Earth is becoming 'Planet Plastic'

Jonathan Amos BBC 20 Jul 17;

US scientists have calculated the total amount of plastic ever made and put the number at 8.3 billion tonnes.

It is an astonishing mass of material that has essentially been created only in the last 65 years or so.

The 8.3 billion tonnes is as heavy as 25,000 Empire State Buildings in New York, or a billion elephants.

The great issue is that plastic items, like packaging, tend to be used for very short periods before being discarded.

More than 70% of the total production is now in waste streams, sent largely to landfill - although too much of it just litters the wider environment, including the oceans.

"We are rapidly heading towards 'Planet Plastic', and if we don't want to live on that kind of world then we may have to rethink how we use some materials, in particular plastic," Dr Roland Geyer told BBC News.

A paper authored by the industrial ecologist from the University of California, Santa Barbara, and colleagues appears in the journal Science Advances. It is described as the first truly global assessment of how much plastic has been manufactured, how the material in all its forms is used, and where it ends up.

Here are some of its key numbers.
* 8,300 million tonnes of virgin plastics have been produced
* Half of this material was made in just the past 13 years
* About 30% of the historic production remains in use today
* Of the discarded plastic, roughly 9% has been recycled
* Some 12% has been incinerated, but 79% has gone to landfill
* Shortest-use items are packaging, typically less than a year
* Longest-use products are found in construction and machinery
* Current trends point to 12 billion tonnes of waste by 2050
* Recycling rates in 2014: Europe (30%), China (25%), US (9%)

There is no question that plastics are a wonder material. Their adaptability and durability have seen their production and use accelerate past most other manmade materials apart from steel, cement and brick.

From the start of mass-manufacturing in the 1950s, the polymers are now all around us - incorporated into everything from food wrapping and clothing, to aeroplane parts and flame retardants. But it is precisely plastics' amazing qualities that now present a burgeoning problem.

None of the commonly used plastics are biodegradable. The only way to permanently dispose of their waste is to destructively heat it - through a decomposition process known as pyrolysis or through simple incineration; although the latter is complicated by health and emissions concerns.

In the meantime, the waste mounts up. There is enough plastic debris out there right now, Geyer and colleagues say, to cover an entire country the size of Argentina. The team's hope is that their new analysis will give added impetus to the conversation about how best to deal with the plastics issue.

"Our mantra is you can't manage what you don't measure," Dr Geyer said. "So, our idea was to put the numbers out there without us telling the world what the world should be doing, but really just to start a real, concerted discussion."

Recycling rates are increasing and novel chemistry has some biodegradable alternatives, but manufacturing new plastic is so cheap the virgin product is hard to dislodge.

The same team - which includes Jenna Jambeck from the University of Georgia and Kara Lavender Law from the Sea Education Association at Woods Hole - produced the seminal report in 2015 that quantified the total amount of plastic waste escaping to the oceans each year: eight million tonnes.

This particular waste flow is probably the one that has generated most concern of late because of the clear evidence now that some of this discarded material is getting into the food chain as fish and other marine creatures ingest small polymer fragments.

Dr Erik van Sebille from Utrecht University in the Netherlands is an oceanographer who tracks plastics in our seas. Of the new report, he said: "We're facing a tsunami of plastic waste, and we need to deal with that.

"The global waste industry needs to get its act together and make sure that the ever-increasing amounts of plastic waste generated don't end up in the environment.

"We need a radical shift in how we deal with plastic waste. On current trends, it will take until 2060 before more plastic gets recycled than landfilled and lost to the environment. That clearly is too slow; we can't wait that long," he told BBC News.

And Richard Thompson, professor of marine biology at Plymouth University, UK, commented: "If plastic products are designed with recyclability in mind they can be recycled many times over. Some would say a bottle could be recycled 20 times. That's a substantial reduction in waste. At the moment poor design limits us."

To illustrate that point, Dr Geyer said: "The holy grail of recycling is to keep material in use and in the loop for ever if you can. But it turns out in our study that actually 90% of that material that did get recycled - which I think we calculated was 600 million tonnes - only got recycled once."

Plastic pollution risks 'near permanent contamination of natural environment'
First global analysis of all mass–produced plastics has found humans have produced 8.3bn tonnes since the 1950s with the majority ending up in landfill or oceans
Matthew Taylor The Guardian 12 Jul 17;

Humans have produced 8.3bn tonnes of plastic since the 1950s with the majority ending up in landfill or polluting the world’s continents and oceans, according to a new report.

The first global analysis of all mass–produced plastics has found that it has outstripped most other man-made materials, threatening a “near permanent contamination of the natural environment”.

The study by US academics found that the total amount of plastic produced – equivalent in weight to one billion elephants – will last for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years. And with production expected to accelerate over the coming decades, campaigners warn it is creating an environmental crisis comparable to climate change.

“We are increasingly smothering ecosystems in plastic and I am very worried that there may be all kinds of unintended, adverse consequences that we will only find out about once it is too late,” said Roland Geyer, from the University of California and Santa Barbara, who led the project.

In 1950, when plastic was first mass produced, the report found 2m tonnes was manufactured. That figure has risen to 8.3bn in 2017 and is projected to reach 34bn by 2050.

“We are on this enormous growth trajectory – there is no end in site of the rate of this growth,” said Geyer. He added that even academics who worked in the same field were unaware of the “sheer dimensions” of the crisis.

“Combined with this huge growth rate it makes me very concerned. We should look at the numbers and ask as a society, is this what we want, can we not do better?”

Last month a Guardian investigation revealed that a million plastic bottles are bought around the world every minute and that number is expected to jump another 20% by 2021.

And earlier this year scientists found nearly 18 tonnes of plastic on one of the world’s most remote islands, an uninhabited coral atoll in the South Pacific.

Another study of remote Arctic beaches found they were also heavily polluted with plastic, despite small local populations. And scientists have warned that plastic bottles and other packaging are overrunning some of the UK’s most beautiful beaches and remote coastline, endangering wildlife from basking sharks to puffins.

Experts warn that some of it is already finding its way into the human food chain. 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.

But Geyer said he was also concerned about the impact of plastic pollution on land-based ecosystems.

“There is much more attention paid to how plastics are interacting with marine organisms but there is much, much less known about how plastics interact with terrestrial organisms – I would suspect there is something equivalent going on and it might actually be worse.”

This new study found that growth in plastic production has been driven largely by packaging and the rise of single-use containers, wrapping and bottles. It found some of the only materials to outstrip plastic production over the past 70 years are used in the construction sector, such as steel and cement.

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

To visualise the scale of the problem Geyer said he had carried out a “thought experiment”.

“If you take the 8.3bn tonnes of plastic and spread it out as ankle deep waste – about 10 inches high – I calculated I could cover an area the size of Argentina with it. That is the world’s eighth largest country.”

The study found that in 2015, of the nearly seven billion tonnes of plastic waste generated, only 9% was recycled, 12% incinerated, and 79% accumulated in landfills or the environment.

Geyer said: “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.”