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In the next 30 years, we’ll make four times more plastic waste than we ever have

Seventy years ago, plastic was barely used outside of the military. Today, we can’t live without it. And over the next 30 years, we may produce four times more plastic waste than we ever did, a new study shows.

Researchers collected data on the fate of all plastic since the material was initially mass-produced in the 1950s. By 2015, humankind had manufactured 8.3 billion metric tons of the stuff and generated 6.3 billion metric tons of plastic waste. Of this, 9% was recycled and 12% incinerated. The vast majority, 79%, was tossed, the team reports today in Science Advances.

By 2050, we’ll have produced 26 billion tons of plastic waste

Historical data and projections to 2050 of plastic waste production and disposal. “Primary waste” is plastic becoming waste for the first time and doesn’t include waste from plastic that has been recycled.

Credits: (Graphic) G. Grullón/Science; (Data) Geyer et al., Science Advances

If these trends continue, by 2050 we’ll have produced 26 billion metric tons of plastic waste, almost half of which will be dumped in landfills and the environment. Because plastic doesn’t degrade easily, there will be zillions of tons of the material on our planet by the end of the millennium. 

Billions of years from now, long after our species has likely gone extinct, the only remnant of human civilization may be the cheap plastic containers we made.