91% of plastic isn’t recycled, new study finds

“We as a society need to consider whether it’s worth trading off some convenience for a clean, healthy environment."

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A team of scientists set out to conduct the first study of how much plastic has been produced, discarded, burned or put in landfills, and the results are horrifying.

Mass production of plastics has resulted in 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic, most of it ending up in the trash and, due to it taking 400 years to degrade, the environment. Half of that amount has been made since 2004.

The study, published Wednesday in Science Advances, began two years ago, around the time that scientists began to predict that by 2050 there will be more plastic in the oceans than fish. It is the first global analysis of all plastics ever made.

Some quick facts that the study discovered:

  • Of the 8.3 billion metric tons that have been released, 6.3 billion metric ons has become plastic water.
  • Only 9% of the 6.3 billion metric tons of plastic waste has been recycled.
  • 79% of plastic waste is accumulating in landfills or is in the environment as litter.
  • If current trends continue, by 2050, 12 billion metric tons of plastic will be in landfills. The is equivalent to 35,000 times heavier than the Empire State Building.
  • China alone accounts for 28% of global resin and 68% of polyester polyamide and acrylic fibers.
  • The rate of plastic manufacturing has double roughly every 15 years.
  • Half of all plastic manufactured becomes trash in less than a year.
  • Much of the growth in plastic production is due to plastic packaging, which accounts for more than 40% of non-fiber plastic.
  • Recycling in the U.S. hovers around 9%, well below Europe (30%) and China (25%).
  • As the study’s lead author, Roland Geyer, states, “You can’t manage what you don’t measure. It’s not just that we make a lot, it’s that we also make more, year after year.”

Geyer says in order to gain control of plastic waste, “We as a society need to consider whether it’s worth trading off some convenience for a clean, healthy environment. For some products that are very problematic in the environment, maybe we think about using different materials. Or phasing them out.”

Scientists estimate that five million to 13 million metric tons of plastic enter the ocean each year. Here are a few ways you can help:

Sign NationofChange’s pledge to reduce plastic usage and share it with family and friends. 

Recycle!

Learn about recycling efforts in your community. Surprisingly many communities do not have recycling systems (such as recycling trash cans in public places or for residential homes) in place. Help your community commit to recycling and put a program in place.

Call or write to your representative (you can find yours here) and ask them to ensure that recycling programs are readily available and that plastics are not dumped into the environment. 

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