The Fate of our Plastic

Each morning we pour cereal from a plastic bag, add milk from a plastic jug, squeeze toothpaste from a plastic tube onto our plastic toothbrush. We tidy our hair with a plastic brush and put on clothes that made of plastic fibers. Plastic, rare before the 1950’s, is a large and still growing part of modern life.

Until now no one knew how much plastic has been produced and what has happened to it. The first worldwide analysis of all plastic was published last month in the journal Science Advances. The authors, Roland Geyer, Jenna Jambeck and Kara Lavender Law, are the same number crunchers who in 2015 figured out which countries leaked the most plastic into the ocean.

This new research accounts for polymer resins (PET, HDPE, PVC, etc.) plastic additives (like flame retardants, fillers and plasticizers) and synthetic fibers (fishing nets, ropes, polyester leisure suits). To date, 8300 million metric tons (Mt) of plastics have been produced. About one-third of this plastic is still in use. The remaining 6300 Mt is waste. Of this plastic waste, 9% has been recycled, 12% incinerated and the remaining 79% is accumulating in landfills and the environment.

Some plastic, like PVC pipes and vinyl siding, are used as building materials. These have a useful life of decades. Today the biggest use of plastic is for packaging, and this has a useful life of less than a year. Once the soda or chips have been eaten, the packaging it came in is garbage.

Before the 1980’s, plastic recycling was almost nonexistent. Now about 9% of plastic, mostly polymer resins, is recycled worldwide. The technology and markets for recycling polymer resins are improving. But when resins contain additives, they are harder to recycle and have less residual value. Synthetic fibers aren’t recycled at all. Through recycling we get more use out of plastic, but it doesn’t go away. Recycling merely delays plastic’s fate as waste.

Twelve percent of plastic waste is incinerated. Right now, this is the only way we have to completely eliminate plastic. Incineration is not a perfect solution. It produces hazardous chemicals, like dioxin, which can cause cancer, neurological damage and problems with reproductive, thyroid and respiratory systems.

The remaining 79% of plastic waste is accumulating. Plastic fragments into smaller and smaller pieces, but it does not decompose and go away. Plastic is piling up on our land, in our rivers and in our oceans. We are producing more plastic than ever before and still have no strategy to deal with the waste. We need global solutions fast. In the meantime, you can help. Grab a used plastic bag from the BlueTube at your beach. Pick up plastic. Throw it away. Sending plastic to landfills is not a permanent solution, but it gives us time. And we need time to come up with strategies to deal with our plastic waste.