8.3 billion metric tonnes of virgin plastics ever made, half was made just in the last 13 years", Geyer said. In packaging, for example, plastics enable significant environmental benefits, including reductions in energy use, greenhouse gas emissions and waste.

As a result, the share of plastics in city dumps in high and middle income countries rose to more than 10 percent by 2005 from less than 1 percent in 1960.

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Plastic's largest market is packaging, an application whose growth was accelerated by a worldwide shift from reusable to single-use containers.

The head of the project, Roland Geyer, from the University of California and Santa Barbara, said: "We are increasingly smothering ecosystems in plastic and I am anxious there may be all kinds of unintended, adverse consequences that we will only find out about once it is too late".

"Although the first synthetic plastics ... appeared in the early 20th century, widespread use of plastics outside of the military did not occur until after World War II", the study says.

Mechanical separation of plastic for recycling. And there's no sign that plastic production is slowing down anytime soon. A further 50 per cent of plastic will be incinerated, on current trends. The second-largest use is for construction, at about 20 percent.

Geyer said: "What we are trying to do is to create the foundation for sustainable materials management". Of all the plastic produced to date, only about 9 percent has been recycled, the study found.

They calculated that of the 9.1 billion tons made, almost 7 billion tons are no longer used.

Plastic waste in water is hurting or killing more than 600 species of marine life including dolphins, fish, sea turtles, and whales, according to Nancy Wallace, a marine debris program director at the U.S. National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

To develop a truly comprehensive waste management plan, Hoornweg said communities need strategies to address and track other waste too, such as metals and hazardous materials.


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