Humanity makes a staggering amount of trash, so much so that one of the great social quests of the next century will be changing how we deal with it. And there’s a lot to deal with, as a new study reveals. We’ve made, it turns out, nine billion tons of plastic since 1950, and more than half of it is still hanging around.
The study, from researchers at the University of California Santa Barbara, looked at the plastics industry’s own figures, among other data, and determined that over the last six decades, we’ve turned out enough plastic to bury Manhattan. Twice. And worse, most of it, 5.5 billion tons, is still around. Part of the problem is that what makes plastic useful also makes it dangerous; since it never rots and is hard to destroy compared to glass, ceramic, or cardboard, it makes great packaging. At least until we throw it out, and then it becomes a blight on the environment. Not only that, our production of plastic is accelerating, and the study expects the amount of plastic crap in our oceans, littering our highways, and clogging our landfills to double by 2050.
Recycling is also complicated by the fact that plastics are containers for organic material and other stuff that isn’t “recycling friendly.” While technology is advancing rapidly, it’s still, at the moment, cheaper to just throw away plastic than to recycle it. Solving that problem might make the difference between ever-greater piles of trash and a genuinely sustainable system.
There are some answers. Biodegradable plastic, which can be broken down by bacteria in the environment, is far from perfect, but it’s still better than a bottle sitting in a pond for the rest of Earth’s existence. And, of course, new techniques applied to other materials may make more sense, but those are still nascent technologies at best. The fastest and simplest solution, at the moment, is to use less plastic and recycle more of the plastic we use. Pretty simple, consider that we’re literally drowning in the stuff.