Quantcast

Humans Have Created 9 Billion Tons of Plastic in the last 67 Years

Popular
Stomach contents of an albatross chick photographed in the Pacific in 2009. Chris Jordan / U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service HQ

By Tim Radford

Scientists have calculated yet another item on the human shopping list that makes up the modern world: plastics. They have estimated the mass of all the plastic bottles, bags, cups, toys, instruments and fabrics ever produced and tracked its whereabouts, as yet another index of the phenomenal change to the face of the planet made by recent human advance.

Altogether, since about 1950, with the birth of a new industry, more than 8.3 billion tonnes (or 9.1 tons) of synthetic organic polymers have been generated, distributed and discarded. Of that total, 6.3 billion tonnes are classified as waste.


Of that waste, only 9 percent has been recycled, 12 percent incinerated and 79 percent of what is essentially indestructible man-made material is either in landfill or polluting the environment.

And much of that waste is now in the sea: in 2010, according to a new study in the journal Science Advances, plastic debris has now been found in all the world's oceans. In 2010, an estimated eight million tonnes was swept downriver or blown by the winds into the sea. By 2050 landfill sites could be holding 12 billion tonnes.

Altered geology

"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 Dr. Jenna Jambeck, an engineer at the University of Georgia, Athens, and one of the partners in the study.

"Our estimates underscore the need to think critically about the materials we use and our waste management practices."

In the last two centuries, humans have become the greatest earth-moving force on the planet, and in paving roads and erecting office blocks, tenements, ports, factories and other structures have created a "technosphere" with a mass of 30 trillion tonnes.

In the course of doing so they have changed the planet so comprehensively that many millions of years from now, evidence of human presence will be marked by at least one geological stratum containing fossilized evidence that could have been left by no other lifeform.

Such changes have been so profound that earth scientists now propose a new name for this geological epoch: the Anthropocene.

After 1945

Although polymers such as Bakelite appeared early in the 20th century, large-scale production did not begin until after World War II, and plastics made from fossil hydrocarbons grew to become the third biggest manmade fabric output, after cement and steel.

In 1960, plastic made up less than one percent of municipal solid waste; by 2005, in middle and high income countries, it made up more than 10 percent.

The researchers combed through the industry data to compile production statistics worldwide for resins, fibers and additives and to use these to work out the types of plastics now in the environment, most of it as discarded packaging: half of all plastic output becomes waste within four years of use. And in the years from 1950 to 2015, nearly half of all human plastic production was in the last 13 years.

"There are people alive today who remember a world without plastics. But they have become so ubiquitous that you can't go anywhere without finding plastic waste in our environment, including our oceans," Jambeck said.

The researchers make the point that plastics do not decompose; they may fracture and divide into ever smaller granules, but they accumulate, often with horrific consequences for wildlife, to create spoilheaps of discarded plastic cups, bottles and bags and other indestructible waste almost everywhere on the ocean shores.

This waste is now an ecological problem: the latest study has at least established the scale of the problem.

"What we are trying to do is to create the foundation for sustainable materials management," said Roland Geyer, of the University of California Santa Barbara, who led the study.

"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."

Reposted with permission from our media associate Climate News Network.

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

Ryan Hagerty / USFWS

It's become a familiar story with the Trump administration: Scientists write a report that shows the administration's policies will cause environmental damage, then the administration buries the report and fires the scientists.

Read More Show Less
Valerie / Flickr / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

A coalition of some of the largest environmental groups in the country joined forces to file a lawsuit in federal court challenging the Trump administration's maneuver to weaken the Endangered Species Act.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
beyond foto / Getty Images

By Kimberly Holland

Children who eat a lot of gluten in their earliest years may have an increased risk of developing celiac disease and gluten intolerance, according to a new study published in JAMATrusted Source.

Read More Show Less
Joe Raedle / Getty Images

By Jake Johnson

Calling the global climate crisis both the greatest threat facing the U.S. and the greatest opportunity for transformative change, Sen. Bernie Sanders unveiled today a comprehensive Green New Deal proposal that would transition the U.S. economy to 100 percent renewable energy and create 20 million well-paying union jobs over a decade.

Read More Show Less
orientalizing / Flickr

The Parties to CITES agreed to list giraffes on Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) today at the World Wildlife Conference or CoP18 in Geneva. Such protections will ensure that all giraffe parts trade were legally acquired and not sourced from the poached giraffes trade and will require countries to make non-detriment findings before allowing giraffe exports. The listing will also enable the collection of international trade data for giraffes that might justify greater protections at both CITES and other venues in the future.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored

The WHO stressed that more research is needed on the potential health risks of microplastic ingestion. luchschen / iStock / Getty Images Plus

The UN's health agency on Thursday said that microplastics contained in drinking water posed a "low" risk at their current levels.

However, the World Health Organization (WHO) — in its first report on the potential health risks of microplastic ingestion — also stressed more research was needed to reassure consumers.

Read More Show Less

Brazil's right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro is giving President Trump a run for his money in the alternative facts department.

Read More Show Less
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee delivered his 2019 State of the State address on Jan. 15. Governor Jay and First Lady Trudi Inslee / Flickr

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, who made solving the climate crisis the center of his presidential campaign, is dropping out of the 2020 Democratic primary race.

Read More Show Less