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How Much Plastic Has Humanity Produced? More Than 8.3 Billion Metric Tons

20 July 2017, 11:30 am EDT By Eric Brackett Tech Times
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We've made 9.1 billion tonnes of plastic since it was invented – here's where it ends up
Humanity has literally produced more than a ton of plastic for every person alive today. On top of that, the majority of those end up in landfills or polluting the environment.   ( Justin Sullivan | Getty Images )

A new study has calculated how much plastic humanity has produced since the 1950s and there's a lot of it.

The study, published in the journal Science Advances, found that more than 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic have been produced since wide-scale production began in the 1950s. To put that into perspective, there are roughly 7.5 billion people on the planet meaning that there is more than one metric ton of plastic for every person alive today.

The Environmental Impact Of Plastic

The environmental impacts of humanity's reliance on plastic are hard to overstate. Of the 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic that have been produced since the 1950s, 6.3 billion tons of it has already been turned into waste. Only 9 percent of the world's plastic has been recycled. Twelve percent was incinerated and the remaining 79 percent resides in landfills or pollutes the environment. 

"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 coauthor 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."

There have been some efforts to produce biodegradable plastics, but the results of these efforts have been met with skepticism. Some environmental activists have pointed out that many of the plastics which are labeled as biodegradable only do so under very specific circumstances, which don't occur in every environment.

Setting aside the low rate of recycling found in plastic production, another major problem is its short lifespan. Humanity still produces more steel and concrete than any other material, but steel and concrete are used in construction work so they have a longer shelf life. Steel and concrete that are used in the construction of buildings may get decades of use, which will minimize the environmental impact of its production.

The majority of plastic on the other hand? Well, that's mostly used in soda bottles, storage boxes, and other containers. These items don't have a particularly long shelf life. Most of the time, the package is used once, opened, and then tossed in the trash.

Perhaps what is even more worrying is the pace at which the production of plastic has accelerated in recent decades. Approximately, half of the world's plastic has been produced in the past 13 years, so it looks like plastic will continue to be a common fixture on our store shelves (and in our landfills) for many years to come.

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Eric Brackett Tech Times editor Eric Brackett is a tech junkie and a gamer, covering science and technology. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter for updates and his random thoughts on the latest trends in gaming, tech, and comic books.

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