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8.3 Billion Metric Tons of Plastic Waste Reside in Landfills

AP Photo/Sergei Grits

According to a study published today in the journal Science Advances, humans have created 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic waste since large-scale production of the synthetic materials began in the early 1950s.

This study is the first global analysis of the production, use and fate of all plastics ever made. Researchers working on this project are scientists from the University of Georgia, the University of California, Santa Barbara and Sea Education Association.

The researchers found that by 2015, humans had generated 8.3 billion metric tons of plastics, 6.3 billion tons of which had already become waste. Of that waste total, only 9 percent was recycled, 12 percent was incinerated and 79 percent accumulated in landfills or the natural environment. Jenna Jambeck, study co-author and associate professor of engineering at UGA, explained why plastic waste has accumulated in this way.

"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," Jambeck said.

If current trends continue, roughly 12 billion metric tons of plastic waste will be in landfills or the natural environment by 2050. Twelve billion metric tons is about 35,000 times as heavy as the Empire State Building.

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

Of the total amount of plastics produced from 1950 to 2015, roughly half was produced in just the last 13 years. Although the pace of plastic production is rapid, researchers are quick to caution that they do not seek the total removal of plastic from the marketplace. Instead, they encourage a more critical examination of plastic use and its end-of-life value.

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