How much plastic waste is too much plastic waste? This much

21 Jul 2017

How else could we possibly drink water, if not from a plastic bottle? Image: R.Kido/Shutterstock

A new study suggests that 8.3bn metric tonnes of plastic have been created in the last 70 years – and most of it is still around.

On a drive I was once on from Arizona into Mexico a few years ago, the view of dry, red dirt fields was obscured.

While Ireland is replete with green fields in all directions, the terrain there was altogether different. Plastic was cropping up in every plot, as far as the eye could see.

Earlier this year, a remote, uninhabited Pacific island was found to be weighed down by more plastic than many of us probably thought was possible outside of a landfill.

3,500 new items of litter wash up on just one of its beaches every single day, with approximately 1m pieces of plastic for every square kilometre of the island.

90pc of all seabirds have consumed plastic, with the likes of albatrosses and penguins now in trouble.

Underwater creatures are probably struggling even more, with such waste floating about in the sea. It has gotten so out of control that one of the great hopes we have for any semblance of a solution might actually be tiny, plastic-eating caterpillars.

Though, according to a new report, we would need an impossible amount of these caterpillars working round the clock to even make a dent in the problem.

Fancy a swim? Image: Rich Carey/Shutterstock

Fancy a swim? Image: Rich Carey/Shutterstock

Decades of excess

Ecologist Roland Geyer has pored over the data and, in a study published in Science Advances, found that around 8bn metric tonnes (MT) of virgin plastics have been produced since 1950.

That’s enough to cover the entire country of Argentina, according to University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB). Around 6.3bn MT of that has turned into waste, with just 21pc either recycled or incinerated.

That leaves close to 5bn MT of plastic clogging up landfills, swirling around the rotting digestive system of birds or ruining fields throughout the world.

“We cannot continue with business as usual unless we want a planet that is literally covered in plastic,” said Geyer, an associate professor at UCSB’s Bren School of Environmental Science and Management.

Of the many concerning areas in the study, the growth is what’s most astounding.

Speeding up

The total amount of resins and fibres manufactured between 1950 and 2015 is 7.8bn MT, and half of this was produced in the past 13 years.

Very few things have been produced in such abundance in the past 70 years, though steel and concrete are two.

Yet Geyer’s study shows that volume is not necessarily the problem, it’s more down to use and ‘shelf life’.

“Roughly half of all the steel we make goes into construction, so it will have decades of use – plastic is the opposite,” Geyer said. “Half of all plastics become waste after four or fewer years of use.”

Co-author Jenna Jambeck, an associate professor of engineering at the University of Georgia, lamented the lifetime of plastic, in particular.

“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,” she said.

“Our estimates underscore the need to think critically about the materials we use and our waste management practices.”

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic