Plastic pollution is devastating our environment

More than 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic has been created by humans since large-scale production began in the early 1950s. Much of it now resides in the natural environment or landfills, according to a study conducted by U.S. scientists. Elke Bunge reports.

If current trends continue, roughly 12 billion tonnes of plastic waste will end up in landfills or the natural environment by 2050. (Image credit: Agustin Rafael Reyes via Flickr/CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Plastic has become so ubiquitous, used often and without us even realising it. Bags, bottles, cups, increasing even clothing are made of plastic.

Even if these products aren’t tossed out with little regard, they still produce plastic pollution. Take for instance the lint from clothing items with artificial fibres that are unintentionally released in the washing machine.

Skin care products also contain more and more plastic particles, tiny beads made of polyethylene or polypropylene that then make their way from our bathrooms to our rivers, lakes and oceans.

Around 60 kg of plastic per year

In the 1950s, around 2 million tonnes of plastic was produced per year. In 2015, that figure had skyrocketed to 380 million tonnes. Such are the findings of a comprehensive global study published in the journal Science Advances.

The global production of plastic has grown rapidly in recent decades, surpassing many other man-made materials. But information on what happens to it remains sparse: how much is recycled, hum much is incinerated, and just how much makes its way uncontrolled into our environment?

Every human being consumes on average around 60 kilograms of plastic per year. The share of plastic consumption is highest among North Americans, Western Europeans and Japanese – they use on average 100 kilograms of plastic per year.

Planet covered in plastic

“We cannot continue with business as usual unless we want a planet that is literally covered in plastic,” said lead author Roland Geyer from the University of California Santa Barbara.

According to the study, some 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic has been produced out of crude oil since large-scale production began. According to the study’s estimates, around 30 per cent of this is still in circulation – the rest has become waste.

Of this massive amount of plastic waste produced since the 1950s, only 9 per cent was recycled; 12 per cent was incinerated – releasing toxic emissions into the air we breathe, and an overwhelming 79 per cent accumulated in landfills or the natural environment.

Plastic waste polluting the oceans

Precise measurements of just how much plastic pollution ends up in our oceans is not available, but the researchers participating in the study estimate that it is somewhere in the range of 4 million tonnes to 12 million tonnes.

For the marine ecosystem with its rich diversity of fish and other sea creatures, the danger comes from the plastic waste dissolving into microparticles. These are then mistaken for food by marine animals, entering their food chain and ultimately ending up on our plates.

Some have suggested that there will soon be more plastic pollution in our oceans than fish. In Europe alone, some 30,000 tonnes of plastic particles per year are washed into the sewage system from washing machines and dishwashers before reaching the open sea.

12 billion tonnes by 2050

While the scientists involved in the study do not seek to eliminate plastic from the marketplace, they do warn that without a change in technology towards more recyclable plastic products, roughly 12 billion tonnes of plastic waste will end up in landfills or the natural environment by 2050.

“We need to take a careful look at our use of plastics and ask if it makes sense,” said co-author Kara Lavender Law from the Sea Education Association in Woods Hole, Massachusetts.

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