You go into a fast-food restaurant and order a salad. It comes in a plastic bowl, covered by a clear plastic top.
The salad dressing is in a plastic bag and the utensils to eat the salad are made of plastic. They are encased in a clear plastic wrapper. When you're finished eating, all of that plastic goes into the trash.
And that's just one example of how nearly every consumer product produces some kind of plastic waste, waste that for the most part either ends up in landfills or the natural environment and doesn't break down over time.
Writing in Sciences Advances, researchers from several different universities point out that large-scale of production of plastic has only occurred since around 1950. Since then, production has surged, fueled by what is known as "single use" plastic -- material used in packaging or to produce the forks and spoons at fast-food restaurants.
8.3 billion metric tons
In that time, we've produced 8.3 billion metric tons of plastics, the researcher write. They say their analysis is the first to look at global plastic production, how it's used and where it goes.
Of the 6.3 billion tons of plastic that becomes waste, the researchers say only 9% was recycled and 12% was incinerated. Seventy-nine percent, they say, ended up in landfills or the natural environment.
“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,” said Jenna Jambeck, study co-author and associate professor of engineering at UGA. “Our estimates underscore the need to think critically about the materials we use and our waste management practices.”
12 billion tons by 2050
Jambeck and her colleague say that if current trends continue, 12 billion metric tons of plastic waste will end up in landfills or the environment by 2050. To put 12 billion tons in perspective, that's about 35,000 times as heavy at the Empire State Building.
Researchers say part of the problem is in how plastic, an incredibly durable material, is used. They point out that steel is also durable, but once it is produced it usually goes into buildings and other structures, where it stays for decades.
An increasing amount of plastic, however, falls into the "single-use" category. The plastic elements in the fast-food salad mentioned above are used just once. Roland Geyer, lead author of the paper, says half of all the world's plastic becomes waste after four or fewer years of use.
The researchers say they aren't suggesting a total removal of plastic from the marketplace. Instead, they say there needs to be a more serious examination of how plastic is used and what happens to it after.