In the six decades since mass production of plastic began, 8.3 billion metric tonnes of plastic has been created. A large proportion of the plastic produced is in the form of disposable products, which end up as trash. Only 12 percent of this has been incinerated and because plastic takes so long to degrade, most of the plastic that has ever been produced still exists.
A recently published two-year study analysed what has become of all the plastic that has been produced, and concluded that 6.3 billion metric tons of it have become plastic waste. The majority of this – 79 percent – has been disposed of in landfill or as litter, so a large proportion of it ends up polluting the world’s oceans. Shockingly, only 9 percent of the plastic produced and used has gone for plastic waste recycling.
The study aims to quantify the damage to marine animals, birds and fish caused by plastic ending up in the ocean. It is widely predicted that the seas will contain more plastic than fish by the middle of the century, and we need to act quickly to minimise the harm caused.
The lead author of the new study, Roland Geyer, has said that it is necessary to measure the plastic products created in order to manage them more effectively. We are making more plastic each year and half of the fibres and resins used in this plastic has been produced in the past thirteen years. Another worrying statistic found by the study is that of all the plastic produced, half of it becomes waste in under a year. A large amount of the increase in plastic production can be accounted for by the growth in the use of plastic packaging. This makes up over 40 percent of non-fibre plastic.
A 2015 study, led by University of Georgia environmental engineer, Jenna Jambeck, found that every year, an estimated 8 million metric tonnes of plastic waste ends up in the oceans of the world. This equates to every foot of coastline in the world is contaminated by five grocery bags full of plastic waste. Until the waste was already present in the environment, scientists were not aware of its implications, and now it is necessary to gain control of the plastic waste.
Controlling plastic waste needs a global approach, and doesn’t just involve promoting plastic waste recycling, although this is an important part of the control. Product design, plastic chemistry and consumer use all also have to be addressed throughout the world. Europe is ahead in terms of plastic recycling, with a figure of 30 percent, compared with 25 percent for China and only 9 percent for the United States.
Roland Geyer has said that we need to think about whether it would be worthwhile to trade off some of the convenience we are used to, in return for a healthier and cleaner environment. It may be necessary to consider replacing some problematic materials with cleaner options or even phasing them out altogether.