We've made A LOT of plastic since 1950 — where is it now?

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Between 1950 and 2015, more than 9.1 billion tons of plastic have been manufactured globally. according to a new study in Science Advances. The researchers also found that while some of that plastic has been recycled, the large majority of it remains in landfills or in nature.

"[Spread] it out ankle deep ... and it would cover an area of roughly the size of Argentina," said lead author Roland Geyer of UC Santa Barbara.

According to the report:

  • 2.2 billion tons of plastic are still in use.  
  • 6.9 billion tons of plastic waste has been generated.
  • 9 percent has been recycled.
  • 12 percent has been incinerated.
  • 79 percent remains in landfills or elsewhere in the environment.
  • Half of the 9.1 billion tons were created in the past 13 years.

Over the course of two years, Geyer and his team gathered data on plastic manufacturing, use, recycling and waste trends from around the world.

Mass production of plastics began in the 1950s, according to Geyer. The compounds were discovered in the decades prior, but their original use was largely limited to the military. While consumers began to use plastic in earnest after World War II, it wasn't until after 1980 that recycling and incineration became more common.

Today, we create as much plastic as we do paper and cardboard on an annual basis - about 44 million tons a year.

"According to the production statistics that we have right now, there’s no end in sight of the growth in plastics production. It just keeps growing," said Geyer, who noted that the growth is primarily driven by the surge in popularity of single-use packaging.

"I’ve actually always been fascinated about garbage, waste. Even as a small child I was always marveling at the garbage men picking up the trash and taking it somewhere," said Geyer. "I was always wondering where it goes. And I guess now I’m finding out as an adult. And it’s not all good news."

Without a significant increase in recycling and incineration, Geyer estimates that there will be more than 13 billion tons of plastic in landfills and scattered throughout the environment by 2050.

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