We've made 9 billion tons of plastic. Less than 10% has been recycled.
Humans have produced 9.1 billion tons of plastic since 1950, and most of it is sitting in our environment, per a new study in Science Advances.
Why it matters: Plastic production is rapidly rising around the world, with China putting out the most per year. In 2015, the worldwide production of plastic was 448 million tons, the study found — that's twice the amount of plastic produced in 1998. And methods to handle plastic waste sustainably have not caught up to production rates: Despite the international push to reuse and recycle, we continue to dump about 60% of plastic waste in the environment.
- All of the plastic that's no longer in use goes one of three ways, says Roland Geyer, the study's lead researcher. It's either recycled, incinerated, or dumped in landfills or the natural environment. Rates of recycling and incineration — the sustainable methods for handling plastic waste — are steadily climbing, but scientists estimate we still throw 5 to 14 million tons of plastic into oceans annually.
- The big players: The U.S. throws out 75% of plastic waste. For comparison, Europe dumps only 31% — in part due to EU regulations, Geyer says — and China throws out 45% of its plastic trash. Worldwide, discarded waste makes up 58% of plastic waste, per study results.
Bottom line: The most effective way to reduce the Earth's plastic footprint is simply to use less and produce less, but recycling is not the catch-all solution: "We don't understand very well the extent to which recycling reduces primary production," Geyer told the New York Times.