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Production, use, and fate of all plastics ever made

Production, use, and fate of all plastics ever made SCIENCE ADVANCES RESEARCH ARTICLE PLASTICS Copyright © 2017 The Authors, some rights reserved; exclusive licensee American Association 1 2 3 Roland Geyer, * Jenna R. Jambeck, Kara Lavender Law for the Advancement of Science. No claim to Plastics have outgrown most man-made materials and have long been under environmental scrutiny. However, original U.S. Government robust global information, particularly about their end-of-life fate, is lacking. By identifying and synthesizing dis- Works. Distributed persed data on production, use, and end-of-life management of polymer resins, synthetic fibers, and additives, we under a Creative present the first global analysis of all mass-produced plastics ever manufactured. We estimate that 8300 million Commons Attribution metric tons (Mt) as of virgin plastics have been produced to date. As of 2015, approximately 6300 Mt of plastic waste NonCommercial had been generated, around 9% of which had been recycled, 12% was incinerated, and 79% was accumulated in land- License 4.0 (CC BY-NC). fills or the natural environment. If current production and waste management trends continue, roughly 12,000 Mt of plastic waste will be in landfills or in the natural environment by 2050. INTRODUCTION density polyethylene (PE), low-density and linear low-density PE, A world without plastics, or synthetic organic polymers, seems un- polypropylene (PP), polystyrene (PS), polyvinylchloride (PVC), poly- imaginable today, yet their large-scale production and use only dates ethylene terephthalate (PET), and PUR resins; and polyester, poly- back to ~1950. Although the first synthetic plastics, such as Bakelite, amide, and acrylic (PP&A) fibers. The pure polymer is mixed with appeared in the early 20th century, widespread use of plastics outside additives to enhance the properties of the material. of the military did not occur until after World War II. The ensuing rapid growth in plastics production is extraordinary, surpassing most other man-made materials. Notable exceptions are materials that are RESULTS AND DISCUSSION used extensively in the construction sector, such as steel and cement Global production of resins and fibers increased from 2 Mt in 1950 to (1, 2). 380 Mt in 2015, a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 8.4% Instead, plastics’ largest market is packaging, an application whose (table S1), roughly 2.5 times the CAGR of the global gross domestic growth was accelerated by a global shift from reusable to single-use product during that period (12, 13). The total amount of resins and fi- containers. As a result, the share of plastics in municipal solid waste bers manufactured from 1950 through 2015 is 7800 Mt. Half of this— (by mass) increased from less than 1% in 1960 to more than 10% by 3900 Mt—was produced in just the past 13 years. Today, China alone 2005 in middle- and high-income countries (3). At the same time, accounts for 28% of global resin and 68% of global PP&A fiber pro- global solid waste generation, which is strongly correlated with gross duction (13–15). Bio-based or biodegradable plastics currently have national income per capita, has grown steadily over the past five dec- a global production capacity of only 4 Mt and are excluded from this ades (4, 5). analysis (16). The vast majority of monomers used to make plastics, such as eth- We compiled production statistics for resins, fibers, and additives ylene and propylene, are derived from fossil hydrocarbons. None of the from a variety of industry sources and synthesized them according to commonly used plastics are biodegradable. As a result, they accumu- type and consuming sector (table S2 and figs. S1 and S2) (12–24). Data late, rather than decompose, in landfills or the natural environment (6). on fiber and additives production are not readily available and have The only way to permanently eliminate plastic waste is by destructive typically been omitted until now. On average, we find that nonfiber thermaltreatment,suchascombustionorpyrolysis.Thus,near-permanent plastics contain 93% polymer resin and 7% additives by mass. When contamination of the natural environment with plastic waste is a grow- including additives in the calculation, the amount of nonfiber plastics ing concern. Plastic debris has been found in all major ocean basins (6), (henceforth defined as resins plus additives) manufactured since 1950 with an estimated 4 to 12 million metric tons (Mt) of plastic waste increases to 7300 Mt. PP&A fibers add another 1000 Mt. Plasticizers, generated on land entering the marine environment in 2010 alone fillers, and flame retardants account for about three quarters of all ad- (3). Contamination of freshwater systems and terrestrial habitats is ditives (table S3). The largest groups in total nonfiber plastics produc- also increasingly reported (7–9), as is environmental contamination with tion are PE (36%), PP (21%), and PVC (12%), followed by PET, PUR, synthetic fibers (9, 10). Plastic waste is now so ubiquitous in the and PS (<10% each). Polyester, most of which is