Materials

8.3 billion tonnes of plastic produced since 1950, say researchers

Around 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic have been created by humans since the early 1950s, when industrial production of synthetic materials began, according to researchers in Amercia.

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The new research, published in the journal Science Advances, represents the first global analysis of plastics throughout their lifetime, from production through to disposal, and was based on production statistics for resins, fibres and additives from a range of industry sources gathered by Roland Greyer, industrial ecologist and associate professor at UC Santa Barbara’s Bren School of Environmental Science & Management, who led the study, and his team.

The researchers found that the annual global production of plastic resins and fibres had increased since 1950 from two million tonnes to over 400 million tonnes in 2015, expanding by a greater amount than any other man-made material besides steel and concrete, and even then, those materials are used mostly in construction and can give decades of use, whereas plastic is mainly used in packaging which is discarded after a very short period of time.

Furthermore, the exponential increase in plastic production seems to show no signs of slowing down. In fact, the research conducted by the UC Santa Barbara team found that of all of the plastic resins and fibres produced since 1950, around half was produced in the last 13 years.

The UC Sanata Barbara research also underlines society’s hitherto inadequate management of plastic waste, with only nine per cent of the rough total of 5.7 billion tonnes of plastic waste produced up until 2015, and 12 per cent being incinerated and 79 per cent being sent to landfill or ending up in the natural environment.

The issue of plastic waste is one that has become increasingly hard to ignore, with an estimated 150 million tonnes of plastic currently present in the world’s oceans, with a further 12.2 million tonnes entering every year, the majority of which comes from land-based sources and can cause significant damage to marine wildlife if ingested, as a study carried out by Imperial College London’s Grantham Institute has shown to be happening in the Arctic Circle.

If nothing is done to reduce the creation of plastic waste, it is estimated that there will be around 12 billion tonnes of plastic waste in landfills or the natural environment by 2050.

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No more ‘business as usual’

Speaking about his team’s findings, Roland Greyer emphasised the need for society to wean itself off of its addiction to plastic: “We cannot continue with business as usual unless we want a planet that is literally covered in plastic. This paper delivers hard data not only for how much plastic we’ve made over the years but also its composition and the amount and kind of additives that plastic contains. I hope this information will be used by policymakers to improve end-of-life management strategies for plastics.

“What we are trying to do is to create the foundation for sustainable materials management. Put simply, you can’t manage what you don’t measure, and so we think policy discussions will be more informed and fact-based now that we have these numbers.”

The study particularly highlights the longevity of plastic, despite the percveived disposability of products such as plastic packaging, for example. Co-author of the study, Jenna Jambeck, an associate professor of engineering at the University of Georgia, said: “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. Our estimates underscore the need to think critically about the materials we use and our waste management practices.

“There are people alive today who remember a world without plastics. But plastics have become so ubiquitous that you can’t go anywhere without finding plastic waste in our environment, including our oceans.”

Despite the stark picture painted by the results of the study, the authors were keen to stress that they do not want to remove plastic from the market, but do want to see a far more responsible and sustainable use of plastic. Co-author Kara Lavender Law, a research professor at the Sea Education Association in Massachusetts, commented: “There are areas where plastics are indispensable, such as the medical industry. But I do think we need to take a careful look at our use of plastics and ask if it makes sense.”

Initiatives to clean up plastic waste

The study from the UC Santa Barbara comes at a time when governments and organisations around the world are starting to take greater action against plastic waste, particularly that which ends up in the marine environment.

Only last week, the UK government confirmed that it would be introducing a ban on microbeads in cosmetic and personal care products from January 2018, while new Environment Secretary Michael Gove, in his first speech since being handed the role, announced that the UK would be at the forefront of the fight against ocean plastic waste following Brexit.

Meanwhile, the Great British Beach Clean will again take place in September and with hundreds of volunteers coming together to tidy Britain’s beaches, collecting over 270,000 pieces of litter in 2016.

And the fight isn’t just restricted to the land. The Ocean Cleanup Project, founded in 2013 by then 18-year old Boyan Slat, aims to use a giant floating barrier to catch and collect surface marine plastic pollution in the the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, where one third of all ocean plastic is said to collect, although environmental consults Eunomia Research and Consulting assert that the project will have little impact as it estimates that 94 per cent of plastic entering the ocean ends up on the sea floor.

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