World is drowning in plastic, study says

A worker using a raft to gather plastic and other debris for collection and disposal from a river in Jakarta on June 7.
A worker using a raft to gather plastic and other debris for collection and disposal from a river in Jakarta on June 7.PHOTO: REUTERS

6.3b tonnes of it languishing in landfills, as recycled trash or pollution in environment

WASHINGTON • About 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic have been produced since 1950, and the vast majority of this is still around. That is a little bit more than a tonne for every human on the planet.

A study that tracked the global manufacture and distribution of plastics since they became widespread after World War II has found that only 1.8 billion tonnes of that plastic are still in use.

Of the total, 6.3 billion tonnes are stuck on earth as garbage in landfills, recycled trash or pollution in the environment, including oceans, where it has been found in whales and the bellies of dead seabirds that mistook it for food. A small amount is eliminated in incinerators.

As plastic becomes near-indestructible mountains of garbage on land and swirling vortexes of trash at sea, humans keep making more. Half of the plastic used just once and tossed away was created in the past 30 years, the study says.

Plastic's most lucrative market is the packaging commonly seen in grocery stores. It could be in front of you right now, in the form of a water bottle, a carry-out lunch container, or an iced coffee or tea cup with its disposable straw.

It is a miracle product also in your office chair, phone and keyboard. The pipes that move water in your building are often plastic. You probably touch plastic to switch on the car radio on the foam plastic dashboard. Plastic is pretty much everywhere humans are at any part of the day, anywhere in the world.

In 1960, plastic accounted for just 1 per cent of junk in municipal landfills across the world. As single-package containers led to an explosion in convenience and use, that number grew to 10 per cent in 2005.

  • 1

    Amount of plastic garbage in tonnes for every person in the world.

    8.3b

    Amount of plastic in tonnes that has been produced since 1950.

    6.3b

    Amount of accumulated plastic in tonnes present as garbage in landfills, recycled trash or pollution in the environment, including the oceans.

    9%

    Amount of plastic recycled in the United States (in China, it is 25 per cent, and 30 per cent in Europe).

"If current trends continue, the researchers predict over 11.8 billion tonnes of plastic will be discarded in landfills or in the environment by 2050," the American Association for the Advancement of Science said in a statement announcing the study's release on Wednesday. It was published in the journal Science Advances.

"If you spread all of this plastic equally, ankle-deep, it would cover an area the size of Argentina," professor of industrial ecology and study lead author Roland Geyer told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Another surprise, he said, is how far the US lags behind China and Europe in recycling plastic material.

In the study, Dr Geyer wrote: "On the basis of limited available data, the highest recycling rates in 2014 were in Europe (30 per cent) and China (25 per cent), whereas in the United States, plastic recycling has remained steady at 9 per cent."

Recycling only delays plastic's inevitable trip to a trash bin. Incineration is the only way to assure that plastic is eliminated, and Europe and China by far lead the US in that category as well, up to 40 per cent compared with 16 per cent.

But burning it is risky because if the emissions are not carefully filtered, harmful chemicals become air pollution. Like other countries, the US has been slow to enforce regulations on industry emissions.

China is the world's largest producer of plastics, with Europe and North America looming large as major players, Dr Geyer said. Other Asian nations round out a long list of manufacturers. But consumers are the polluters, and people on every continent participate.

Dr Geyer hopes politicians, conservationists and consumers will pay attention to the findings. "My hope is readers will get a sense of the sheer magnitude of the tide of plastics and the plastic waste challenge we're facing.

"I think the danger is permanent global contamination with plastics. It's just going to be everywhere, in the soil, in the ocean, in the sediment of the ocean floor, and it's just going to accumulate."

WASHINGTON POST, REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 21, 2017, with the headline 'World is drowning in plastic, study says'. Print Edition | Subscribe