Plastics, Plastics Everywhere

First invented in the 1860s and developed for industry in the 1920s, plastic production exploded in the 1940s, when it became one of the fastest-growing global industries. We wonder: Which of the following statements is true about the global plastics industry today?

A. Annual global plastics production amounts to nearly 300 million tons.
B. The average American or European consumes about 100 kilograms of plastic a year.
C. China takes in more than half of worldwide waste plastic each year.
D. Millions of tons of plastics end up in landfills and oceans each year.

A. “Annual global plastics production amounts to nearly 300 million tons” is correct.

About 299 million tons of plastics were produced in 2013, a 3.9% increase over 2012. Global production of plastic has continued to rise for more than 50 years.

From 1950 to 2012, plastics growth averaged 8.7% per year, rising from 1.7 million tons to the nearly 300 million tons of today. Worldwide production grew as plastics gradually replaced materials like glass and metal in many consumer goods.

Plastics are synthetic materials manufactured from polymers, or long chains of repeating molecules. They are derived from oil, natural gas, and increasingly from plants like corn and sugarcane. Plastics made from plants still represent only a small portion of overall production.

About 4% of the petroleum consumed worldwide each year is used to make plastic, and another 4% is used to power plastic manufacturing processes.

B. “The average American or European consumes about 100 kilograms of plastic a year” is correct.

Today, an average person living in North America or Western Europe consumes 100 kilograms (220 pounds) of plastic each year, mostly in the form of packaging.

In Asia, the average use currently is just one-fifth that level, at 20 kilograms (44 pounds) per person. That figure is expected to grow rapidly as the region’s economies expand.

Plastics have many tangible benefits. They help to reduce food waste by keeping products fresh longer and allow for the manufacture of life-saving healthcare equipment. They also have large potential for use in renewable energy technologies.

Plastics have also improved transportation efficiency. By reducing packaging and product mass compared with other materials, shipping becomes less costly.

Vehicles themselves are also less heavy, further improving efficiency. As a result, about 10% of the weight and 50% of the volume of a typical U.S. vehicle today is plastic. Back in the 1960s, vehicles contained less than 20 pounds of plastic.

Among the negative impacts, however, are plastic litter, gyres of plastics in the oceans, and the toxic additives in plastic products — including colorants, flame retardants and plasticizers (such as bisphenol A, or BPA).

C. “China takes in more than half of worldwide waste plastic each year” is correct.

Most plastic scraps from countries with established collection systems eventually flow to China. The world’s largest economy receives 56% of waste plastic imports worldwide (measured by weight).

In fact, much of the plastic collected for recycling in Europe, the United States, Japan and other industrialized countries is shipped to China, as well as to other countries that have lower environmental protection controls for the disposal of contaminants or wastewater.

Unfortunately, indirect evidence suggests that most of this imported waste plastic is reprocessed at low-tech, family-run facilities with virtually no environmental protection controls.

Through its 2010 Green Fence Operation program, the Chinese government has started to work to reduce the number of unregulated facilities.

D. “Millions of tons of plastics end up in landfills and oceans each year” is correct.

In Europe, 26%, or 6.6 million tons, of the post-consumer plastic produced in 2012 was recycled, while 36% was incinerated for energy generation. The remaining 38% of post-consumer plastics in Europe went to landfills.

In the United States, only 9% of post-consumer plastic (2.8 million tons) was recycled in 2012. The remaining 32 million tons were discarded.

Up to 20 million tons of plastic end up in the oceans each year, imposing an estimated $13 billion a year in damages to marine ecosystems.

The bulk of the waste plastic that made its way into the Pacific Ocean in 2010 came from China as well as Indonesia, Philippines and Vietnam. The United States was the 20th largest contributor to ocean waste plastic.

Animals such as seabirds, whales and dolphins can become entangled in plastic matter while smaller pieces can be ingested and transferred up the food chain, carrying chemical pollutants from prey to predator.

Many challenges associated with plastics could be addressed by improving management of the material across its life cycle. This includes reducing unnecessary plastic consumption, finding more environmentally friendly packaging alternatives and improving product and packaging design to use less plastic.

Editor’s note: The Globalist thanks Gaelle Gourmelon of the Worldwatch Institute for her assistance in adapting this quiz from her report Global Plastic Production Rises, Recycling Lags. Additional data come from research by the University of Georgia.

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