Here’s How Much Plastic Humanity Has Produced

By Nathaniel Scharping | July 19, 2017 3:37 pm
A landfill in Strambino, Italy. (Credit: MikeDotta/Shutterstock)

A landfill in Strambino, Italy. (Credit: MikeDotta/Shutterstock)

I want to say just one word to you. Just one word. Are you listening?


There was indeed a great future in plastics back in 1967 when “The Graduate” came out, and those words ring true even today as plastic production continues to soar. Try imagining toothbrushes, dashboards, pens, video game controllers, the ephemera of our daily lives, made from wood or metal — plastics are indispensable.

Our appetite for cheap, durable materials is such that humans have produced 9.1 billion tons of plastics thus far, a new study says, the vast majority of which has ended up either in landfills or scattered around the world.

Wrap Your Head Around It

That’s a pretty mind-boggling number so let’s try and put it in context: We’ve produced enough plastics now by weight to equal 25,000 Empire State Buildings, 80 million whales or a billion elephants. The plastic used could have produced seven quadrillion Lego blocks, 650 trillion plastic water bottles or more fidget spinners than a billion octopuses could spin in a dozen lifetimes.

Most of these plastics are either high-density polyethylene (used for plastic bottles and pipes), polypropylene (used for packaging, but has many other applications) or polyvinylchloride (PVC — used for piping). Forty-two percent of the total was used in packaging, and in the U.S. only 9 percent of the total was recycled. Some was burned, but almost 80 percent ended up being discarded, mostly into landfills. What’s more, some 2.8 billion tons, or about 30 percent of the total, is in use right now, an indication of how fast the industry is growing.

It won’t stay in use for long, though. Most of the plastics are discarded after a few years, with the exception of products used in construction and development. And once they’re tossed away, they tend to stick around anyways. Plastics are devilishly hard to get rid of, so much so that most just end up degrading into smaller and smaller pieces. This has become an issue in the oceans where tiny plastic particles — called nurdles — are building up in sea creatures’ digestive systems and leaching toxins. The problem could make its way back to humans, too, as the plastic pellets work their way up the food chain.


(Credit: Janet A Beckley)

No Signs of Stopping

These statistics are thanks to a new study led by a University of California-Santa Barbara researcher and published Wednesday in Science Advances, attempting to quantify the sheer amount of plastics out there right now — its imposing title is “Production, Use, and Fate of All Plastics Ever Made.” The researchers used industrial data on the raw inputs of plastic production from multiple countries to add up the toll. Their data extends from 1950 to 2015, and on top of the 9.1 billion ton total, they also provide some projections based on current trends. Keep going as we are, they say, and by 2050 we’ll have churned out almost 38 billion tons of plastic and thrown 13 billion tons away. Let’s not even try to imagine how many fidget spinners that is.

There are some ways to mitigate the crisis, such as recycling and the use of biodegradable plastics. To be effective, however, recycling must forestall new plastic production, not merely add to the total amount of plastic produced, all of which will eventually be thrown out. Some plastics are simply burned, or decompose with heat in a process known as pyrolysis to produce fuel. These methods produce their own environmental hazards, however, such as greenhouse gases.

Biodegradable plastics have been hailed as another solution, but the amount produced today is tiny — around 4.5 million tons, according to the researchers. And, producing such plastics entails other tradeoffs such as diverting the corn used to make it from food supplies and greater energy expenditures.

Plastics will likely be a part of our lives for as long as human civilization is able to produce them, and the authors seem well aware of this, advocating instead for sensible strategies to deal with the millions of tons of plastic spilling out into the environment. We can’t live without them, so we’ll need to learn how to live with them.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Technology, top posts
MORE ABOUT: pollution
  • Uncle Al

    The picture shows a king’s ransom of zero sulfur, zero ash, free fuel.
    biodegradable plastics” do not vanish, they fragment. That is the problem.

    Remove a trillion cm³ of chemically contaminated plastic – oceanic cigarette filters. Ban cigarette filters. Fukushima added 900,000 tonnes of flotsam to the North Pacific. DOI:10.1038/nature.2012.10178 Does that count?

    …A less political estimate is 20 million tons (March 2016)

    • Erik Bosma

      You ever see photos of some of the rivers that drain into our oceans? We’re getting a lot better here (N.A., Europe) but the idea sure hasn’t caught on anywhere else. The problem is, I think, that many people still think of the oceans, the atmosphere as an infinitely large place called ‘Away’. As in, “Throw that Away.”

      • OWilson

        We should issue garbage bags to all participants and fleeing refugees from wars, insurrections and terrorism.

        Even if they are escaping on rudimentary rafts, they can carry their garbage with them until they come across a designated refuse disposal site.

        We can hand out these officially sanctioned garbage bags out in Third World Schools, we just have to make sure they are not fabricated from plastic.

        If we all did a little…..well you know the rest! :)

  • OWilson

    Plastic defines our civilization.

    From computers to DVDs, artificial hearts, to shirt buttons, it’s hard to imagine our society with wooden dental implants! :)

  • Erik Bosma

    Why do we always wait until it’s basically too late before we realize the problem we have caused? Is it just profit? Wasn’t it obvious to those in charge at the time (and now) that replacing permanent objects with temporary objects and biodegradable objects with non-biodegradable objects would soon create a backlog of garbage?
    Where did they (we) think this stuff was going to end up? It’s funny that we have had a recycling fee in place for glass containers (beer, pop bottles) which are biodegradable but ignored a the same for the items made of plastic that replaced a lot of them.
    Maybe we can pay out-of-work fishermen to use their nets to scoop up a lot of this crap in the oceans. It’s too late for the stuff in landfills but we sure can begin to start a recycle fee program for ALL our potential garbage – now!
    Imagine taking all your garbage in to the recyclers and returning it for cash which we can then use to buy more of this stuff. We could split the money with the recyclers. If something is produced which can’t be recycled – DON’T MAKE IT.
    Dream on, Erik…

    • Fred Derf

      A lot of “we can” and the like. What are YOU doing about it, hypocrite?

      • Maia

        Name-calling is not a legitimate argument.

    • OWilson

      I would start by declaring a “time out” in all current wars, insurrections, revolutions, active terrorism and having the antagonists clean up the battlefields of dangerous and discarded debris, before resuming hostilities.

      They may see that even the killing can be done more efficiently in a cleaner environment! :)

  • ochsnto

    Someday in the far future a thin layer of plastic resting just on top of a bevy of fossils of never before seen animals will be discovered by future archeologists and will be put forward as evidence that an ancient civilization must have once existed who dominated the planet for a brief yet highly destructive period of time.

    • Maia

      Good “medicinal” way to look at things…from the far future…without “us”. Similar to asking people to look at their life-choices now…from their deathbeds.

  • Daniela

    Every day human beings use plastics for everyday activities, such as going to the supermarket, buying containers such as creams, water, juices and others, as well as the use of technology and beauty products; without forgetting that plastics are the biggest polluter for our planet Earth, in the same way the exaggerated quantity of production and use of these prevents that there is more bio-diversity, because they produce billions of tons of plastic, in the same way waste to the vital tributaries as water or accumulate producing leachates which are highly polluting for living beings.
    There are solutions such as the burning of these plastics, which produces the greenhouse gas which determines the climate change or global warming present in our house; also the production of biodegradable plastics, which production is very low and of great economic impact. The best option is to avoid the use of plastics, an example of these is to take a glass so that the red or coffee will be served in it and not in a “recyclable” glass, likewise use bags when going to the supermarket, likewise avoid the use of water bottles, juices and others; and give an adequate use of these to avoid water and atmospheric pollution.


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