PET, accounts for environment that it has been suggested as a geological indicator of the 70% of all PP&A fiber production. Together, these seven groups ac- proposed Anthropocene era (11). count for 92% of all plastics ever made. Approximately 42% of all non- We present the first global analysis of all mass-produced plastics fiber plastics have been used for packaging, which is predominantly ever made by developing and combining global data on production, composed of PE, PP, and PET. The building and construction sector, use, and end-of-life fate of polymer resins, synthetic fibers, and addi- which has used 69% of all PVC, is the next largest consuming sector, tives into a comprehensive material flow model. The analysis includes using 19% of all nonfiber plastics (table S2). thermoplastics, thermosets, polyurethanes (PURs), elastomers, coatings, We combined plastic production data with product lifetime distri- and sealants but focuses on the most prevalent resins and fibers: high- butions for eight different industrial use sectors, or product categories, to model how long plastics are in use before they reach the end of their Bren School of Environmental Science and Management, University of California, useful lifetimes and are discarded (22, 25–29). We assumed log- Santa Barbara, Santa Barbara, CA 93106, USA. College of Engineering, University normal distributions with means ranging from less than 1 year, for of Georgia, 412 Driftmier Engineering Center, Athens, GA 30602, USA. Sea Edu- packaging, to decades, for building and construction (Fig. 1). This is cation Association, Woods Hole, MA 02543, USA. *Corresponding author. Email: geyer@bren.ucsb.edu a commonly used modeling approach to estimating waste generation Geyer, Jambeck, Law Sci. Adv. 2017; 3 : e1700782 19 July 2017 1of5 | SCIENCE ADVANCES RESEARCH ARTICLE Fig. 1. Product lifetime distributions for the eight industrial use sectors plotted as log-normal probability distribution functions (PDF). Note that sectors other and textiles have the same PDF. Fig. 2. Global production, use, and fate of polymer resins, synthetic fibers, and additives (1950 to 2015; in million metric tons). for specific materials (22, 25, 26). A more direct way to measure plastic By the end of 2015, all plastic waste ever generated from primary waste generation is to combine solid waste generation data with waste plastics had reached 5800 Mt, 700 Mt of which were PP&A fibers. characterization information, as in the study of Jambeck et al. (3). There are essentially three different fates for plastic waste. First, it However, for many countries, these data are not available in the detail can be recycled or reprocessed into a secondary material (22, 26). and quality required for the present analysis. Recycling delays, rather than avoids, final disposal. It reduces future We estimate that in 2015, 407 Mt of primary plastics (plastics plastic waste generation only if it displaces primary plastic production manufactured from virgin materials) entered the use phase, whereas (30); however, because of its counterfactual nature, this displacement 302 Mt left it. Thus, in 2015, 105 Mt were added to the in-use stock. is extremely difficult to establish (31). Furthermore, contamination For comparison, we estimate that plastic waste generation in 2010 was and the mixing of polymer types generate secondary plastics of limited 274 Mt, which is equal to the independently derived estimate of or low technical and economic value. Second, plastics can be destroyed 275 Mt by Jambeck et al. (3). The different product lifetimes lead to thermally. Although there are emerging technologies, such as pyrolysis, a substantial shift in industrial use sector and polymer type between which extracts fuel from plastic waste, to date, virtually all thermal plastics entering and leaving use in any given year (tables S4 and S5 destruction has been by incineration, with or without energy recovery. and figs. S1 to S4). Most of the packaging plastics leave use the same The environmental and health impacts of waste incinerators strongly year they are produced, whereas construction plastics leaving use were depend on emission control technology, as well as incinerator design produced decades earlier, when production quantities were much and operation. Finally, plastics can be discarded and either contained lower. For example, in 2015, 42% of primary nonfiber plastics produced in a managed system, such as sanitary landfills, or left uncontained in (146 Mt) entered use as packaging and 19% (65 Mt) as construction, open dumps or in the natural environment. whereas nonfiber plastic waste leaving use was 54% packaging (141 Mt) We estimate that 2500 Mt of plastics—or 30% of all plastics ever and only 5% construction (12 Mt). Similarly, in 2015, PVC accounted produced—are currently in use. Between 1950 and 2015, cumulative for 11% of nonfiber plastics production (38 Mt) and only 6% of non- waste generation of primary and secondary (recycled) plastic waste fiber plastic waste generation (16 Mt). amounted to 6300 Mt. Of this, approximately 800 Mt (12%) of plastics Geyer, Jambeck, Law Sci. Adv. 2017; 3 : e1700782 19 July 2017 2of5 | SCIENCE ADVANCES RESEARCH