US scientists have calculated the total amount of plastic ever made and put the number at 8.3 billion tonnes.

The 8.3 billion tonnes is as heavy as 25,000 Empire State Buildings in New York, or a billion elephants.

More than 70% of the total production is now in waste streams, sent largely to landfill – although too much of it just litters the wider environment, including the oceans.

“We are rapidly heading towards ‘Planet Plastic’, and if we don’t want to live on that kind of world then we may have to rethink how we use some materials, in particular plastic,” Dr Roland Geyer told BBC News.

A paper authored by the industrial ecologist from the University of California, Santa Barbara, and colleagues appears in the journal Science Advances. It is described as the first truly global assessment of how much
plastic has been manufactured, how the material in all its forms is used, and where it ends up. Here are some
of its key numbers.

• 8,300 million tonnes of virgin plastics have been produced
• Half of this material was made in just the past 13 years
• About 30% of the historic production remains in use today
• Of the discarded plastic, roughly 9% has been recycled
• Some 12% has been incinerated, but 79% has gone to landfill
• Shortest-use items are packaging, typically less than a year
• Longest-use products are found in construction and machinery
• Current trends point to 12 billion tonnes of waste by 2050
• Recycling rates in 2014: Europe (30%), China (25%), US (9%)

There is no question that plastics are a wonder material. Their adaptability and durability have seen their
production and use accelerate past most other manmade materials apart from steel, cement and brick.

From the start of mass-manufacturing in the 1950s, the polymers are now all around us – incorporated into everything from food wrapping and clothing, to aeroplane parts and flame retardants. But it is precisely plastics’ amazing qualities that now present a burgeoning problem.

The University of Georgia produced the seminal report in 2015 that quantified the total amount of plastic waste escaping to the oceans each year: eight million tonnes.

This particular waste flow is probably the one that has generated most concern of late because of the clear evidence now that some of this discarded material is getting into the food chain as fish and other marine creatures ingest small polymer fragments.

Dr Erik van Sebille from Utrecht University in the Netherlands is an oceanographer who tracks plastics in our seas. Of the new report, he said: “We’re facing a tsunami of plastic waste, and we need to deal with that.

“We need a radical shift in how we deal with plastic waste. On current trends, it will take until 2060 before more plastic gets recycled than landfilled and lost to the environment. That clearly is too slow; we can’t wait that long,” he told BBC News.

Richard Thompson, professor of marine biology at Plymouth University, UK, commented: “If plastic products are designed with recyclability in mind they can be recycled many times over. Some would say a bottle could be recycled 20 times. That’s a substantial reduction in waste. At the moment poor design limits us.”

To illustrate that point, Dr Geyer said: “The holy grail of recycling is to keep material in use and in the loop for ever if you can. But it turns out in our study that actually 90% of that material that did get recycled – which I think we calculated was 600 million tonnes – only got recycled once.”

In Albania, based on INSTAT 2009 data for a population of 3.2 million people, the annual municipal waste production is estimated at about 852,360 tons.

In 2015, based on data published by the municipalities and collected and processed by the Ministry of Transport and Infrastructure, it is reported that waste collection service covers only 65% of the population. Thus, in 2015, about 935,510 tons of waste were collected in Albania, with an average of 245 kg/inhabitant/year or 0.68 kg/inhabitant per day.

Based on this data, only 30% of the total waste collected were disposed to landfill while 70% were disposed on site deposits, without any special treatment. Meanwhile, it is reported that is recycled only 19,336 tons of waste or about 2 % of the total generated, a quite low amount.

Source: BBC News – Science & Environment

November 10, 2021