The problem with plastic

September 20, 2021

In the development and expansion of the applications for new plastic materials, very little attention was given to the issue of what would happen to the materials at the end of their useful life. 

This issue was already being brought to attention by activists such as Rachel Carson (author of Silent Spring) in the 1960s.   By 2017, less than one-third of the total plastic ever produced was still in use, even allowing for recycled materials. 

Recent estimates indicate this to be a continuing problem. By 2014, the United Nations Environment Programme had placed plastic pollution of the oceans in the top 10 emerging environmental problems and estimated the cost of the damage to marine ecosystems to be of the order of US$13bn annually.   

 Plastic packaging is estimated variously to accounts for between 40% and 50% of total worldwide plastic usage. World Economic Forum (2016) reported that 72% of plastic packages are not recovered.   By 2018 UNEP estimated the plastic used as packaging materials alone to account for 50 percent of global plastic waste. Over 500 billion plastic bags are used worldwide annually, and the average working life of a plastic bag is 15 minutes  (Letcher TM:  2020, Plastic Waste and Recycling: Environmental Impact, Societal Issues, Prevention, and Solutions.  Academic Press).  

The authors of a recent report in Science (Borrelle et al., Science  369, 1515-8)  have reviewed the growth in plastic waste and the strategies in place to combat this.  They looked at waste reduction, waste management and environmental recovery in 173 countries, and estimated plastic emissions up to 2030.  They estimated that 11% of the waste generated globally (between 19 and 23 million metric tons) reached aquatic systems, and predicted that annual emissions could reach 53 million metric tons by 2030.

The diagram below shows how much of the plastic produced since 1950 is still in use, how much has been recycled and how much has gone to waste up to 2017  (acknowledgement to R Geyer)

Related Science Articles

Download our Community App