Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Half of All Plastic That Has Ever Existed Was Made in the Past 13 Years

Sarah Zhang
Plastic production is rapidly accelerating, according to an ambitious new paper—but only 9 percent of it gets recycled.


Now, for the first time, researchers have published a sweeping, public, and in-depth accounting of all plastic that has ever been made in the entire world. The number is so big as to defy human comprehension: 8,300 million metric tons since 1950. Of this, 6,400 million metric tons has outlived its usefulness and become waste; 79 percent of that waste is sitting in landfills or the natural environment, 12 percent has been incinerated, and just 9 percent has been recycled.


Perhaps the most eye-popping statistic in the study is how quickly plastic production has been accelerating in just this millennium. The world has made as much plastic in the past 13 years it did in the previous half-century.


It’s worth considering how much the rise of plastic is tied to the rise of oil and gas. Around this time, the United States began using a lot more oil. Oil is easy to make into plastic, and and it is cheap to do so. These economic forces helped create a new category of product: the disposable, single-use plastic packaging.

Packaging is now the largest plastic market, and it’s still tied to fossil fuels. In June, The Wall Street Journal reported on how the United States’ natural gas boom was translating into cheaper plastic pellets. The Dow Chemical Company wants to send its plastic pellet to places like Brazil, where it’s betting that a rising middle class will want the convenience of single-use plastic baby-food containers. Developing countries in South America and Asia account for much of the recent growth in plastics consumption.

These economic forces also govern how plastic gets recycled—or doesn’t. It’s often cheaper just to make virgin plastics, especially if you need plastic of a certain hardness or durability. Plus, there are so many different types of plastics that need to be sorted. “Plastic recycling just suffers from poor economics,” says Geyer.


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