Planet Earth turns plastic

US scientists have calculated the total amount of plastic ever made at 8.3 billion tonnes and say nearly 80 per cent of what’s thrown away likely ends up in landfills.

The mass was as heavy as 25,000 Empire State Buildings, or a billion elephants, and had been created in the last 65 years or so.

In fact, half of it was made just in the past 13 years.

Plastic items, like packaging, tend to be used for very short periods before being discarded.

Nearly 80 per cent of the total production was now in waste streams, sent largely to landfill — although much of it littered the wider environment, including the oceans.

“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,” Dr Roland Geyer told the BBC.

A paper authored by the industrial ecologist from the University of California, Santa Barbara, and colleagues appeared in the journal Science Advances.

It was described as the first truly global assessment of how much plastic has been manufactured, how the material was used, and where it ends up.

Some of the key numbers from the report:

* 8300 million tonnes of virgin plastics have been produced;

* half of this material was made in just the past 13 years;

* about 30 per cent of the historic production remained in use today;

* of the discarded plastic, roughly 9 per cent has been recycled;

* some 12 per cent has been incinerated, but 79 per cent has gone to landfill;

* shortest-use items were packaging, typically less than a year;

* longest-use products were found in construction and machinery;

* current trends point to 12 billion tonnes of waste by 2050; and

* recycling rates in 2014: Europe (30 per cent), China (25 per cent), US (9 per cent)

There was no question that plastics were a wonder material.

Their adaptability and durability has seen their production and use accelerate past most other man-made materials apart from steel, cement and brick.

From the start of mass-manufacturing in the 1950s, the polymers were now all around us — incorporated into everything from food wrapping and clothing, to aeroplane parts and flame retardants. But it was precisely plastics’ amazing qualities that now presented a burgeoning problem.

None of the commonly used plastics are biodegradable.

The only way to permanently dispose of their waste was to destructively heat it — through a decomposition process known as pyrolysis or through simple incineration; although the latter was complicated by health and emissions concerns.

In the meantime, the waste mounts up.

There was enough plastic debris out there right now, Mr Geyer and colleagues said, to cover an entire country the size of Argentina.

The team’s hope was that their new analysis would give added impetus to the conversation about how best to deal with the plastics issue.

“Our mantra is you can’t manage what you don’t measure,” Dr Geyer said.

“So, our idea was to put the numbers out there without us telling the world what the world should be doing, but really just to start a real, concerted discussion.”

Recycling rates were increasing and novel chemistry had some biodegradable alternatives, but manufacturing new plastic was so cheap the virgin product was hard to dislodge.

The same team — which included Jenna Jambeck from the University of Georgia and Kara Lavender Law from the Sea Education Association at Woods Hole — produced the seminal report in 2015 that quantified the total amount of plastic waste escaping to the oceans each year, eight million tonnes.

This particular waste flow was probably the one that had generated most concern of late because of the clear evidence now that some of this discarded material was getting into the food chain as fish and other marine creatures ingest small polymer fragments.

Dr Erik van Sebille from Utrecht University in the Netherlands is an oceanographer who tracked plastics in our seas. Of the new report, he said: “We’re facing a tsunami of plastic waste, and we need to deal with that.

“The global waste industry needs to get its act together and make sure that the ever-increasing amounts of plastic waste generated don’t end up in the environment.

“We need a radical shift in how we deal with plastic waste. On current trends, it will take until 2060 before more plastic gets recycled than landfilled and lost to the environment. That clearly is too slow, we can’t wait that long,” Dr van Sebille said.

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