In this March 12, 2015 file photo, plastic trash is compacted into bales ready for further processing at the waste processing dump on the outskirts of Minsk, Belarus. (AP Photo/Sergei Grits)

The mass production of plastics, which began six decades ago, has accelerated so rapidly that it has created 8.3 billion metric tons – most of it in disposable products that end up as trash.

If that seems like an incomprehensible quantity, it is. Even the scientists who set out to conduct the world’s first tally of how much plastic has been produced, discarded, burned or put in landfills, were horrified by the sheer size of 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,” says Jenna Jambeck, a University of Georgia environmental engineer who specialises in studying plastic waste in the oceans. “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,” she says.

Plastic takes more than 400 years to degrade, so most of it still exists in some form. Only 12% has been incinerated.

The study was launched two years ago as scientists tried to get a handle on the gargantuan amount of plastic that ends up in the seas and the harm it is causing to birds, marine animals and fish. The prediction that mid-century the oceans will contain more plastic waste than fish, ton for ton, has become one of the most quoted statistics and a rallying cry to do something about it.

The new study, published on July 19 in the peer-reviewed journal Science Advances, is the first global analysis of all plastics ever made and their fate. Of the 8.3 billion metric tons that have been produced, 6.3 billion metric tons have become plastic waste. Of that, only 9% has been recycled. The vast majority – 79% – is accumulating in landfills or sloughing off in the natural environment as litter. That means at some point, much of it ends up in the oceans, the final sink.

If present trends continue, by 2050, there will be 12 billion metric tons of plastic in landfills. That amount is 35 000 times as heavy as the Empire State Building.

Roland Geyer, the study’s lead author, says the team of scientists are trying to create a foundation for better managing plastic products. “You can’t manage what you don’t measure,” he says. “It’s not just that we make a lot; it’s that we also make more, year after year.”

Geyer is an engineer  who specialises in industrial ecology as a professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He has studied various metals and how they’re used and managed. The rapid acceleration of plastic manufacturing, which so far has doubled roughly every 15 years, has outpaced nearly every other man-made material. It is also unlike virtually every other material. Half of all steel produced, for example, is used in construction, with a decades-long lifespan. Half of all manufactured plastic becomes trash in less than a year, the study found.

Much of the growth in plastic production is owing to the increased use of plastic packaging, which accounts for more than 40% of non-fiber plastic.

The same team, led by Jambeck, produced the first study in 2015 that estimated that 8 million metric tons of plastic end up in the oceans every year. That’s equivalent to five grocery bags of plastic trash for every foot of coastline around the globe.

Gaining control of plastic waste is now such a large task that it calls for a comprehensive, global approach, Jambeck says, that involves rethinking plastic chemistry, product design, recycling strategies and consumer use. The US ranks behind Europe (30%) and China (25%) in recycling, the study found. Recycling in the US has remained at 9% since 2012.

“We as a society need to consider whether it’s worth trading off some convenience for a clean, healthy environment,” Geyer says. 

● Parker is a staff writer for National Geographic.

New York Times