Plastics serve many purposes, but millions of tons of discarded plastics end up buried in landfills, floating in the world’s oceans, and burned in poorly regulated incinerators, a report from the Worldwatch Institute says.
Globally, the production of plastics rose 4 percent in 2013 over a year earlier, to a total of 299 million tons, the report said. On average, a person living in western Europe or North America uses about 220 pounds of plastics a year, compared with the per-capita consumption of only 44 pounds in Asia.
After serving its intended purpose, between 22 percent and 43 percent of all plastics end up in landfills. Recovering plastic from the waste stream through recycling programs or incineration for energy would help minimize wasted space and local blight associated with landfill disposal, but there’s a snag: “Much of the plastic collected for recycling is shipped to countries with lower environmental regulation,” the report says. “And burning plastic for energy requires air emissions controls and produces hazardous ash, all while being relative inefficient.”
For example, most plastic scraps from the U.S., Europe and other countries with established recycling systems go to China, where “indirect evidence” indicates they are reprocessed at “low-tech, family-run facilities with no environmental protection controls.” Some low-quality plastics, the report adds, are not reprocessed at all, but instead are burned for energy in plants with no pollution control devices.
A Chinese initiative called Green Fence aims to reduce the amount of plastics that wind up in landfills there, according to the Worldwatch Institute and this report from PRI.
Recycling lags in the U.S.
In Europe, 26 percent (6.6 million tons) of post-consumer plastic was recycled in 2012. Another 36 percent was burned to produce energy, and the remaining 38 percent went to landfills. The post-consumer rate in the U.S. was far lower, according to the report — only 9 percent, or 2.8 million tons, was recycled. The rest, 32 million tons, was thrown out.
- About 4 percent of the oil used worldwide each year goes into plastic goods. Another 4 percent is used to power the plastics manufacturing process.
- Between 10 million tons and 20 million tons of plastic end up in the oceans annually, where some 5.25 trillion plastic particles weighing 268,940 tons are now floating around. Plastic debris causes an estimated $13 billion a year in damages to sea life, fisheries, and the tourism industry.
- Plastics now make up 10 percent by weight (50 percent by volume) of cars made in the U.S., or 336 pounds per vehicle. In 1960, a typical car contained less than 20 pounds of plastic.
“Plastics help to reduce food waste by keeping products fresh longer, allow for the manufacture of life-saving healthcare equipment, reduce packaging mass compared with other materials, improve transportation efficiency, and have large potential for use in renewable energy technologies,” the report says. “But plastic litter, gyres of plastics in the oceans, and toxic additives in plastic products — including colorants, flame retardants, and plasticizers (such as bisphenol A, or BPA) — are raising awareness of and strengthening consumer demand for more sustainable materials.”