A recent study published in Science Advances has shed light on the world’s overwhelming use of plastic. According to The National Geographic, it’s “the first global analysis of all plastics ever made.” For the past six decades plastics have been mass produced, and humans have managed to manufacture 8.3 billion metric tons of it. Unfortunately, plastic that’s thrown away doesn’t magically disappear. It takes plastic more than 400 years to degrade. And as a result of this mass production, the world is now faced with an overwhelming amount of plastic that’s causing more harm than good for the environment.
The Global Analysis of Plastics
Roland Geyer, the lead author of the new study, says that the team was motivated to quantify the world’s problem of plastic production in order to build a foundation for better plastic waste management. According to Geyer, “it’s not just that we make a lot, it’s that we also make more, year after year.” If the plastic production trend continues, by 2050 we could see 12 billion metric tons of plastic throughout the world’s landfills.
Geyer and his team found that “half the resins and fibers used in plastics were produced in the last 13 years.” 28 percent of global resin and 68 percent of polyester polyamide and acrylic fibers were produced in China alone. Over 40 percent of non-fiber plastic is produced for plastic packaging. Today, it seems almost impossible to buy anything without some sort of plastic product attached to it.
Researchers of the study also found that 6.3 billion metric tons, out of the 8.3 billion metric tons produced, becomes plastic waste. 79 percent of all plastic produced ends up in landfills or found littered in the natural environment. Only about 9 percent has been recycled and 12 percent has been incinerated. The sad truth is that recycling and incineration have not proven to be viable solutions for the problem of plastic. In Europe, only 30 percent of plastics are recycled. In China, 25 percent, and in the United States, a measly 9 percent. Another sad truth is that plastic that doesn’t get recycled or incinerated ends up in in the world’s oceans.
Addressing the Problem on a Global Scale
Jenna Jambeck is an environmental engineer from the University of Georgia who studies plastic waste in the world’s oceans. She led a study to find out how much plastic waste flows into the ocean annually. In that study, which was published in 2015, Jambeck and her team estimated that 8 million metric tons of plastic ends up in the oceans each year. This amounts to five grocery bags of plastic trash for every foot of coastline around the globe.
Jambeck says, “We all knew there was a rapid and extreme increase in plastic production from 1950 until now, but actually quantifying the cumulative number for all plastic ever made was quite shocking.” Plastic is being produced and thrown away at a rate that’s causing harm to the environment, and in particular, the world’s oceans. What most people don’t know, is that their disposable plastic bags, straws, bottles, coffee cups, etc., get littered in the natural environment and eventually funnelled into the ocean.
Jambeck believes that we need to take a global approach to the issue and rethink consumer use, recycling strategies, product design and plastic chemistry. According to Geyer, it’s time for society to think about using materials that have less of an environmental impact. “We as a society need to consider whether it’s worth trading off some convenience for a clean, healthy environment”.