Half Of The 18.3 Trillion Pounds Of Plastic Produced Was Created In Last 13 Years

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The next time you go to throw out a piece of plastic packaging, imagine it resting atop a pile containing the 10.8 trillion pounds of plastic trash we’ve produced in the last six decades.

According to a study in the journal Science Advances titled “Production, use, and fate of all plastics ever made,” widespread use of plastic products only dates back to about 1950 — but in that time, we’ve produced about 8300 million metric tons (Mt) (around 9.1 billion tons or 18.3 trillion pounds) of plastic.

Half of that was produced in just the last 13 years, researchers say.

Where Is It All Going?

As of 2015, approximately 6300 Mt of plastic waste — about 13.9 trillion pounds — had been generated: About 9 percent of that was recycled and 12 percent incinerated.

That leaves about 79 percent of that waste — 10.8 trillion pounds or so — left to accumulate in landfills or the natural environment, the study says, noting that “none of the commonly used plastics are biodegradable.”

All told, 60 percent of all plastics ever produced have been dumped somewhere on this planet:

Plastic debris has been found in all major ocean basins, researchers note, with an estimated four to 12 million metric tons of plastic waste generated on land entering the marine environment in 2010 alone.

“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 study co-author Jenna Jambeck, an associate professor of engineering at the University of Georgia.

What Are We Making With All That Plastic?

The largest market for plastics is packaging, an application whose growth is only accelerating due to a global shift from reusable to single-use containers, the study points out.

As a result, the share of plastics in municipal solid waste went up from less than 1 percent in 1960 to more than 10 percent in 2005 in middle- and high-income countries.

Looking To The Future

If current production and waste management trends continue, roughly 12 billion metric tons (about 21.7 trillion pounds) of plastic waste will be in landfills or in the natural environment by 2050, researchers concluded. That’s about 35,000 times as heavy as the Empire State Building.

“We cannot continue with business as usual unless we want a planet that is literally covered in plastic,” said lead author Geyer, an associate professor at UC Santa Barbara’s Bren School of Environmental Science & Management. “This paper delivers hard data not only for how much plastic we’ve made over the years but also its composition and the amount and kind of additives that plastic contains. I hope this information will be used by policymakers to improve end-of-life management strategies for plastics.”