From the moment plastic was created in 1907, a potential downside of this purely synthetic material went unattended — it doesn’t decompose like organic material, so how do you deal with the waste?
But by 1950 that problem became more apparent — plastic was becoming widespread and more than 2 million metric tons of it were being created each year.
And that was only the start.
By 2015, 380 million metric tons of plastic were being created annually.
In those 65 years, an estimated 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic were created, according to a new report published in Science Advances.
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To get a sense of the size of that, 8.3 metric tons is equivalent to:
822,000 Eiffel Towers
25,000 Empire State Buildings
80 million blue whales
1 billion elephants
As all of this plastic is created for food packaging, toys, insulation, water bottles, and all the countless other uses, older plastics accumulate across the planet, joining an endless procession of plastic waste in landfills, across landscapes, and in oceans.
Different types of plastic can take anywhere from one to 1,000 years to decompose and even when that happens the effect of plastic doesn’t suddenly disappear — plastic breaks down into microplastics and chemical granules that can last indefinitely, poisoning the planet in the process.
The report estimated that 6.3 billion metric tons of this plastic has been thrown out, or 75% of the total, and that 9% of this waste has been recycled and 12% incinerated.
So 5 billion metric tons of plastic are scattered across the world, clogging coastlines, creating huge gyres in the oceans, piling up along streets and in landfills.
“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,” Jenna Jambeck, an associate professor at the University of Georgia who coauthored the paper, said in a statement.
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If current trends continue, 12 billion metric tons of plastic waste will exist in the world by 2050.
That’s 1.6 metric tons, or the size of midsize car, for every human on the planet.
The good news is that the tide may be turning against plastic. All around the world, countries are beginning to ban plastic, recognizing that the convenience it affords is rarely worth the environmental harm it causes.
In Kenya, for example, the government recently banned all plastic bags. France, meanwhile, banned all plastic cups, plates and cutlery. Zimbabwe just banned all styrofoam-like containers.
These efforts are just a start and barely address the underlying causes of plastic production.
But plastic has only been around for a little more than a century.
"There are people alive today who remember a world without plastics," Jambeck said. "But they have become so ubiquitous that you can't go anywhere without finding plastic waste in our environment, including our oceans."
Surely humans can once again find a way without plastic.