Humans have created 8.3 billion metric tons of plastics since large-scale production of the synthetic materials began in the early 1950s, and most of it now resides in landfills or the natural environment, according to a study published July 19 in the journal Science Advances.
The study was reported by media around the world, including The New York Times, BBC News, Washington Post, International Business Times, the Hindustan Times and National Geographic.
Led by a team of scientists from UGA; the University of California, Santa Barbara; and Sea Education Association, the study is the first 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 metric tons of plastics, 6.3 billion tons of which had already become waste. Of that waste total, only 9 percent was recycled, 12 percent was incinerated and 79 percent accumulated in landfills or the natural environment.
If current trends continue, roughly 12 billion metric tons of plastic waste will be in landfills or the natural environment by 2050. Twelve billion metric tons is about 35,000 times as heavy as the Empire State Building.
“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 scientists compiled production statistics for resins, fibers and additives from a variety of industry sources and synthesized them according to type and consuming sector.
Global production of plastics increased from 2 million metric tons in 1950 to over 400 million metric tons in 2015, according to the study, outgrowing most other man-made materials. Notable exceptions are materials that are used extensively in the construction sector, such as steel and cement.
But while steel and cement are used primarily for construction, plastics’ largest market is packaging, and most of those products are used once and discarded.
The same team of researchers led a 2015 study published in the journal Science that calculated the magnitude of plastic waste going into the ocean. They estimated that 8 million metric tons of plastic entered the oceans in 2010.
“There are people alive today who remember a world without plastics,” said Jambeck, a 2016-2017 Public Service and Outreach Faculty Fellow who conducted her research alongside faculty in Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant. “But they have become so ubiquitous that you can’t go anywhere without finding plastic waste in our environment, including our oceans.”
The researchers caution that they do not seek the total removal of plastic from the marketplace but rather a more critical examination of plastic use and its end-of-life value.
The research was conducted with the Marine Debris Working Group at the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis, University of California, Santa Barbara, with support from Ocean Conservancy.