In recent studies, scientists have worked out yet another item on the human shopping list that makes up the modern world: you guessed it…plastics.
They have estimated the total mass of all the plastic bags, bottles, toys, musical instruments, product containers and other plastic products alike and managed to track their location in the world today.
This has created a further record of the incredible change that we are seeing in the modern world and how humans have literally changed the face of the planet with their junk alone.
Since around 1950, during the boom of the modern industrial world, over 8.3 billion tonnes of synthetic organic polymers have been manufactured, distributed and discarded, with a whopping 6.3 billion tonnes being counted as waste products. Within this total, only 9% has been recycled, 12% incinerated and the remaining 79% of what is essentially non-biodegradable material is either in landfill or polluting the Earth in one way or another.
Furthermore, it is sad to say that of this total percentage of waste: in 2010, according to a new study in the journal Science Advances, plastic has now been found to be polluting every one of the world’s oceans. In this study, an estimated 8 million tonnes was swept downriver or blown into the sea. It has been estimated that by 2050, landfill sites could be holding up to 12 billion tonnes of non-biodegradable junk altogether…worrying to say the least.
Dr. Jenna Jambeck, an engineer at the University of Georgia, Athens, and one of the investors in the study, said:
“Most plastics don’t biodegrade in any meaningful sense, so the plastic waste humans have generated could be with us for hundreds or even thousands of years,”
“Our estimates underscore the need to think critically about the materials we use and our waste management practices.”
During the last two hundred years, people have become the greatest earth-moving force on the planet, and whilst carrying out activities such as paving roads and erecting office blocks, ports, factories and other structures have created a “technosphere” with a total mass of around 30 trillion tonnes.
By doing this we have changed the face of the planet so massively that in many millions of years from now, vast amounts of evidence of human presence will be marked by at least one geological stratum containing fossilized evidence that could have been left by no other lifeform.
Earth scientists now propose a new name for this geological epoch: the Anthropocene.
Although polymers such as Bakelite appeared early in the 20th century, large-scale production did not begin until after World War II, and plastics made from fossil hydrocarbons grew to become the third biggest manmade fabric output, after cement and steel.
In 1960, plastic made up less than one percent of municipal solid waste; by 2005, in middle and high income countries, it made up more than 10 percent.
And in the years from 1950 to 2015, nearly half of all human plastic production was in the last 13 years.
“There are people alive today who remember a world without plastics. But they have become so ubiquitous that you can’t go anywhere without finding plastic waste in our environment, including our oceans,” Jambeck said.
The researchers make the point that plastics do not decompose; they may fracture and divide into ever smaller granules, but they accumulate, often with horrific consequences for wildlife. This waste is having an enormous impact on ecology around the world, but the latest study has at least established the scale of the problem.
Roland Geyer, from the University of California Santa Barbara, 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.”
Featured Image Credit: Chris Jordan (via U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Headquarters)