We’ve Created Enough Plastic to Cover Argentina – and the Result Is Devastating

Humans have created eight billion tonnes of plastic since the 1950s. The discarded mass now floods landfills, pollutes oceans and threatens ecosystems, according to a new global analysis.

A man collects plastic and other recyclable materials from debris in the waters of Manila Bay after tropical storm Saola hit the Philippine capital on July 30, 2012. Credit: Reuters/Erik De Castr

In 1950, the world produced two million metric tonnes of plastic, a new study published in the journal Scientific Advances has reported. But by 2015, the number skyrocketed to 400 million, and half of which was produced in the last 13 years alone.

“If you spread all of this plastic equally, ankle-deep, it would cover an area the size of Argentina,” Roland Geyer, an industrial ecology professor and the study’s lead author, told Reuters.

Of that plastic waste, only 9% has been recycled and 12% incinerated. The majority – fully 79% – now clogs landfills and oceans. Geyer warned that by 2050, more than 12 billion metric tonnes of plastic waste would fill the natural environment if current rates of production were kept up. A study by the World Economic Forum has estimated that plastic in the oceans will outweigh fish by the same year.

“We cannot continue with business as usual unless we want a planet that is literally covered in plastic,” Geyer added.

A million plastic bottles are bought around the world every minute. One bottle takes over 450 years to break down completely, meaning that synthetic waste stays around for generations, with devastating impact on wildlife and humans. In landfills, toxic chemicals from decomposing plastics eke into groundwater, which eventually makes its way into drinking water supplies and our bodies.

The unaltered contents of the stomach of a dead baby albatross. Credit: Chris Jordan via Reuters

In the oceans’ global currents, most plastic ends up coalescing in six gigantic garbage patches, where the material covers the water’s surface and blots out sunlight to the creatures below. Marine animals in these areas mistake synthetical materials for food and ingest tens of thousands of tonnes each year, leading to intestinal injuries and death. When plastics do finally break down, their toxic chemicals pollute the world’s largest water supply, which also absorbs 30% of the carbon dioxide emitted by human activities.

However, environmental movements have been tackling the issue worldwide through preventative and proactive measures. A Dutch inventor even created a system to block garbage patches and clean an estimated 50% of the so-called great Pacific garbage patch in five years. Activists are also pushing governments and citizens to reduce plastic use.

However, the new study’s authors say they are not calling for doing away with plastic but instead critically rethinking our use of it. “There are areas where plastics are indispensable, such as the medical industry,” coauthor and research professor Kara Lavender Law said a statement. “But I do think we need to take a careful look at our use of plastics and ask if it makes sense.”