Just 9% of discarded plastic recycled since 1950s

2nd August 2017

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Martina Mullarkey

Humans have produced 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic since the 1950s, 6.3 billion of which is already waste, according to a recent study by US academics.

It reveals that only 9% of the discarded plastic has been recycled since then, and just 12% incinerated, with production increasing from two million metric tons in the 50s, to over 400 million in 2015.

Instead, 79% of the waste plastic can be found in landfills or the natural environment, which will rise to around 12 billion metric tons by 2050 if current trends continue – the equivalent of 35,000 Empire State Buildings.

"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," study co-author, Jenna Jambeck, said.

"Our estimates underscore the need to think critically about the materials we use and our waste management practices.”

Led by a team of scientists from the University of Georgia, the University of California, and the Santa Barbara and Sea Education Association, the study is the first global analysis of the production, use and fate of all plastic ever made.

After compiling statistics for resins, fibres and additives from a variety of industry sources, the scientists concluded that plastic production had increased more since the 50s than most man-made materials.

Construction materials such as steel and cement were found to be notable exceptions, however, plastics’ largest market is packaging, with most products discarded after the first use.

The pace of production is not expected to slow either, with researchers estimating that roughly half the amount produced since the 50s was done in the last 13 years.

In addition, they estimate that eight million metric tons of plastic entered the ocean in 2010, and are now urging a more critical examination of its use and end-of-life value.

"There are areas where plastics are indispensable, especially in products designed for durability," study co-author Kara Lavender Law, said.

"But I think we need to take a careful look at our expansive use of plastics and ask when the use of these materials does or does not make sense.”


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