Our EARTH is Becoming a Plastic Planet

by Duane Nichols on July 21, 2017

Discarded plastic accumulating at an alarming rate

A Plastic Planet: Enought to Bury Manhattan Two Miles Deep

From an Article by Julie Cohen, UCSB Current, July 19, 2017

Industrial ecologist Roland Geyer measures the production, use and fate of all the plastics ever made, including synthetic fibers. Since the large-scale production of synthetic materials began in the early 1950s, humans have created more than 8 billion metric tons of plastic.

More than 8 billion metric tons. That’s the amount of plastic humans have created since the large-scale production of synthetic materials began in the early 1950s. It’s enough to cover the entire country of Argentina, and most of the material now resides in landfills or in the natural environment.

Such are the findings of a new study led by University of California Santa Barbara (UCSB) industrial ecologist Roland Geyer. The research, which appears in the journal Science Advances, provides the first global analysis of the production, use and fate of all plastics ever made, including synthetic fibers.

“We cannot continue with business as usual unless we want a planet that is literally covered in plastic,” said lead author Geyer, an associate professor at UCSB’s Bren School of Environmental Science & Management. “This paper delivers hard data not only for how much plastic we’ve made over the years but also its composition and the amount and kind of additives that plastic contains. I hope this information will be used by policymakers to improve end-of-life management strategies for plastics.”

Geyer and his team compiled production statistics for resins, fibers and additives from a variety of industry sources and synthesized them according to type and consuming sector. They found that global production of plastic resins and fibers increased from 2 million metric tons in 1950 to more than 400 million metric tons in 2015, outgrowing most other man-made materials. Notable exceptions are steel and cement. While these materials are used primarily for construction, the largest market for plastics is packaging, which is used once and then discarded.

“Roughly half of all the steel we make goes into construction, so it will have decades of use; plastic is the opposite,” Geyer said. “Half of all plastics become waste after four or fewer years of use.”

And the pace of plastic production shows no signs of slowing. Of the total amount of plastic resins and fibers produced from 1950 to 2015, roughly half was produced in the last 13 years.

“What we are trying to do is to create the foundation for sustainable materials management,” Geyer added. “Put simply, you can’t manage what you don’t measure, and so we think policy discussions will be more informed and fact-based now that we have these numbers.”

The researchers also found that by 2015, humans had produced 6.3 billon tons of plastic waste. Of that total, only 9 percent was recycled; 12 percent was incinerated and 79 percent accumulated in landfills or the natural environment. If current trends continue, Geyer noted, roughly 12 billion metric tons of plastic waste — weighing more than 36,000 Empire State Buildings — will be in landfills or the natural environment by 2050.

“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 co-author Jenna Jambeck, an associate professor of engineering at the University of Georgia. “Our estimates underscore the need to think critically about the materials we use and our waste management practices.”

Two years ago, the same research team published a study in the journal Science that measured the magnitude of plastic waste going into the ocean. They found that of the 275 million metric tons of plastic waste generated in 2010, an estimated 8 million entered the world’s oceans. That study calculated the annual amount of plastic waste by using solid waste generation data; the new research instead uses plastic production data.

“Even with two very different methods, we got virtually the same waste number — 275 million metric tons — for 2010, which suggests that the numbers are quite robust,” Geyer said.

“There are people alive today who remember a world without plastics,” Jambeck said. “But plastics have become so ubiquitous that you can’t go anywhere without finding plastic waste in our environment, including our oceans.”

The investigators are quick to caution that they do not seek to eliminate plastic from the marketplace but rather advocate a more critical examination of plastic use.

“There are areas where plastics are indispensable, such as the medical industry,” said co-author Kara Lavender Law, a research professor at the Sea Education Association in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. “But I do think we need to take a careful look at our use of plastics and ask if it makes sense.”

