Fifty years ago, the protagonist of "The Graduate" was promised "a great future in plastics," but that future has turned out to be far more harmful to our planet than predicted. New research shows that humans have produced just over 9 billion tons of plastic since 1950, with much of it still sitting around in our landfills and oceans. And there's no sign that plastic production is slowing down anytime soon.
"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," industrial ecologist Roland Geyer tells Jonathan Amos of BBC News.
The rate of production has soared so much that half of that 9 billion tons of plastic was created in just the last 13 years, according to the study published this week in the journal Science Advances.
“It’s not just that we make a lot, it’s that we also make more, year after year.” Geyer tells Laura Parker at National Geographic.
Though the U.S. and Europe produce sizable amounts of plastic, the growth of China has fueled much of the recent increase, reports Darryl Fears for the Washington Post. China is now the world's largest producer of the oil-based product, but the country is also one of the biggest recyclers, giving 25 percent of plastics new life. (The U.S. only recycles around nine percent of its plastic).
Most of the material produced, however, is discarded. Only about 2 billion tons of the products are still in use, writes Fears for the Washington Post. That's because unlike many other materials designed for more permanent uses, a sizable amount of the world's plastic is made to be disposable. More than 40 percent of the non-fiber plastic ever produced has been for plastic packaging, Parker reports, made to be ripped off and thrown away without a second thought. Roughly 54 percent of the plastic thrown away in 2015 was packaging, reports Tatiana Schlossberg for the New York Times.
What happens when that plastic is tossed is what worries scientists most. On average, only about nine percent of Earth's 9 billion tons of plastic has been recycled. And that recycling only delays its journey into the trash.
"The holy grail of recycling is to keep material in use and in the loop for ever if you can," Geyer tells Amos, but in reality, about 90 percent of recycled plastic only gets recycled once.
The only permanent way to get rid of our plastic products is incineration, but only about 12 percent of plastic has ever met this fate. And researchers disagree about the safety of burning plastic, which has the potential to release a host of toxic chemicals into the environment.
What happened to the remaining 60 percent of plastic not currently being used? The answer isn't pretty.
If it doesn't fill up landfills, that plastic ends up scattered on city streets, across landscapes and especially in oceans. Previous research has found that there may be more than 250,000 tons of plastic currently floating in Earth's oceans, much of it in the form of tiny chunks that can easily be carried by currents and consumed by sea creatures big and small.
Is there any solution to this problem that often literally chokes life on Earth?
Some scientists have proposed using organisms to degrade the plastics, which left on its own rarely degrades in nature. Candidates for the job include caterpillars that can chow down on plastic bags and bacteria in wastewater that munches on plastic bottles.
The most effective solution, however, may be changing our reliance on plastic. "We need big and bold approaches here. Notching up the recycling rate by a couple of percentage points is not going to cut it," Geyer tells Bryson Masse of Motherboard. "My hope would be that [the study] will add a sense of urgency to the debate about how we're going to use plastics in the future."
As of now, Geyer tells Amos of the BBC, there is enough plastic debris to cover Argentina. Something to keep in mind next time you reach for that bottle of soda.