ARTICLE Fig. 3. Cumulative plastic waste generation and disposal (in million metric tons). Solid lines show historical data from 1950 to 2015; dashed lines show projections of historical trends to 2050. have been incinerated and 600 Mt (9%) have been recycled, only 10% recycled, 12,000 Mt incinerated, and 12,000 Mt discarded in landfills of which have been recycled more than once. Around 4900 Mt—60% or the natural environment (Fig. 3). of all plastics ever produced—were discarded and are accumulating in Any material flow analysis of this kind requires multiple assump- landfills or in the natural environment (Fig. 2). Of this, 600 Mt were tions or simplifications, which are listed in Materials and Methods, PP&A fibers. None of the mass-produced plastics biodegrade in any and is subject to considerable uncertainty; as such, all cumulative results meaningful way; however, sunlight weakens the materials, causing are rounded to the nearest 100 Mt. The largest sources of uncertainty fragmentation into particles known to reach millimeters or micro- are the lifetime distributions of the product categories and the plastic meters in size (32). Research into the environmental impacts of these incineration and recycling rates outside of Europe and the United States. “microplastics” in marine and freshwater environments has accelerated Increasing/decreasing the mean lifetimes of all product categories by in recent years (33), but little is known about the impacts of plastic 1 SD changes the cumulative primary plastic waste generation (for 1950 to waste in land-based ecosystems. 2015) from 5900 to 4600/6200 Mt or by −4/+5%. Increasing/decreasing Before 1980, plastic recycling and incineration were negligible. Since current global incineration and recycling rates by 5%, and adjusting the then, only nonfiber plastics have been subject to significant recycling time trends accordingly, changes the cumulative discarded plastic waste efforts. The following results apply to nonfiber plastic only: Global recy- from 4900 (for 1950 to 2015) to 4500/5200 Mt or by −8/+6%. cling and incineration rates have slowly increased to account for 18 and The growth of plastics production in the past 65 years has substan- 24%, respectively, of nonfiber plastic waste generated in 2014 (figs. S5 tially outpaced any other manufactured material. The same properties and S6). On the basis of limited available data, the highest recycling that make plastics so versatile in innumerable applications—durability rates in 2014 were in Europe (30%) and China (25%), whereas in the and resistance to degradation—make these materials difficult or im- United States, plastic recycling has remained steady at 9% since 2012 possible for nature to assimilate. Thus, without a well-designed and (12, 13, 34–36). In Europe and China, incineration rates have increased tailor-made management strategy for end-of-life plastics, humans over time to reach 40 and 30%, respectively, in 2014 (13, 35). However, are conducting a singular uncontrolled experiment on a global scale, in the United States, nonfiber plastics incineration peaked at 21% in in which billions of metric tons of material will accumulate across all 1995 before decreasing to 16% in 2014 as recycling rates increased, with major terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems on the planet. The relative discard rates remaining constant at 75% during that time period (34). advantages and disadvantages of dematerialization, substitution, reuse, Waste management information for 52 other countries suggests that in material recycling, waste-to-energy, and conversion technologies must 2014, the rest of the world had recycling and incineration rates similar be carefully considered to design the best solutions to the environmental to those of the United States (37). To date, end-of-life textiles (fiber challenges posed by the enormous and sustained global growth in products) do not experience significant recycling rates and are thus plastics production and use. incinerated or discarded together with other solid waste. Primary plastics production data describe a robust time trend throughout its entire history. If production were to continue on this MATERIALS AND METHODS curve, humankind will have produced 26,000 Mt of resins, 6000 Mt of Plastic production PP&A fibers, and 2000 Mt of additives by the end of 2050. Assuming The starting point of the plastic production model is global annual consistent use patterns and projecting current global waste manage- pure polymer (resin) production data from 1950 to 2015, published ment trends to 2050 (fig. S7), 9000 Mt of plastic waste will have been by the Plastics Europe Market Research Group, and global annual Geyer, Jambeck, Law Sci. Adv. 2017; 3 : e1700782 19 July 2017 3of5 | SCIENCE ADVANCES RESEARCH ARTICLE fiber production data from 1970 to 2015 published by The Fiber Year Time series for global recycling, incineration, and discard rates (fig. S5) and Tecnon OrbiChem (table S1). The resin data closely follow a were derived by adding the rates of the four regions weighted by their second-order polynomial time trend, which generated a fit of R = relative contribution to global plastic waste