8 NEW Facts about Plastic–And Why You Should Care

As Chief Scientist at Ocean Conservancy I have a responsibility to share new research results with you even if they are tough to comprehend. A new study published in the journal Science Advances paints a shocking picture of how much plastic humans have produced and thrown away. This paper should encourage all of us to step up to address the challenge of plastics in the natural environment. This first-of-its-kind analysis led by Dr. Roland Geyer from the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis at the University of California, Santa Barbara found:

  1. Widespread use of plastics has surpassed all other man-made materials except steel and cement.
  2. Global production of plastic increased from 2 million tons in 1950 to 380 million tons by 2015, a growth rate 2.5 greater than that of the global economy. Half of that amount was produced in just the last 13 years.
  3. If this global trend in production continues, humans will have produced 34 billion tons of plastic by 2050 (100 times greater than the weight of all the humans on the planet), four times more than we have made to date. Close to half—46% of that (a whopping 12 billion tons)—is expected to be discarded in landfills or the natural environment.
  4. As a material, plastic is long lasting and durable and doesn’t degrade. This is one of the reasons plastic can be so useful when it comes to human health and food safety–especially in the developing world. But this also means that plastics accumulate in the natural environment and landfills, leading to what Geyer and his coauthors call a growing concern of a “near-permanent contamination of the natural environment.
  5. Six different types of plastic (polyethylene (PE), polypropylene (PP), polystyrene (PS), polyvinylchloride (PVC), polyethylene terephthalates (PET), and polyurethane (PUR) account for 92% of all the plastics ever made and 42% of that has been used for packaging, generally with a lifespan of less than 1 year before being discarded.
  6. There are only 4 ways to handle plastic at the end of its life. Plastic waste can be recycled, destroyed or converted to fuel or energy through incineration or pyrolysis, disposed of in managed waste systems or discarded where it ends up in the natural environment.
  7. The highest recycling rates are in Europe (30%) and China (25%) whereas the United States has had a relatively dismal rate of 9% since 2012. Even so, only 9% of all the plastics that have ever been produced have been recycled and only 10% of that amount (less than 1%) has been recycled more than once.
  8. A whopping 79% of all the plastics ever produced have now been discarded. Only 21% of plastics are still in active use.

These numbers are startling. And they may actually be underestimates. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that the global plastics industry is on the verge of a massive expansion, driven by a 57% increase in oil and shale gas production over the last decade in the United States. In response, the nation’s petrochemical industry is investing $185 billion in 310 projects to expand production, based largely in the Gulf of Mexico. By the end of next decade, the industry is predicted to have increased plastics exports by 500%; just two new facilities in the Gulf will have production capacity of over 3 million tons per year.

At Ocean Conservancy we know that plastics use and plastic waste is not a black or white issue. In many countries, plastic is absolutely critical to improving human health and food safety. And we believe that there are many ways that we can reduce the amount of plastic used in the world, especially single-use plastic in developed countries. And given we are an ocean conservation organization we are unwavering in our focus on keeping plastics out of the ocean.

For more than 30 years, we have been at the forefront of efforts to engage a global community of ocean lovers that has removed over 210 million pounds of trash from coasts, beaches and waterways in 112 countries. Be sure to mark your calendars–the next International Coastal Cleanup is September 16. Find a cleanup near you at www.signuptocleanup.org.

We are also working to eliminate unneeded plastics from the market and investing in science and new knowledge like this new study to inform our decision making. We are proud to have supported the scientific working group on marine debris at The National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis at the University of California, Santa Barbara, that resulted in the new Science Advances study. This group of ocean scientists, plastic researchers and waste management experts has now published a suite of studies that have fundamentally changed how we think about the problem of plastics in the ocean. This includes a seminal study published in Science in 2015 by Dr. Jenna Jambeck that found that 8 million tons of plastics enters the global ocean each year, with nearly half of that originating from a handful of rapidly developing countries in Asia.

And we are also working collaboratively with industry leaders around the globe through our Trash Free Seas Alliance to invest in solutions to minimize and better manage plastic waste.

All of this can help stem the tide. But today’s findings are a sobering reminder that we must all work together and redouble our efforts to ensure a healthy ocean–free of plastic–for the future.

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