See also: Plastic pollution risks ‘near permanent contamination of natural environment’

Plastics on banks of Anacostia River in DC

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Jesse Greenspan July 22, 2017 at 9:52 pm

Awash in Plastic

Scientific American (August 2017), Volume 317, Page 20

Environment: “Awash in Plastic” by Jesse Greenspan

Abstract: An uninhabited island is covered in about 18 metric tons of trash


Henderson Island, a tiny, unpopulated coral atoll in the South Pacific, could scarcely be more remote. The nearest city of any size lies some 5,000 kilometers away. Yet when Jennifer Lavers, a marine biologist at the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies in Tasmania, ventured there two years ago to study invasive rodent-eradication efforts, she found the once pristine UNESCO World Heritage Site inundated with trash—17.6 metric tons of it, she conservatively estimates—pretty much all of it plastic. (The rubbish originates elsewhere but hitches a ride to Henderson on wind or ocean currents.)

One particularly spoiled stretch of beach yielded 672 visible pieces of debris per square meter, plus an additional 4,497 items per square meter buried in the sand, Lavers and her colleague reported recently in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA.

By comparing the data with a study of the nearby Ducie and Oeno atolls conducted in 1991, the team extrapolated that there is between 200 and 2,000 times more trash on Henderson now than there was on those neighboring islands back then. Unidentifiable plastic fragments, resin pellets and fishing gear make up the bulk of the total (graphic below), but the researchers also came across toothbrushes, baby pacifiers, hard hats, bicycle pedals and a sex toy.

Thousands of new items wash up daily and make any cleanup attempt impractical, according to Lavers, who specializes in studying plastic pollution. Meanwhile many of the world’s other coastlines could face a similar threat. “Regardless of where I go or how far removed from society,” Lavers says, “plastic is what I find.”


Garbage Island

Jennifer Lavers and her colleague tallied the items of debris found on Henderson Island. The team compared these values with quantities found on the neighboring Oeno and Ducie atolls in 1991 in a separate study. Because these three islands experience comparable oceanic conditions, the density of debris on each is likely to be similar. Thus, the comparatively enormous quantities of waste found recently on Henderson Island signal a significant increase in the amount washing up every year. In the new study, unidentifiable plastic fragments made up the majority of the items counted, whereas all other objects made up less than 25 percent of the total.

Source: http://www.nature.com/scientificamerican/journal/v317/n2/full/scientificamerican0817-20.html?WT.ec_id=SCIENTIFICAMERICAN-201708&spMailingID=54526603&spUserID=ODkwMTM2NjQyNAS2&spJobID=1203053368&spReportId=MTIwMzA1MzM2OAS2&foxtrotcallback=true


The Atlantic.com July 23, 2017 at 1:00 am

Half of All Plastic That Has Ever Existed Was Made in the Past 13 Years

By Sarah Zhang, The Atlantic Magazine, July 19, 2017

Plastic production is rapidly accelerating, according to an ambitious new paper—but only 9 percent of it gets recycled.

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.

Geyer and his team rely on both publicly available information and industry reports that they purchased for the study. They begin their analysis in the year 1950, when plastic started entering civilian life. During World War II, the military was starting to find uses for plastic. “The way the war disrupted trade, for example, with natural rubber supplies from southeast Asia or the silk supply out of Japan, affects how tires are made, how parachutes are made, and tread for boots,” says Rebecca Altman, a writer and environmental historian. “The stage was set for plastics to really take off after the war.”

It’s worth considering how much the rise of plastic is tied to the rise of oil and gas. Around this time, the United States began using a lot more oil. Oil is easy to make into plastic, and and it is cheap to do so. These economic forces helped create a new category of product: the disposable, single-use plastic packaging.

Packaging is now the largest plastic market, and it’s still tied to fossil fuels. In June, The Wall Street Journal reported on how the United States’ natural gas boom was translating into cheaper plastic pellets. The Dow Chemical Company wants to send its plastic pellet to places like Brazil, where it’s betting that a rising middle class will want the convenience of single-use plastic baby-food containers. Developing countries in South America and Asia account for much of the recent growth in plastics consumption.

