Humans Have Produced Nine Billion Tons of Plastic and Counting

Mechanical separation of plastic for recycling

About 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic have been produced since 1950, and the vast majority of this is still around.

"Plastics are used because they are efficient, they are cost effective and they do their jobs", said Steve Russell, vice president of plastics for the American Chemistry Council, an industry association that represents manufacturers.

The scientists compiled production statistics for resins, fibres and additives from a variety of industry sources.

Humans have created more than eight billion tonnes of plastics in the past 65 years, and most of it still exists in rubbish tips, in the sea and strewn about the landscape, according to new worldwide research. Notable exceptions are steel and cement.

The successful campaign "Banish the bags" led to a huge reduction in single-use plastic bags at supermarkets, and now this paper is calling for a deposit scheme on plastic bottles as part of the "Take Back the Bottles" campaign.

"Roughly half of all the steel we make goes into construction, so it will have decades of use; plastic is the opposite", Geyer said. Of the total amount of plastics produced from 1950 to 2015, roughly half was produced in just the last 13 years. But, since 2002, we've doubled that yield, Geyer said.

"We are rapidly heading towards 'Planet Plastic, ' and if we don't want to live on that kind of world then we may have to rethink how we use some materials, in particular plastic", industrial ecologist Roland Geyer tells Jonathan Amos of BBC News.

Recycling is not much help when it comes to plastics, because they do not dissolve in the environment. Of that total, only 9 percent was recycled; 12 percent was incinerated and 79 percent accumulated in landfills or the natural environment.

The researchers found that, as of 2015, of the almost seven billion tons of plastic waste generated, only nine per cent was recycled and 12 per cent incinerated, while 79 per cent accumulated in landfills or the environment.

China makes the most plastic, followed by Europe and North America.

To develop a truly comprehensive waste management plan, Hoornweg said communities need strategies to address and track other waste too, such as metals and hazardous materials. Another study estimates that over 8 million tonnes of plastic enter the oceans every year.

"Even with two very different methods, we got virtually the same waste number - 275 million metric tons - for 2010, which suggests that the numbers are quite robust", Geyer said.

Giving evidence to MPs previous year, one expert said plastic should be considered toxic once it got into the natural world because of this effect. In developed countries, the environmental and health impacts of waste incineration rely on the incinerator design and emissions technologies.

A news release from UCSB announcing the study said the authors were "quick to caution" they aren not advocating getting ride of plastics but instead "advocate a more critical examination of plastic use".

"There is much more attention paid to how plastics are interacting with marine organisms but there is much, much less known about how plastics interact with terrestrial organisms - I would suspect there is something equivalent going on and it might actually be worse".

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