Between 1950 and 2015, humans produced 8.3 billion metric tons of plastics, 6.3 billion tons of which ended up in landfills, a new study shows. The calculations draw attention to the shocking volume of plastic waste people produce that ends up just about everywhere except a recycling center. And shocking may be an understatement—even the scientists behind the study were appalled by the numbers.
“We all knew there was a rapid and extreme increase in plastic production from 1950 until now, but actually quantifying the cumulative number for all plastic ever made was quite shocking,” Jenna Jambeck, a University of Georgia environmental engineer who focuses on plastic ocean waste, told National Geographic. “This kind of increase would ‘break’ any system that was not prepared for it, and this is why we have seen leakage from global waste systems into the oceans.”
The study, called “The Production, Use, and Fate of all Plastics Ever Made,” was published in Science Advances and conducted by researchers from the University of Georgia and the University of California. The research shows that just 9 percent of the plastic created since the 1950s was recycled. Twelve percent was incinerated, and 79 per cent wound up in landfills or the natural environment.
Based on these numbers, the study suggests 12 billion metric tons of plastic waste will be occupying landfills or polluting oceans by 2050.
These tallies are the result of dispersed statistics on the production of additives, fibers and resins spanning 65 years. That aggregated research shows just how much the global production of plastics skyrocketed: from 2 million metric tons in 1950 to more than 400 million metric tons in 2015. About half of all the plastic we’ve produced in the last 65 years arrived in just the last 13 years.
These rates outpace just about every other man made material, with the exceptions of steel and cement. While other materials are used for years and years, plastic is most often utilized for just seconds or minutes at a time before being thrown away. That’s in part because plastic is such a useful material for so many temporary things, such as holding foods, storing liquids, and stowing garbage.
"Roughly half of all the steel we make goes into construction, so it will have decades of use plastic is the opposite," Dr. Roland Geyer, lead author of the paper and associate professor in University of California, told the Telegraph. "Half of all plastics become waste after four or fewer years of use."
"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," Associate Professor Jenna Jambeck told the Telegraph. "Our estimates underscore the need to think critically about the materials we use and our waste management practices."
How long plastic remains on the planet after being thrown out is sadly evident in many natural places. For example, it’s estimated that nine out of every 10 seabirds on the planet has pieces of plastic in their bellies, while albatross and shearwater are regularly found with thousands of plastic bits caught in their stomachs, eventually killing the animals.
Consider that oceans across the planet are expected by 2050 to have more plastics than fish by weight, and you start to get an idea of how serious this issue is. If production continues at this rate, 12 billion metric tons of plastic will be sitting in landfills, which for perspective, is about 35,000 times the weight of the Empire State Building.
"I ... think of it sort of as a giant experiment we are performing on this planet,” Geyer told NPR, “and no one really knows the outcome."