Three-quarters of all the plastic ever made is now waste

"Most plastics don't biodegrade in any meaningful sense, so the plastic waste humans have generated could be with us for hundreds or even thousands of years", said Jenna Jambeck, associate professor of engineering at UGA.

"America's plastics makers welcome this new look at global production, use, and management of used plastics, and we look forward to continuing discussions on why plastics use is growing and how these advanced materials contribute to our safety, health and quality of life".

What happens when that plastic is thrown away is what worries scientists most.

Giving evidence to MPs a year ago, one expert said plastic should be considered toxic once it got into the natural world because of this effect.

"There is much more attention paid to how plastics are interacting with marine organisms but there is much, much less known about how plastics interact with terrestrial organisms - I would suspect there is something equivalent going on and it might actually be worse".

"If current trends continue, the researchers predict over 11.8 billion tonnes 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 on Wednesday. "Primary waste" is plastic becoming waste for the first time and doesn't include waste from plastic that has been recycled.

Of the total amount of produced from 1950 to 2015, roughly half was manufactured in just the last 13 years. We've made, it turns out, nine billion tons of plastic since 1950, and more than half of it is still hanging around.

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).

It runs beach clean-ups around the United Kingdom and said the most common single-use plastics found on beaches included: plastic bottles, coffee cups and lids, plastic cutlery, straws, plastic stirrers and food packaging.

Plastic is a cheap, hardy and versatile material, and it's used in everything from medical equipment to parts of airplanes to the fibers in our clothing.

"If you spread all of this plastic equally, ankle-deep, it would cover an area the size of Argentina", professor of industrial ecology and study lead author Roland Geyer told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

While the mass production of plastics started back in the '50s, they found that in recent years there has been a rapid increase in the manufacturing of the stuff.

And the pace of plastic production shows no signs of slowing.

"In 2025, the annual input would be about twice the 2010 input, or 10 bags full of plastic per foot of coastline", she said. The second-largest use is for construction, at about 20 percent.

Plastic debris can now be found in oceans all over the world.

"Our estimates underscore the need to think critically about the materials we use and our waste management practices".

Since nearly all plastic is non-biodegradable, these materials could "be with us for hundreds of years", languishing in landfills or floating in our seas, Geyer told NPR. Most plastics are not biodegradable and those that are were excluded from this analysis due to their low production volume of 4 million metric tons.

  • Aubrey Nash