There is a lot of plastic waste because plastic is a very popular material. There are two main reasons for this:
1. Plastic is a versatile material. For example, plastics are lightweight, strong, inexpensive, durable, corrosion-resistant and molded into many different forms (Napper & Thompson, 2020).
2. Plastic is a cheap material. The base products required to manufacture are inexpensive and plastic can be manufactured on mass. See "What is the process for making plastic?" for a brief summary of how plastic is made.
Plastic Waste Today
Consequently, plastic production has increased dramatically. A recent study (Geyer et al., 2017) of the production, use and fate of all plastics ever made found:
- The global production of plastic resins and fibers has increased from 2 million tons in 1950 to 380 million tons in 2015.
- This means plastic production has increased at an annual rate of 8.4%.
This study calculated the use and fate of these plastics between 1950 and 2015 and estimated that 30% of plastics ever produced are currently still in use. Therefore, the remaining 70% of plastic is considered a waste product (plastic waste). Of this plastic waste:
- 12% has been incinerated.
- 9% has been recycled.
- 60% has been discarded in the natural environment or is accumulating in landfills.
- The fate of the remaining 19% is unaccounted for in the study.
Plastic Waste in the Future
This study then projected plastic waste production in 2050 using the growth trend they calculated from 1950 – 2015. They found that by 2050, the amount of global plastic waste in the natural environments or landfills will have doubled in comparison to the 2015 estimate. If we were to be optimistic and assume that all plastics will end up in landfills rather than the natural environment, this is still a problem. This is because there is only limited landfill storage space and general waste production (all rubbish that we put in our bins and tip sites) is set to triple by 2100 (Hoornweg et al., 2013). Therefore, rapid plastic waste production is part of a much wider problem regarding the unsustainable amount of waste that human populations create.
Geyer, R., Jambeck, J.R. and Law, K.L., (2017). Production, use, and fate of all plastics ever made. Science advances, 3(7), p.e1700782.
Hoornweg, D. et al. (2013). Waste production must peak this century. Nature Comment. Available at: <https://www.iswa.org/fileadmin/galleries/News/NATURE_Comment_waste.pdf> (Accessed: 24 June 2020).
Napper, I.E. and Thompson, R.C., (2020). Plastic Debris in the Marine Environment: History and Future Challenges. Global Challenges, p.1900081.