In 2014, scientists found a new kind of of “stone” on the beaches of Hawaii. It was made of sand, organic debris, volcanic rock, all swirled together with melted plastic. So they proposed the name “plastiglomerate” and they suggested that, as plastic lasts pretty much forever, these stones could be a marker of the Anthropocene in the rock record. In the future, our time might be defined by our use of plastics.
Which is not particularly hard to imagine, given the ubiquity of plastics. Now, for the first time, researchers have published a sweeping, public, and in-depth accounting of all plastic that has ever been made in the entire world. The number is so big as to defy human comprehension: 8,300 million metric tons since 1950. Of this, 6,400 million metric tons has outlived its usefulness and become waste; 79 percent of that waste is sitting in landfills or the natural environment, 12 percent has been incinerated, and just 9 percent has been recycled.
Donald Loepp, editor of the industry paper Plastics News, called the study an “impressive report.” It’s something that many people have speculated about, he says, but no one had published such a thorough accounting until now.
Perhaps the most eye-popping statistic in the study is how quickly plastic production has been accelerating in just this millennium. The world has made as much plastic in the past 13 years it did in the previous half-century. “I think [that’s] the number that captures it best,” says Roland Geyer, an industrial ecologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara and an author on the study. We’re still rushing headlong into the plastic age.