A study by the American Association for the Advancement of Science has produced an estimate of the total amount of plastic manufactured worldwide since the 1950s. The researchers then measured that data against statistics on recycling, incineration and discard rates. The results are sobering.
Since the post-World War II era, 9 billion tons of plastic has been manufactured. About 2 billion tons of that plastic is still in use, so that plastic is not garbage or waste. But at least 7 billion tons of plastic share our environment entombed in landfills, going through waste streams, or littering our habitats or the ocean. That is nearly one ton of plastic waste for every man, woman and child on the planet. Only a negligible amount of plastic has disappeared via incineration.
Single-use disposable plastics like packaging materials are the worst offenders and half of that kind of plastic has been created over the past 30 years. Globally, plastic recycling is on the rise and, if the trend continues, could reach 44% by mind-century. But production and consumption of plastic keeps accelerating as well. Furthermore, reprocessed plastics generally don’t have the quality of the original materials and have more limited uses. The bottom line is that there really isn’t anywhere for all that plastic to go other than in our environment or in massive holes dug in the ground around us.
The authors suggest that incineration is the best solution to the plastic problem. Technology that can bring the quality of recycled plastic up the that of the virgin material could change that assessment. Without some comprehensive solution, our planet could be permanently contaminated with massive amounts of plastic.
Photo, posted November 10, 2009, courtesy of Dominic Alves via Flickr.