These economic forces also govern how plastic gets recycled—or doesn’t. It’s often cheaper just to make virgin plastics, especially if you need plastic of a certain hardness or durability. Plus, there are so many different types of plastics that need to be sorted. “Plastic recycling just suffers from poor economics,” says Geyer.

It wasn’t always obvious that petroleum-based plastics would dominate. In the early 20th century, scientists experimented with plastics made from plant-derived carbon-based molecules. Henry Ford unveiled the “soybean car” in 1941. The car had a hard plastic shell, made of soybean fiber. The field of chemurgy—dedicated to turning agricultural materials into industrial products—rose and quickly fell, thanks to the ascendance of petroleum. It’s come full circle in a way. Now there are bioplastics, made out of biological materials like corn starch.

I asked Geyer if he thought we would eventually move beyond petroleum-based plastics, given a long-term move away from fossil fuels. “Unfortunately, my answer will be no,” he said. He gave two reasons. First, plastic production uses only a tiny fraction of the fossil fuel that we currently use for energy, so there will be plenty to go around for a long time. And second, he’s not convinced that bioplastics have less of an environmental impact. They aren’t necessarily more biodegradable, and they divert crops away from food. Since large-scale agriculture also relies on fossil fuels for fertilizer, there’s no way to go completely fossil fuel-free yet.

So our plastic age goes on. We will keep adding plastiglomerate to the geological record of the Anthropocene.


David Attenborough December 6, 2017 at 10:20 am

David Attenborough Urges World to Cut Plastics to Save Our Oceans

From Lorraine Chow, EcoWatch.com, December 04, 2017

David Attenborough is urging the world to cut plastic waste to help save our oceans.

The revered British naturalist demonstrates how the ubiquitous material harms marine life in his new BBC series, Blue Planet II, a sequel to the 2001 documentary “The Blue Planet.” One scene even shows an albatross accidentally feeding its young a plastic toothpick—a moment that Attenborough describes as “heartbreaking,” as the baby bird is shown dead after the feeding.

In a Radio Times column (via The Independent), the 91-year-old broadcaster wrote about the eight million metric tonnes of plastic that enters our ocean every year.

“Never before have we been so aware of what we are doing to our planet—and never before have we had such power to do something about it,” he wrote. “Surely we have a responsibility to care for the planet on which we live? The future of humanity, and indeed of all life on Earth, now depends on us doing so.”

However, Attenborough noted that “all is not yet lost” and is calling on all people to “reduce the amount of plastic that we use in our everyday lives”.

He also called on President Donald Trump to reconsider his intention to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris agreement.

“Let us hope that Trump will eventually recognise that the Paris agreement was not about Pittsburgh, or even Paris, but the entire planet,” he said.

Attenborough speaks about the scene with the albatross feeding around the 1:30 mark in the video above. He says, “There is a shot of the young being fed and what comes out of the beak of the adult? Not sand eels, not fish, and not squid, which is what they mostly eat, but plastic. It’s heartbreaking. Heartbreaking.”

Source: https://www.ecowatch.com/david-attenborough-plastics-2514828090.html/


Cassie Kelly December 28, 2017 at 5:43 pm

Cut Down On Single-Use Plastics and Microplastics

By Cassie Kelly, EcoWatch.com, December 27, 2017

Humans have created 8.3 billion tons of plastic in the past 67 years—6.3 billion tons of which have become waste in our landfills and natural environment, especially the ocean. Though these numbers may seem insurmountable, the simple decision to not buy single-use plastics, such as plastic bottles, plastic bags, plastic straws and any products containing microplastics such as exfoliators and glitter, would help tremendously.


TED Talk July 15, 2018 at 10:24 pm

Anthropocene — Anthropocene : TED Radio Hour : NPR

June 22, 2018 • Some scientists say we’re in a new geological age where humans are having an unprecedented impact on Earth. This hour, TED speakers ask what this means for the future of our planet, and our species.



Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: