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Here's how many billions of tonnes of plastic we've made

Daniel Martins
Digital Reporter

Sunday, July 23, 2017, 8:41 PM - For a substance that didn't exist until the past century, mankind has really taken to plastic, with the number of ways we put it to use now beyond counting.

As it happens, the precise amount of the stuff we've produced since 1950 is apparently quite countable, and a new study led by researchers from the University of California, Santa Barbara, has put a number to it -- along with how much we've thrown away.

Since we really started mass producing plastic, we've apparently manufactured an astonishing 8.3 billion metric tonnes. Spread out, it would cover all four of Canada's Western provinces, and globally, few other substances have been mass produced on such a scale, with the biggest exceptions being steel and cement.

However, the disposable nature of plastic means those billions of tonnes have dire implications for the planet, unlike longer-lived steel or concrete structures.

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"Roughly half of all the steel we make goes into construction, so it will have decades of use; plastic is the opposite,” lead Roland Geyer said in a release from the university. “Half of all plastics become waste after four or fewer years of use.”

In fact, of all the plastics mankind has made from 1950 to 2015, half were produced in the last 13 years. That's a lot of waste, and the researchers say 6.3 billion tonnes of plastic have been thrown away as of 2015. 

This is where it gets worrying: The research paper says only nine per cent of that was recycled, and 12 per cent incinerated. The rest, approximately 79 per cent, has been building up in landfills or the environment.

Geyer says it's not getting better. By 2050, the number of plastic in landfills or the natural environment will reach 12 billion metric tonnes.

“We cannot continue with business as usual unless we want a planet that is literally covered in plastic,” Geyer says, later adding: "I hope this information will be used by policymakers to improve end-of-life management strategies for plastics."

The study was published in the journal Science Advances.

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SOURCES: UCSB | Science Advances

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