From: Gaelle Gourmelon, Worldwatch Institute, More from this Affiliate
Published January 28, 2015 03:35 PM

New analysis explores trends in global plastic consumption and recycling

For more than 50 years, global production of plastic has continued to rise. Some 299 million tons of plastics were produced in 2013, representing a 4 percent increase over 2012. Recovery and recycling, however, remain insufficient, and millions of tons of plastics end up in landfills and oceans each year, writes Gaelle Gourmelon, Communications and Marketing Manager at the Worldwatch Institute, in the Institute’s latest Vital Signs Online article.

Worldwide plastic production has been growing as the durable, primarily petroleum-based material gradually replaces materials like glass and metal. Today, an average person living in Western Europe or North America consumes 100 kilograms of plastic each year, mostly in the form of packaging. Asia uses just 20 kilograms per person, but this figure is expected to grow rapidly as economies in the region expand.

According to the United Nations Environmental Program, between 22 percent and 43 percent of the plastic used worldwide is disposed of in landfills, where its resources are wasted, the material takes up valuable space, and it blights communities. Recovering plastic from the waste stream for recycling or for combustion for energy generation has the potential to minimize these problems. However, much of the plastic collected for recycling is shipped to countries with lower environmental regulation. And burning plastic for energy requires air emissions controls and produces hazardous ash, all while being relatively inefficient.

Most plastic scraps from the United States, Europe, and other countries that have established collection systems flow to China, which receives 56 percent (by weight) of waste plastic imports worldwide. Indirect evidence suggests that most of this imported plastic is reprocessed at low-tech, family-run facilities with no environmental protection controls, such as proper disposal of contaminants or waste water. There are also concerns that low-quality plastics are not reused but are disposed of or incinerated for energy in plants that lack air pollution control systems. Through its 2010 Green Fence Operation, the Chinese government has started to work to reduce the number unregulated facilities.

Approximately 10–20 million tons of plastic end up in the oceans each year. A recent study conservatively estimated that 5.25 trillion plastic particles weighing a total of 268,940 tons are currently floating in the world’s oceans. This plastic debris results in an estimated $13 billion a year in losses from damage to marine ecosystems, including financial losses to fisheries and tourism as well as time spent cleaning beaches.

Continue reading at ENN affiliate, Worldwatch Institute.

Plastics image via Shutterstock.

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