Plastic picked from the landfill for recycling. Photo credit: Jenna Jambeck/University of Georgia

We’ve officially created over 9 billion tons (8.3 billion metric tons) of plastic since we first started mass-producing the material in the 1950s, according to a new study published in Science Advances. That’s roughly the weight of 25,000 Empire State buildings produced in plastic in less than 70 years. And that’s not all: almost none of the plastic we’ve produced gets recycled, instead most of it gets incinerated, tossed into a landfill or just thrown out in nature. So, what’s our prize for creating such a ridiculous amount of plastic? Pollution, all over the world! It’s just like Aqua sang in there 1997 hit song Barbie Girl: “Life in plastic, it’s fantastic!”

“There are people alive today who remember a world without plastics,” said Jenna Jambeck, co-author of the new study and associate professor of engineering at University of Georgia, in a press release. “But they have become so ubiquitous that you can’t go anywhere without finding plastic waste in our environment, including our oceans.”

Mass Produced

The new study, which is the “first global analysis of all mass-produced plastics ever manufactured,” outlines how plastic production exploded upwards in the past half-century, increasing from 2.2 million tons in 1950 to almost 420 million tons in 2015. This is a growth rate that outpaces almost all other man-made materials, and it seems unlikely to slow down anytime soon; if the current trends continue, we’ll have about 13 billion tons of plastic laying around the planet by 2050.

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The largest market for plastics is packaging, which, as the study explains, means that a huge portion of the world’s plastic is discarded the same year it’s produced. Compared to other mass-produced materials like steel and concrete, this is a ridiculously short lifespan. “Roughly half of all the steel we make goes into construction, so it will have decades of use—plastic is the opposite,” explained Roland Geyer, lead author of the paper and associate professor at UC Santa Barbara. “Half of all plastics become waste after four or fewer years of use.” That means that to keep up with demand, we produce the equivalent of 1.9 million Statues of Liberty in plastic every year. Seems like the career advice given to young Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate wasn’t half bad: “I just want to say one word to you, just one word: ‘plastics!’… There’s a great future in plastics.”

Forever Composed

The real problem is the combination of plastic’s short commercial lifespan and the fact that it takes eons for it to decompose in nature. Whether they’re left in a landfill, the ocean or your neighborhood park, plastics accumulate rather than decompose; plastics are by design durable and resistant to degradation. “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 Jambeck in the press release. “Our estimates underscore the need to think critically about the materials we use and our waste management practices.”

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Waste being fed into an incinerator. Photo credit: Jenna Jambeck/University of Georgia

Ok, so plastic is a problem, but couldn’t we just recycle?

Well it isn’t that easy. One of the biggest challenges with recycling is that people just don’t do it. In the U.S. just 9% of plastics are recycled, and the study explains that rest of the world doesn’t do much better (Europe and China are exceptions here, with recycling rates of about 30% and 25% respectively). But even when recycling does happen, recycled plastics can only generate secondary plastic materials of low “technical and economic value.” This means that recycling is severely limited in its ability to replace newly manufactured plastic, and, as the study explains, simply “delays, rather than avoids, final disposal.”

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Still recycling is a better alternative than incineration or disposal in a landfill, both of which come with heavy environmental costs. However, over 90% of used plastic is either incinerated or thrown away; it’s no wonder that as plastic manufacturing has increased in the past half-century, so too has pollution. The study explains that “near-permanent contamination of the natural environment with plastic waste is a growing concern,” with plastic debris being found pretty much all over the world. A few of the more egregious examples of plastic pollution include: the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a collection of marine debris in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, which is roughly the size of Texas; Henderson Island, an island 3,500 miles from the nearest large landmass which is covered in almost 40 million pieces of plastic weighing around 20 tons; a beached whale that had over 30 plastic bags in its stomach; and the prediction by scientists that by 2050, there may be more plastic than fish in the ocean.

Deal With It

The short of it is that everyday more and more plastic is introduced into the world and there still isn’t a great way to deal with it. This lack of knowledge is precisely what motivated researchers to put together such a comprehensive report: “What we are trying to do is to create the foundation for sustainable materials management,” explained Geyer in the press release. “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.”

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The researchers aren’t advocating moving away from plastics altogether, rather making wiser choices of where and how to use these materials and developing better recycling and disposal systems. “There are areas where plastics are indispensable, especially in products designed for durability,” said Kara Lavender Law, one of the paper’s authors and a research professor at Sea Education Association, in press release. “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.”