Humans have produced 8.3 billion metric tonnes of plastic since 1950 – and half has been made in the past 13 years

Since the 1950s, humans have created 8.3 billion metric tonnes of plastics, most of which now resides in landfills or the sea.

Humans have produced 8.3 billion metric tonnes of plastic since 1950 – and half has been made in the past 13 years

Global production of plastics increased from two million metric tonnes in 1950 – when large-scale production of synthetic materials began – to more than 400 million metric tonnes in 2015. If these trends continue, roughly 12 billion metric tonnes of plastic waste will be in landfills or in what the study describes as “the natural environment” by 2050.

To put this into perspective, 12 billion metric tonnes is about 35,000 times as heavy as the Empire State Building.

The research was conducted by scientists from the University of Georgia, the University of California, Santa Barbara, and the Sea Education Association by combining production statistics for resins, fibres and additives from a variety of industry sources and synthesising them based on type and which industries use them. This makes it the first global analysis of the production, use and fate of all plastics ever made.

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Other stats suggest that the increase in plastics is outgrowing most other man-made materials. By 2015, humans had generated 8.3 billion metric tonnes of plastics, 6.3 billion tonnes of which had already become waste, and of that waste total, only 9% was recycled. Some 12% was incinerated and 79% accumulated in landfills or the natural environment. Of the total amount of plastics produced from 1950 to 2015, roughly half was produced in just the last 13 years.

“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,” said Jenna Jambeck, study co-author and associate professor of engineering at UGA. “Our estimates underscore the need to think critically about the materials we use and our waste-management practices.”

 The same team led a 2015 study in the journal Science that calculated the magnitude of plastic waste going into the ocean. They estimated that eight million metric tonnes of plastic entered the oceans in 2010.

The researchers are quick to stress, though, that the study should be used to highlight the issue and generate discussion about the use and distribution of plastic, and is not calling for the total removal of plastic from the marketplace.

“There are areas where plastics are indispensable, especially in products designed for durability,” said paper co-author Dr Kara Lavender Law, a research professor at SEA. “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.”

The study is published in the journal Science Advances.

Earlier this month, New Zealand data-visualisation experts Dumpark released an interactive map designed to highlight plastic pollution in the world’s oceans based on 2014 figures. Called the Sailing Seas of Plastic, Dumpark’s map shows how an estimated 5.25 trillion plastic particles are driven around the globe by ocean currents. Each white dot on the map represents 20 tonnes of plastic, of which 92% is “miscroplastic”, small particles measuring a few millimetres.

Images: Pixabay, Janet A Beckley

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