Why Recycling Plastics Is More Important Than You Realize

Have you ever wondered just how much plastic exists in the world, and how much has ended up in the trash? The authors of a new study published in Science Advances have.

Researchers dug into information dating back to the 1950s, when plastics first began to be mass produced. They found that, since then, we have generated 9 million tons of plastic worldwide. That’s enough plastic to cover all of Argentina up to ankle-height, or Texas four times over. Some of this plastic is still in use, but the bulk of it has become plastic waste.

How much plastic has been recycled? About 9 percent. Close to 5.5 million tons is either in landfills or has become litter in the environment. While recycling rates lag, the trash is only increasing: the amount of plastic we produce is doubling approximately every 15 years.

This study is the first to track all plastics ever made — and what’s become of them. It was inspired by a desire to know the full extent of the plastics issue. “You can’t manage what you don’t measure,” stated Roland Geyer, the study’s lead author.

What does this large amount of plastic trash mean for us?

  • We have a lot of trash that is not going to decompose easily. Some plastics, such as typical plastic bottles, are estimated to take 450 years to degrade. However, some research indicates that plastic will never fully decompose — it will only break down into smaller pieces of plastic.
  • Reusing and recycling plastic is important if we don’t want it to end up as waste. In Lincoln, everyone automatically participates in the recycling of plastics through the One Big Bin program.
  • Reducing consumption is even more important than recycling or reusing, since plastic cannot be infinitely recycled, and will eventually end up as waste.
  • Scientists estimate that between 5 and 14 million tons of plastic waste make their way into the ocean each year, the environmental impact of which is not fully known.

Learn more about how plastic is disposed of in Lincoln.