Since the early 1950s, when large-scale production of synthetic materials first began, humans have created 8.3 billion tonnes of plastics, most of which has since been discarded.
A study published in the journal Science Advances was the first of its kind: a global analysis of the production, use and fate of all plastics ever made. The researchers found that by 2015, humans had generated 8.3 billion tonnes of plastics and already thrown out 6.3 billion tonnes of it. Of the waste total, only nine per cent was recycled, 12 per cent
was incinerated and a whopping 79 per cent was left to accumulate in landfills or the natural environment.
If this trend continues, approximately 12 billion tonnes—approximately 35,000 times the weight of the Empire State Building—of plastic waste will find its way into landfills or the natural environment by 2050.
“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,” says Jenna Jambeck, a study co-author and associate professor of engineering at the University of Georgia. “Our estimates underscore the need to think critically about the materials we use and our waste-management practices.”
The pace of plastic production has outgrown most other human-made materials, increasing from two million tonnes in 1950 by approximately 20,000 per cent to more than 400 million tonnes in 2015.
Materials growing at a faster rate are used extensively in the construction sector, such as steel and cement. While those materials are meant to last, plastics’ largest market is in packaging, most of which is used once and discarded.
“Roughly half of all the steel we make goes into construction, so it will have decades of use—plastic is the opposite,” says Roland Geyer, lead co-author of the report and assistant professor of environmental science at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “Half of all plastics become waste after four or fewer years of use.”
And the pace of plastic production shows no sign of slowing. Of the total amount of plastic produced in 1950-2015, roughly half of that was just in the last 13 years.
“What we are trying to do is to create the foundation for sustainable materials management,” says Geyer. “Put simply, you can’t manage what you don’t measure, and so we think policy discussions will be more informed and fact-based now that we have these numbers.”
“There are people alive today who remember a world without plastics,” says Jambeck. “But [plastics] have become so ubiquitous that you can’t go anywhere without finding plastic waste in our environment, including our oceans.”