Nature and Biodiversity

Picture this: all the plastic we have produced weighs the same as 25,000 Empire State Buildings

Empty plastic bottles are photographed nearby the public beach in Khaldeh, near Beirut, Lebanon June 6, 2017. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir - RTX399ZV

Plastics produced globally every year has increased from 2 million tonnes in 1950 to 381 million in 2015. Image: REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir

John McKenna
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Humanity has created 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic since the material was first produced in the early 20th century.

This is equivalent to the weight of 25,000 Empire State Buildings – or 100 cities full of skyscrapers.

Mass production of plastics began after World War II, and new research published this week shows that the amount produced every year has increased from 2 million tonnes in 1950 to 381 million tonnes in 2015.

Image: PlasticsEurope, Plastics - the Facts (2013)

The academic paper published in Science Advances estimates that at the current rate of production we will have created 34 billion tonnes of plastic, resins, fibres and additives by 2050.

This is a problem because the majority of all plastics produced have ended up in landfill or in the sea.

A gull picks at plastic trash in a parking lot before sunset at Stearns Wharf in Santa Barbara, California July 30, 2015. Picture taken July 30, 2015. REUTERS/Patrick T. Fallon - RTX1MM1K
Image: REUTERS/Patrick T. Fallon

More plastic than fish

The Science Advances paper estimates that 6.3 billion tonnes of the plastic created to date has ended up as waste.

Of this 12% has been incinerated, 9% recycled and the remainder dumped on land or at sea.

Plastic waste is a severe environmental risk, with previous research by the World Economic Forum and Ellen MacArthur Foundation estimating that by 2050 there could be more plastic than fish in the sea.

Image: “The New Plastics Economy: Rethinking the Future of Plastics”, World Economic Forum

In their Science Advances paper, authors Roland Geyer, Jenna R. Jambeck and Kara Lavender Law warn that “without a well-designed and tailor-made management strategy for end-of-life plastics, humans are conducting a singular uncontrolled experiment on a global scale, in which billions of metric tonnes of material will accumulate across all major terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems on the planet”.

Creating a circular economy

The Science Advances paper identifies plastic packaging as the main type of plastic produced and the primary source of plastic waste.

According to a 2016 report, The New Plastics Economy: Rethinking the Future of Plastics, only 14% of plastic packaging is collected for recycling globally.

To avert the environmental catastrophe posed by plastic waste and realize the potential of the lost economic value of this material, a new report launched at Davos this year argues that plastics should become part of a circular economy.

It proposed that instead of thinking of “reduce, re-use and recycle”, plastic producers and users ought to think of “re-use, recycle and redesign”.

The use of a wide range of additives during manufacturing makes it difficult to establish recycling processes, particularly when it comes to plastics.

Without fundamental redesign and innovation, 50% of plastic packaging items – 30% by weight – will never be re-used or recycled.

Soburn, an 11-year-old girl, collects what can be used as food for pigs at landfill dumpsite outside Siem Reap March 19, 2015. A second-grade student, she helps her parents in the morning collecting usable items at the dumpsite where they live before going to school in the afternoon. Anlong Pi, an eight-hectare dumpsite situated close to the famous Cambodian resort province of Siem Reap, has recently become a tourist attraction in its own right. Sightseers pose for pictures with children who scavenge scraps for a living, making between $0.25 and $2 per day, according to a representative of a company overseeing the waste. Michelle Obama is due to visit to Cambodia to promote Let Girls Learn, a worldwide initiative that aims to help adolescent girls attend school.   REUTERS/Athit PerawongmethaPICTURE 8 OF 23 FOR WIDER IMAGE STORY 'LIVING ON RUBBISH'SEARCH 'ANLONG PI' FOR ALL IMAGES - RTR4U4KB
Image: REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha

As part of an action plan aimed at tackling this problem – backed by more than 40 business and government leaders at Davos this year – the New Plastics Economy initiative over the next year will launch two global innovation challenges: one aimed at kick-starting the redesign of materials and packaging formats; and one aimed at building a set of global common standards (a "global plastics protocol") for packaging design.

As part of this, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and design company IDEO have launched a Circular Design Guide aimed at inspiring designers, innovators and entrepreneurs to deliver the circular packaging solutions of the future.

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