The growth of plastics production in the past 65 years has substantially outpaced any other manufactured material. The reasons that make plastic so attractive to use —durability and resistance to degradation—make these materials difficult or impossible for nature to handle.
Global plastic production of virgin plastics totals over 8.3b metric tonnes.
What does this volume of plastic look like?
Thanks to some clever work by Janet Beckley from the University of Georgia, the volume of global plastic production (up to 2017) is the equivalent of:
Frighteningly, this will likely reach 34b metric tonnes by 2050 (which is still in most of our lifetimes).
Suppose low levels of recycling continue (around 10%). In that case, roughly 12b metric tonnes of plastic waste will be in landfills or the natural environment by 2050. As the sunlight weakens the materials, fragmentation occurs, forming microplastics that are mere millimetres or micrometres in size.
Geyer et al (2017) highlight that 2.5b metric tonnes of plastic is currently in use (below). This use includes plastics in the home, packaging, building and construction, electronics, aerospace and transportation.
What happens at the end of its useful life? Particularly those items with a short life span, like those single-use products created to bring convenience instead, have created a catastrophe.
Currently, without a management strategy for end-of-life plastics, this is an uncontrolled experiment on a global scale.
For the full paper by Geyer et al (2017) – visit here: Production, use, and fate of all plastics ever made | Science Advances