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%)
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