Humans have created 8.3 billion metric tons of plastics since large-scale production of the synthetic materials began in the early 1950s, and most of it now resides in landfills or the natural environment, according to a study published in the journal Science Advances.
Led by a team of scientists from the University of Georgia, the University of California, Santa Barbara and Sea Education Association, the study is the first global analysis of the production, use and fate of all plastics ever made.
“Most plastics don’t biodegrade in any meaningful sense, so the plastic waste humans have generated could be with us for hundreds or even thousands of years,” said Jenna Jambeck, study co-author and associate professor of engineering at UGA. “Our estimates underscore the need to think critically about the materials we use and our waste management practices.”
The scientists compiled production statistics for resins, fibers and additives from a variety of industry sources and synthesized them according to type and consuming sector.
Global production of plastics increased from 2 million metric tons in 1950 to over 400 million metric tons in 2015, according to the study, outgrowing most other human-made materials. Notable exceptions are materials that are used extensively in the construction sector, such as steel and cement.
But while steel and cement are used primarily for construction, plastics’ largest market is packaging, and most of those products are used once and discarded.
“Roughly half of all the steel we make goes into construction, so it will have decades of use — plastic is the opposite,” said Roland Geyer, lead author of the paper and associate professor in UCSB’s Bren School of Environmental Science and Management. “Half of all plastics become waste after four or fewer years of use.”