Imagine the weight of 80 million blue whales, the largest animal to ever roam the planet.
That’s how much plastic has been produced over the past seven decades, growing from 2 million metric tons in 1950 at the dawn of the era of petroleum-based plastic, to more than 400 million metric tons annually in 2015, according to the first-ever study quantifying how much plastic has ever been made – and where it has ended up.
Altogether, 8.3 billion tons of plastic have been manufactured since the early 1950s – the weight of 1 billion elephants. It gets worse: Half of that plastic was produced in just the first 15 years of the 21st century, states the study published Wednesday in the journal Science Advances.
We’ve already discarded 75 percent of all the plastic ever made – 6.3 billion tons. Only 9 percent of that, or about 600 million tons, has been recycled (and only 10 percent of that more than once). Around 12 percent of the plastic was incinerated, leaving nearly 5 billion tons of plastic trash sitting in garbage dumps or polluting land and sea.
Based on current trends, the volume of discarded plastic will rise to 12 billion tons by 2050, the scientists determined. Much of that plastic could become marine pollution. A 2015 study by the same research team found that about 8 million tons of plastic entered the ocean in 2010 alone.
“Without a well-designed and tailor-made management strategy for end-of-life plastics, humans are conducting a singular uncontrolled experiment on a global scale,” the researchers wrote, “in which billions of metric tons of material will accumulate across all major terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems on the planet.”
The new findings, which the team compiled using data gathered primarily from industrial organizations and government agencies, surprised even the study’s lead coauthor.
“It just tells you what an incredibly successful material plastic has been since its inception,” said Roland Geyer, an associate professor of industrial ecology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “The growth has been phenomenal, the annual production quantities are phenomenal now. We’re making so much more plastics than glass, aluminum, copper, even paper and cardboard.”
Even with growing public awareness of the ocean plastic crisis, many people may not grasp the full extent of the “uncontrolled experiment,” Geyer believes, because most plastic sinks to the seafloor. “The average depth of the ocean is 4,000ft [1,200m], so I cannot see how we could ever possibly remove that,” he said, noting that “the fossil-based polymers that we’re currently using do not degrade in any kind of meaningful time scale.”
He added, “They will be with us not just for decades, but hundreds of years. And once they are in the sediment, even more so, because they are not exposed to U.V. radiation or organisms that would cause the degradation process. That is why I like to emphasize the importance of keeping them out of the ocean in the first place.”
Environmental chemist Sherri Mason, chair of geology and environmental sciences at the State University of New York at Fredonia, said the new study performs a comprehensive job of quantifying plastic production and disposal over the decades.
“Studies like this are important because it’s helping to put into perspective the magnitude of this issue,” she said. “Added to the studies that examine the impacts, this is what sets the stage for the United Nations putting synthetic chemicals and especially plastic pollution as second only to climate change as having an impact on the ability of our species to survive.”
Mason believes that Geyer and his colleagues have not overstated the environmental and public health unknowns created by the presence of so much petroleum-based plastic in the environment. Plastic is so lightweight that 8.3 billion tons “is a huge volume of material,” she said, that “can literally form trillions upon trillions of pieces of plastic.” These microscopic bits of plastic are now working their way into the food chain.
Mason’s research has revealed that microplastic beads and fibers are an endemic contaminant in the Great Lakes in the United States, present in every one of the 25 of the lakes’ freshwater fish species she has tested. Mason is just beginning to study the effects of microplastics on freshwater plankton, which are the foundation of the Great Lakes food web.
There is a growing body of research which shows that chemicals in plastics can contaminate marine animals, Mason noted, and “have an impact on the organism not leading immediately to death, but to the ability of a species to reproduce, to properly metabolize, and be mobile and [become a] greater source of prey.”
A 2016 study by French researchers found that the reproduction rates of Pacific oysters dropped after exposure to polystyrene microplastic.
Geyer’s team determined that toxic additives such as plasticizers and flame retardants were 7 percent by weight of the total amount of plastics produced since 1950.
The focus among environmentalists, ocean philanthropists and some industries is turning from the never-ending job of cleaning up plastic pollution to stopping it at its source by reducing its production and by developing substitute materials. Greenpeace United Kingdom recently launched a campaign to pressure Coca-Cola to sharply reduce the amount of plastic in its products. The company controls about 40 percent of the global soft drinks market and bottles about 100 billion beverages in plastic each year.
“The amount of plastic that is flowing into the ocean works out as about a rubbish truck every minute,” said Louisa Casson, oceans campaigner for Greenpeace U.K. “We felt like our priority was to tackle that at source, [with] the manufacturers, as the soft drinks industry has really stood out as having a major responsibility for pumping out all this single-use plastic packaging.
“It just doesn’t make sense that companies like Coca-Cola are designing and selling products where the packaging is designed to last four, five minutes, and then discarded, and then can easily end up for hundreds of years polluting our environment, including our oceans,” added Casson.
Coca-Cola has set goals for recycling more of its polyethylene terephthalate or PET plastic containers, which make up nearly 60 percent of its packaging.
“We are advancing consumer recycling programs that support the collection and recovery of beverage packaging so that it doesn’t become marine litter,” said company spokesperson Kirsten Witt in an email. “We have set a goal to recover by 2020 an amount equivalent to 75 percent of the bottles and cans we place into developed markets, but we know we still have much work to do to reach that goal. We are working with civil society, organizations, governments and others to help us achieve that goal and reduce marine litter around the world.”
The Guardian recently reported that in the U.K., Coca-Cola plans to increase the amount of recycled plastic in its bottles to 50 percent by 2020, a 10 percent increase over an earlier goal.
But those targets lack ambition, Casson believes.
“We see a glaring omission in that there is no goal from Coca-Cola, or indeed from any of these other major soft drink brands globally, to actually have a plan for phasing out single-use plastic packaging,” she said. “A lot of their efforts have centered around this light-weighting, making plastic thinner.”
That may slightly reduce the amount of plastic used, Casson said, “but [it] doesn’t really deal with the problem of what happens to that plastic packaging that’s still being designed to be used only once and then be discarded.”
In May, the U.K.-based Ellen MacArthur Foundation made waves in ocean conservation circles by announcing a $2 million prize to dramatically reduce how much plastic ends up in the ocean.
The competition includes a $1 million “circular design” award for new forms of packaging and delivery that avoid the plastic waste currently generated by small plastics such as “sauce and shampoo sachets, wrappers and tear-offs, straws, take-away coffee cup lids and bottle caps.” Those uses add up to 10 percent of plastic packaging, according to the foundation. Another $1 million award, for “circular materials,” hopes to spur the creation of new fully recyclable materials to replace multi-layer plastic packaging, such as snack chip or crisp packaging, which is almost impossible to recycle.
Environmental chemist Mason sees a historic symmetry in using cash prizes to spur a transformation in how plastic packaging is made and used. The inventor who devised celluloid, one of the earliest synthetic plastics, in 1868, was chasing a $10,000 prize for a substance to replace ivory in billiard balls.
“It’s ironically a very altruistic reason why the first plastic was produced: We were overusing natural materials,” she said. “So it’s kind of full-circle for a prize to be awarded to help us move away from these synthetic plastics.”