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The Staggering Amount of Plastic We’ve Produced — And What We've Done With It

Date July 20, 2017 Author Lucy Robinson Categories News
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Scientists have calculated the total amount of plastic ever made. Spoiler alert: it’s a lot. But what’s even more disturbing is where all this plastic is ending up.

Since large-scale production of plastics began in the 1950s, our civilization has produced a whopping 8.3 billion tons of the stuff. Of this, 6.3 billion tons—around 76 percent—has already gone to waste. Such is the conclusion reached by a team of researchers from the University of Georgia, the University of California at Santa Barbara, and the Sea Education Association. Now published in Science Advances, it’s the first global analysis of the production, use, and fate of all the plastics our species has ever produced—and it’s showing just how badly we need to rethink plastic, and why we’re using so much of it.

For the study, the researchers compiled global production statistics for resins, fibers, and additives from various industry sources, breaking them down according to type and consuming sector. They found that annual global production of plastics skyrocketed, from two million metric tons in 1950 to a jaw-dropping 400 million metric tons in 2015. That’s a level of growth not seen in any other material, save for construction where concrete and and steel are king. But unlike concrete and steel—materials that hold our infrastructure together—plastic tends to be thrown away after just one use. That’s because a hefty portion of it is used for packaging.

“Roughly half of all the steel we make goes into construction, so it will have decades of use—plastic is the opposite,” said lead author Roland Geyer, an associate professor in UCSB’s Bren School of Environmental Science and Management, in a statement. “Half of all plastics become waste after four or fewer years of use.”

The new research also shows that plastic production is still growing. Roughly half of all the plastic that exists was made in the last 13 years.

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