Humans have produced 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic, researchers say

The head of the project, Roland Geyer, from the University of California and Santa Barbara, said: "We are increasingly smothering ecosystems in plastic and I am anxious there may be all kinds of unintended, adverse consequences that we will only find out about once it is too late". "The environmental (effects) are just due to its phenomenal success", he says, "because it is a fantastic material".

The researchers found that, as of 2015, of the almost seven billion tons of plastic waste generated, only nine per cent was recycled and 12 per cent incinerated, while 79 per cent accumulated in landfills or the environment.

Global production of plastics increased annually from two million metric tons in 1950 to over 400 million metric tons in 2015, according to the study, outgrowing most other man-made materials. Last August, the results of a study by Plymouth University reported plastic was found in a third of UK-caught fish, including cod, haddock, mackerel and shellfish.

Plastic debris has been found in all major ocean basins, researchers note, with an estimated four to 12 million metric tons of plastic waste generated on land entering the marine environment in 2010 alone.

"Whether that's refusing throwaway plastics wherever we can, taking a refillable water bottle with you instead of buying single-use bottled water, reusing plastic bags on your weekly shop at the supermarket or making sure you recycle more, we all have our role to play", he said.

Unlike other materials, plastic can stay in the environment for thousands of years, Geyer said.

But the amount of jet fuel saved by the exchange was enormous, Hoornweg said.

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In contrast, 65 million metric tons of non-fiber plastics were consumed in construction in 2015. The study did not include bio-based or biodegradable plastics, which account for 4.4 tons (4 metric tons) annually.

"There are areas where plastics are indispensable, especially in products designed for durability", said paper co-author Kara Lavender Law, a research professor at SEA.

But the same properties that make plastics so useful in everyday life - such as durability - also make them hard to break down.

The researchers modeled how much waste each kind of plastic generated by feeding the production numbers through a model that accounted for the plastic's lifespan in a given industry. What's more, some 2.8 billion tons, or about 30 percent of the total, is in use right now, an indication of how fast the industry is growing.

Of the total, 6.3 billion tonnes are stuck on earth as garbage in landfills, recycled trash or pollution in the environment, including oceans, where it has been found in whales and the bellies of dead seabirds that mistook it for food. "But plastics have become so ubiquitous that you can't go anywhere without finding plastic waste in our environment, including our oceans".

Plastics makers are working closely with NGOs, governments, and businesses in the US and around the world to increase investment in waste management infrastructure, encourage the adoption of advanced recycling equipment, and expand opportunities for energy conversion where recycling isn't feasible. "It's not up to the job", he said.

But the study also said that recycling and incineration are on the rise globally. "I don't think that's going to be the picture".

(Copyright © 2015. All Rights Reserved.)

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