Is It Worse to Burn Oil or Turn It Into Plastic?
And more questions on the future of plastic and the environment
How much plastic is there in the world?
An estimated 9 billion tons of plastic has been produced so far. Of this, 5.4 billion tons has been chucked into landfill or scattered onto land and sea. To get a sense of what this looks like, if all of this plastic were made into cling film it would be more than enough to wrap the whole planet.
The world is now producing over 400 million tons of the stuff every year. That is more than ever before, despite the sudden rise in awareness of the environmental problems associated with it, like the move to ban plastic straws. Of all the plastic ever made, less than a third is still in use, less than a tenth has been burned, and only about 7% has been recycled. This leaves the remaining 60% hanging around as rubbish.
When trash gets landfilled, at least you can argue that the carbon is going back into the ground where it came from and where it belonged all along. From a climate change perspective, this could be the best end point.
An estimated 4 to 12 million tons per year ends up in the sea, where it turns up on the world’s remotest beaches, on the deep ocean floor and in the stomachs of animals. It sometimes even finds its way back into our food chain where it can be found, for example, in a third of the U.K.’s caught fish. One of the most depressing aspects of humankind’s blind destruction of the natural world has to be the realization that these tiny bits of plastic will be there forever, more or less. Thousands of years from now, a microscope on a pristine beach will still find the little grains of man-made multi-colored sand that we have unthinkingly laid down over just the last few decades. No amount of cleaning will sort that out. And the amount in the ocean looks set to triple over the coming decade from around 50 million tons to around 150 million.
If just one year’s worth of today’s oil production were turned into plastic, it would almost double the total amount that there is in the world.