76% of All Plastic Ever Made Has Already Been Discarded

Ivan Schwartz
July 20, 2017

Almost 80 percent of the total production is now in waste streams, sent largely to landfill - although much of it litters the wider environment, including the oceans. A small amount is eliminated in incinerators.

If current production, use and waste management trends continue, the study projects the total amount of plastic dumped in landfill or polluting the natural environments by 2050 will be 12 billion tonnes - though the paper does note that a material flow analysis of this kind requires multiple assumptions or simplifications, so projections are subject to uncertainty and can not necessarily be regarded as solid predictions. If future archaeologists stick to this rule they may well dub our time, based on the artefacts now being deposited in the sedimentary record, the plastic age - with the tools being throw-away items serving short-term convenience.

"Most humans live in temperate regions and towards equatorial regions, and yet our pollution is not staying in those kind of geographical bounds - they're moving beyond into these remote regions", Jennifer Provencher, a post-doctoral researcher at Acadia University in Wolfville, N.S., told CBC News in May. You probably touch plastic to switch on the vehicle radio on the foam plastic dashboard.

"We need a radical shift in how we deal with plastic waste".

For example, the researchers estimated that the amount of plastic in use now is 30 percent of all the plastic ever produced.

Scientists have calculated the total amount of plastic ever made.

And, If current trends continue, the researchers warned more than 13 billion tons of plastic waste will be discarded in landfills or dumped in the environment by 2050 - around 35,000 times as heavy as the Empire State Building in NY.

Two years ago, the same research team published a study in the journal Science that measured the magnitude of plastic waste going into the ocean.

"I think for me that's the single most surprising thing, the implication of the large growth rate", said Roland Geyer, one of the authors.

There is no question that plastics are a wonder material.

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Man has produced more than 9.1 BILLION tonnes of plastic since the 1950s - but just nine per cent has been recycled, according to a new study. And plastic production is still increasing. Incineration is the only way to assure that plastic is eliminated, and Europe and China by far lead the United States in that category as well, up to 40 percent compared with 16 percent.

"There are areas where plastics are indispensable, especially in products designed for durability", says co-author Kara Lavender Law, a research professor at SEA. But consumers are the polluters, and people on every continent participate, from the Arctic to Africa.

"The growth of plastics production in the past 65 years has substantially outpaced any other manufactured material", the paper said.

Each of them studied ocean garbage in the past, but Geyer, whose field is industrial ecology, the study of material and energy, suggested the plastics study. Many experts agree that expanded waste management infrastructure is the key to addressing sustainable use of these resources.

The scale of the world's plastic consumption and waste shocked them.

"Whether that's refusing throwaway plastics wherever we can, taking a refillable water bottle with you instead of buying single-use bottled water, reusing plastic bags on your weekly shop at the supermarket or making sure you recycle more, we all have our role to play", he said.

Giving evidence to MPs previous year, one expert said plastic should be considered toxic once it got into the natural world because of this effect. "... It's enormous, and it's accelerating".

So where has all that plastic gone?

"Our mantra is you can't manage what you don't measure", Dr Geyer said.

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