Medicine

8.3b tonnes of plastic causing 'near permanent contamination of natural environment'

8.3b tonnes of plastic causing 'near permanent contamination of natural environment'

WASHINGTON (AP) - Industry has made more than 9.1 billion tons of plastic since 1950 and there's enough left over to bury Manhattan under more than two miles of trash, according to a new cradle-to-grave global study.

Global production of plastic has grown rapidly in recent decades, surpassing many other man-made materials.

"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 study co-author Jenna Jambeck, an associate professor of engineering at the University of Georgia. Most of the plastics are discarded after a few years, with the exception of products used in construction and development.

Previous research suggests around eight million tonnes of plastic rubbish enters the world's oceans annually, causing the death of more than a million seabirds and 100,000 marine mammals every year. "Our estimates underscore the need to think critically about the materials we use and our waste management practices".

But the same properties that make plastics so useful in everyday life - such as durability - also make them hard to break down.

Geyer is convinced that dealing with the plastic waste problem requires a solution that goes beyond recycling.

The study by USA academics found that the total amount of plastic produced - equivalent in weight to one billion elephants - will last for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years.

The scale of the plastic humans have created and mostly dumped in the environment has been revealed for the first time. The study found that the growth in plastic production has been driven in a large part by packaging and the popularity of single-use containers, wrapping, and bottles.

Plastic is, of course, very useful.

With the production of mass-produced plastics on the rise, researchers hope their findings will now help inform discussions on sustainability.

"A world without plastics, or synthetic organic polymers, seems unimaginable today, yet their large-scale production and use only dates back to about 1950", the researchers wrote.

It said about 18 percent of plastics were recycled in 2014, and 24 percent incinerated. At current trends, it said the "global discard rate" of plastics would drop from 58 percent in 2014 to 6 percent in 2050.

Geyer said: "What we are trying to do is to create the foundation for sustainable materials management". The second-largest use is for construction, at about 20 percent.

The study noted wide variations in plastic recycling rates around the world: "On the basis of limited available data, the highest recycling rates in 2014 were in Europe (30 percent) and China (25 percent), whereas in the United States, plastics recycling has remained steady at 9 percent since 2012".

Another study of remote Arctic beaches found they were also heavily polluted with plastic, despite small local populations.

Nine billion tons is one of those numbers that's tricky to wrap a human brain around.

To develop a truly comprehensive waste management plan, Hoornweg said communities need strategies to address and track other waste too, such as metals and hazardous materials. At least until we throw it out, and then it becomes a blight on the environment.


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