Plastics don’t break down like other man-made materials, so three-quarters of the stuff ends up as waste in landfills, littered on land and floating in oceans, lakes and rivers, according to the research.
“At the current rate, we are really heading toward a plastic planet,” said study lead author an industrial ecologist at the University of California. “It is something we need to pay attention to.”
The plastics boom started after World War II, and now plastics are everywhere. They are used in packaging like plastic bottles and consumer goods like cellphones and refrigerators. They are in pipes and other construction material. They are in cars and clothing, usually as polyester.
Study co-author the University of Georgia said the world first needs to know how much plastic waste there is worldwide before it can tackle the problem.
They calculated that of the 9.1 billion tons made, nearly 7 billion tons are no longer used. Only 9 percent got recycled and another 12 percent was incinerated, leaving 5.5 billion tons of plastic waste on land and in water.
About 35 percent of the plastic made is for packaging, like water bottles. An official of a U.S. trade group said the plastics industry recognizes the problem and is working to increase recycling and reduce waste.