Humans have produced 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic since the 1950s, the majority ending up in landfills or polluting the world’s continents and oceans, according to a new report.
The world’s first analysis of all mass-produced plastics found it to outperform most other synthetic materials, threatening “near-permanent contamination of the natural environment”.
The study by American academics found that the total amount of plastic produced – equivalent to a billion elephants in weight – will last for hundreds, if not thousands of years. And with production set to ramp up over the next decades, campaigners warn this is creating an environmental crisis on par with climate change.
“We are increasingly suffocating ecosystems under plastic and I have a very serious concern that there could be all kinds of unintended, unintended consequences that we will only discover once it is too late,” said Roland Geyer, from the University of California and Santa Barbara. , who led the project.
In 1950, when plastic was first mass produced, the report found that 2 million tonnes had been manufactured. This figure rose to 8.3 billion in 2017 and is expected to reach 34 billion by 2050.
âWe’re on this huge growth path – there’s no end in sight to the rate of this growth,â Geyer said. He added that even academics working in the same field were unaware of the “pure dimensions” of the crisis.
âCombined with this huge growth rate, it makes me very worried. We should look at the numbers and ask as a society, is this what we want, can’t we do better? “
Last month, a Guardian survey found that a million plastic bottles are purchased around the world every minute and that number is expected to increase by 20% by 2021.
And earlier this year, scientists found nearly 18 tons of plastic on one of the world’s most remote islands, an uninhabited coral atoll in the South Pacific.
Another study of remote arctic beaches found that they were also heavily polluted with plastic, despite the small local populations. And scientists have warned that plastic bottles and other packaging are invading some of the UK’s most beautiful beaches and remote coasts, endangering wildlife, from basking sharks to puffins.
Experts warn that some of them are already found in the human food chain. Last August, the results of a Plymouth University study found plastic had been found in a third of fish caught in the UK, including cod, haddock, mackerel and shellfish .
But Geyer said he was also concerned about the impact of plastic pollution on terrestrial ecosystems.
âThere’s a lot more attention being paid to how plastics interact with marine organisms, but a lot, a lot less is known about how plastics interact with terrestrial organisms – I suspect something is going on. ‘equivalent and that it could in fact be worse. “
This new study found that the growth in plastic production was largely driven by packaging and the rise of single-use containers, packaging and bottles. He found that some of the only materials to surpass plastic production in the past 70 years are used in the construction industry, such as steel and cement.
âAbout half of all the steel we make is used in construction, so it will have decades of use – plastic is the opposite,â Geyer said. “Half of all plastics become waste after four years or less.”
To visualize the magnitude of the problem, Geyer said he performed a “thought experiment”.
âIf you take the 8.3 billion tons of plastic and spread it out as ankle-deep trash – about 10 inches high – I calculated that I could cover an area the size of the Argentina with. It is the eighth largest country in the world.
The study found that in 2015, of the nearly seven billion tonnes of plastic waste generated, only 9% was recycled, 12% incinerated and 79% accumulated in landfills or in the environment.
Geyer said: âWhat we’re trying to do is create the foundation for sustainable materials management. Simply put, you can’t manage what you don’t measure, so we think policy discussions will be more informed and fact-based now that we have these numbers.