WASHINGTON — 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 2 miles of trash, according to a new cradle-to-grave global study.
Plastics don't break down like other man-made materials, so three-quarters of the stuff ends up as waste in landfills, littered on land and floating in oceans, lakes and rivers, according to the research reported in Wednesday's journal Science Advances.
"At the current rate, we are really heading toward a plastic planet," said the study's lead author, Roland Geyer, an industrial ecologist at the University of California at Santa Barbara. "It is something we need to pay attention to."
As plastic becomes near-indestructible mountains of garbage on land and swirling vortexes of trash on the high seas, humans keep making more. Half of the plastic that people mostly use once and toss away was created in the past 30 years, the study says.
Plastic's most lucrative market is packaging commonly seen in grocery stores. It could be in front of you right now, in the form of a water bottle, a carryout lunch container, or an iced-coffee or tea cup with its disposable straw.
It's a miracle product that's also in your office chair, phone and computer keyboard. The pipes that move water in your building are often plastic. You probably touch plastic to switch on the car radio on the foam plastic dashboard. Plastic is pretty much everywhere humans are at any part of the day, anywhere in the world.
In 1960, plastic accounted for just 1 percent of junk in municipal landfills across the world. As single-package containers led to an explosion in convenience and use, that number grew to 10 percent in 2005. A recent study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences estimated the amount of plastic debris floating in the open ocean at 7,000 to 35,000 tons.
"If current trends continue, the researchers predict over 13 billion tons of plastic will be discarded in landfills or in the environment by 2050," the American Association for the Advancement of Science said in a statement announcing the study's release.
Study co-author Jenna Jambeck of the University of Georgia said the world first needs to know how much plastic waste there is worldwide before it can tackle the problem.
They calculated that of the 9.1 billion tons made, nearly 7 billion tons are no longer used. Only 9 percent got recycled and another 12 percent was incinerated, leaving 5.5 billion tons of plastic waste on land and in water.
Using the plastics industry's own data, Geyer, Jambeck and Kara Lavender Law found that the amount of plastics made and thrown out is accelerating. In 2015, the world created 448 million tons of plastic — more than twice as much as made in 1998.
China makes the most plastic, followed by Europe and North America.
"The growth is astonishing and it doesn't look like it's slowing down soon," Geyer said.
About 35 percent of the plastic made is for packaging, such as water bottles. Geyer said his figures are higher than other calculations because he includes plastics material woven into fibers like polyester clothing, including microfiber material.
A U.S. trade group official said the plastics industry recognizes the problem and is working to increase recycling and reduce waste.
"Plastics are used because they are efficient, they are cost effective and they do their jobs," said Steve Russell, vice president of plastics for the American Chemistry Council, an industry association that represents manufacturers. "And if we didn't have them, the impact on the environment would be worse."
Using alternatives to plastics for packaging and consumer goods such as glass, paper or aluminum requires more energy, Russell said.
The world still makes more concrete and steel than plastic, but the big difference is that they stay longer in buildings and cars and degrade better than plastic, Geyer said. Except for what is burned, "all the plastics that we made since 1950 are still with us," he said.
In the study, Geyer wrote, "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, plastic recycling has remained steady at 9 percent."
"The fact that it becomes waste so quickly and that it's persistent is why it's piling up in the environment," said Chelsea Rochman, a professor of ecology at the University of Toronto. She wasn't part of the study but like other outside experts praised it for thoroughness and accuracy.
"At some point we will run out of room to put it," she said. "Some may argue we already have and now it's found in every nook and cranny of our oceans."
Plastic waste in water has been shown to harm more than 600 species of marine life, said Nancy Wallace, marine debris program director for the U.S. National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration. Whales, sea turtles, dolphins, fish and sea birds are hurt or killed by it, she said.
"It's a huge amount of material that we're not doing anything about," Wallace said. "We're finding plastics everywhere."
Information from the Washington Post was used in this report.