Why this Metric
Plastic is lightweight, durable, cheap and can serve many purposes; we rarely go a day without seeing any. The plastic we now produce each year weighs as much as 2/3rds of humanity’s total mass. Around 300 million tons of plastic are thrown out annually, ending up in landfills or oceans where they linger for decades, centuries and even millenia.
Plastic pollution is so extensive, microscopic pieces have been found in the air, at the top of mount Everest, at the bottom of the ocean and, yes, even inside us. Why should you care? Because it is killing wildlife, vandalizing the beauty of nature and harming us too.
Exploring the Stat
Bakelite, the first commercially available plastic product, was launched in 1907 but mass production didn’t start until 1952. Since then, annual plastic production has increased nearly 200-fold, peaking in 2019 with 368 million tonnes and leveling off since.
The world used to ship most of its plastic to China, unconcerned about where it would end up next. However, in 2017, the Chinese government passed the National Sword policy and effectively banned wanton plastic import. Since then, many rich countries have found themselves with far more plastic than they can handle, and recycling has not massively improved.
Plastic accumulation in nature eventually works its way back to us, either through food or drink. The effects of ingested plastic on the human body has yet to be properly assessed, but it likely causes irritation, inflammation, and possibly carries toxins.
Where the numbers come from
A landmark study in 2015, led by Roland Geyer, identified and synthesized dispersed data on production, use and end-of-life management of polymer resins, synthetic fibers and additives to produce the first global estimate of all plastic ever produced.
There are also estimates from private research, such as the data produced by Statista.
Making new plastic is far cheaper than recycling it, which is why only 9% of all plastics ever get recycled. Similar to the energy transition, it will require government intervention to readjust incentives and allow recycling to gain momentum, attract investment and become more optimized. Right now, environmental damage is shrugged off as an externality and doesn’t strike institutions as a financial loss.
As evidence of the detrimental effects of plastic pollution grows, more arguments will be available to usher in new legislation. In the meantime, hundreds of thousands of marine animals either die or suffer from plastic, while humans ingest a credit card’s worth each year and don’t even realize.
This article was written by Owen Mulhern.
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