The world has made more than 9 billion tons of plastic, says new study

Key Points
  • 9 billion tons of plastic have been made since the 1950s.
  • Researchers say it is the first attempt to measure all plastic ever mass produced.
  • Only 9 percent of plastic waste produced ended up recycled.
A boy works at a plastic bottle recycling centre by the river Buriganga in Dhaka.
Andrew Bhiraj | Reuters

More than 9 billion tons of plastic have been made since the 1950s, and the vast majority of it has been thrown in the trash, says a new study.

The paper says it is the first attempt to measure the total amount of plastic produced since the beginning of mass plastic production in the middle of the 20th century.

A team of researchers from the University of California, Santa Barbara, the University of Georgia, and the Sea Education Association, say that although plastic materials such as Bakelite were in use in the early 20th century, the material's popularity began to rapidly rise after World War II, making it one of the most commonly used man-made materials.

For example, the researchers estimated that the amount of plastic in use now is 30 percent of all the plastic ever produced.

While that has brought its benefits, such as lower-cost materials or capabilities like water resistance, our love of plastic has also produced a lot of trash. About 7 billion tons of it, by their estimate.

And as of 2015, only 9 percent of the plastic waste produced ended up recycled, and another 12 percent was incinerated, the researchers found in their report. The remaining 79 percent has built up in landfills or ended up elsewhere in the environment.

The team published their results in the journal Science Advances on Wednesday.

To make their estimates, the researchers cobbled together datasets on global plastic production, such as global annual pure polymer (resin) production data from 1950 to 2015, published by the Plastics Europe Market Research Group, and global annual plastic fiber production data from 1970 to 2015 published by The Fiber Year and Tecnon OrbiChem.

Disposal data came from sources such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, PlasticsEurope, the World Bank, and the China Statistical Yearbook.

All three researchers on this study were part of a team that estimated in 2015 that between 5 million and 13 million metric tons of plastic end up in the ocean every year. In this new study, the team said plastics are found in every major ocean basin in the world.

"The growth of plastics production in the past 65 years has substantially outpaced any other manufactured material," the paper said. "The same properties that make plastics so versatile in innumerable applications — durability and resistance to degradation — make these materials difficult or impossible for nature to assimilate. Thus, without a well-designed and tailor-made management strategy for end-of-life plastics, humans are conducting a singular uncontrolled experiment on a global scale, in which billions of metric tons of material will accumulate across all major terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems on the planet."

They recommend carefully considering the advantages and disadvantages of various strategies for managing plastic, such as reusing or recycling, substituting other materials, or using waste-to-energy or technologies for converting the materials into other substances.

Correction: Some of the researchers are from the Sea Education Association. An earlier version misstated the organization's name.