Plastic Is Everywhere And Recycling Isn't The End Of It | KERA News

Plastic Is Everywhere And Recycling Isn't The End Of It

Jul 19, 2017
Originally published on July 20, 2017 7:13 am

Few inventions in modern history have been as successful as plastic. It's in vehicles and building materials and most of our electronic devices. We wrap stuff in it and even wear it.

Now a research team has tallied up how much plastic has been produced and where much of it has gone. Turns out, it's literally almost everywhere.

Roland Geyer, an industrial ecologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, says no one had tallied how much plastic people have manufactured since its invention. When he did it, he was shocked at what he found. "Eight point three billion metric tons of plastics produced so far. That's just really a staggering amount."

He did some calculations to understand that number. "And it turned out that it can cover an area the size of Argentina," he says, "which is the eighth-largest country in the world."

Ankle deep.

So, is that a problem? Well, for one thing, Geyer, says, "Virtually all the plastic we ever made is non-degradable. (It) will be with us for hundreds of years." Much of it ends up in the soil, in smaller particles, or in the ocean, or in our water.

Plastic is, of course, very useful. Geyer and his colleagues found that 42 percent of plastic goes for packaging. The second-largest use is for construction, at about 20 percent. Plastic fibers, like polyester, is one of the fastest-growing uses.

But eventually, most of it gets thrown away. In the U.S., three-quarters of discarded plastic ends up in landfills or is just lost.

The rest is incinerated or recycled. Geyer says recycling helps but usually just delays its inevitable disposal. Moreover, more new plastic is made every year than is recycled.

Writing in the journal Science Advances, Geyer notes that plastic production has grown 8 percent a year for decades. He says that outpaces any other manufactured material, and its growth rate shows no sign of slowing down — because it's so useful. "The environmental (effects) are just due to its phenomenal success," he says, "because it is a fantastic material."

But one that we seem to be using to wrap the entire world. Says Geyer: "I ... think of it sort of as a giant experiment we are performing on this planet, and no one really knows the outcome."

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Few inventions in modern history have been as successful as plastic. It's in vehicles, building materials, most of our electronic devices. We wrap stuff in it. Maybe we even wear it. Now a research team has tallied up how much plastic has been produced and where much of it has gone. NPR's Christopher Joyce reports that plastic is almost everywhere.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CHRISTOPHER JOYCE, BYLINE: It seems no one, up till now, has actually tallied how much plastic people have manufactured since its invention. Roland Geyer, an industrial ecologist, decided to do that. He was shocked.

ROLAND GEYER: 8.3 billion metric tons of plastics produced so far - that's just really an staggering amount.

JOYCE: Geyer, at the University of California, Santa Barbara, did some calculations.

GEYER: And it turned out it can cover an area the size of Argentina, which is the eighth-largest country in the world.

JOYCE: Ankle-deep. So is that a problem? Well, almost all plastics don't degrade.

GEYER: They will be with us for hundreds of years.

JOYCE: Much of it in the soil or in the ocean or our water. Plastic is, of course, very useful. Geyer and his colleagues found that 42 percent of plastic goes for packaging. The second-largest use is for construction, at about 20 percent. Plastic fibers, like polyester, is one of the fastest-growing uses.

But eventually, most of it gets thrown away. In the U.S., three quarters of discarded plastic ends up in landfills or is just lost. The rest is incinerated or recycled. Geyer says recycling helps but usually just delays its inevitable disposal.

Writing in the journal Science Advances, Geyer notes that plastic production has grown 8 percent a year for decades. He says that outpaces any other manufactured material and shows no sign of slowing down because it's so useful.

GEYER: It is a fantastic material.

JOYCE: But one that we seem to be using to wrap the entire world.

GEYER: I sort of think of it as a giant experiment that we are conducting here on the planet. And no one really knows the outcome.

JOYCE: Christopher Joyce, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEQUERBOARD'S "OPENING THE GATES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.