generation. In many world 0.9968. The fiber data closely follow a third-order polynomial time regions, waste management data were sparse and of poor quality. For trend, which generated a fit of R = 0.9934. Global breakdowns of total this reason, sensitivity analysis with regard to waste management rates production by polymer type and industrial use sector were derived was conducted. from annual market and polymer data for North America, Europe, The resulting global nonfiber recycling rate increased at a constant China, and India (table S2) (12, 13, 19–24). U.S. and European data 0.7% per annum (p.a.) between 1990 and 2014. If this linear trend is are available for 2002 to 2014. Polymer type and industrial use sector assumed to continue, the global recycling rate would reach 44% in breakdowns of polymer production are similar across countries 2050. The global nonfiber incineration rate has grown more unevenly and regions. but, on average, increased 0.7% p.a. between 1980 and 2014. Assuming Global additives production data, which are not publicly available, an annual increase of 0.7% between 2014 and 2050 yielded a global were acquired from market research companies and cross-checked for incineration rate of 50% by 2050. With those two assumptions, global consistency (table S3) (17, 18). Additives data are available for 2000 to discard rate would decrease from 58% in 2014 to 6% in 2050 (fig. S7). 2014. Polymer type and industrial use sector breakdowns of polymer The dashed lines in Fig. 3 are based on those assumptions and there- production and the additives to polymer fraction were both stable over fore simply forward projections of historical global trends and should the time period for which data are available and thus assumed con- not be mistaken for a prediction or forecast. There is currently no sig- stant throughout the modeling period of 1950–2015. Any errors in nificant recycling of synthetic fibers. It was thus assumed that end-of- the early decades were mitigated by the lower production rates in those life textiles are incinerated and discarded together with all other years. Additives data were organized by additive type and industrial municipal solid waste. use sector and integrated with the polymer data. P (t) denotes the amount of primary plastics (that is, polymers plus additives) produced in year t and used in sector i (fig. S1). SUPPLEMENTARY MATERIALS Supplementary material for this article is available at http://advances.sciencemag.org/cgi/ content/full/3/7/e1700782/DC1 Plastic waste generation and fate fig. S1. Global primary plastics production (in million metric tons) according to industrial use Plastics use was characterized by discretized log-normal distributions, sector from 1950 to 2015. LTD (j), which denotes the fraction of plastics in industrial use sector i i fig. S2. Global primary plastics production (in million metric tons) according to polymer type used for j years (Fig. 1). Mean values and SDs were gathered from pub- from 1950 to 2015. fig. S3. Global primary plastics waste generation (in million metric tons) according to industrial lished literature (table S4) (22, 25–29). Product lifetimes may vary sig- use sector from 1950 to 2015. nificantly across economies and also across demographic groups, fig. S4. Global primary plastics waste generation (in million metric tons) according to polymer which is why distributions were used and sensitivity analysis was con- type from 1950 to 2015. ducted with regard to mean product lifetimes. The total amount of fig. S5. Estimated percentage of global (nonfiber) plastic waste recycled, incinerated, and discarded from 1950 to 2014 [(12, 13, 34–42) and table S7]. primary plastic waste generated in year t was calculated as PW (t)= 8 65 fig. S6. Annual global primary and secondary plastic waste generation TW (t), recycling RW (t), ∑ ∑ P ðt  jÞ∙LTD ðjÞ (figs. S3 and S4). Secondary plastic waste i i i¼1 j¼1 incineration IW (t), and discard DW (t) (in million metric tons) from 1950 to 2014. generated in year t was calculated as the fraction of total plastic waste that fig. S7. Projection of global trends in recycling, incineration, and discard of plastic waste from was recycled k years ago, SW (t)=[PW(t − k)+SW (t − k)][RR (t − k)], 1980 to 2014 (to the left of vertical black line) to 2050 (to the right of vertical black line). where k is the average use time of secondary plastics and RR (t − k)is table S1. Annual global polymer resin and fiber production in million metric tons (12–15). table S2. Share of total polymer resin production according to polymer type and industrial use the global recycling rate in year t − k. Amounts of plastic waste discarded sector calculated from data for Europe, the United States, China, and India covering the period and incinerated are calculated as DW(t)=[PW(t)+SW(t) ∙ DR(t)and 2002–2014 (12, 13, 19–24). IW(t) = [PW(t) + SW(t)] ∙ IR(t), with DR(t) and IR(t) being the global table S3. Share of additive type in global plastics production from data covering the period discard and incineration rates in year t (fig. S5). Cumulative values at 2000–2014 (17, 18). table S4. Baseline mean values and SDs used to generate log-normal product lifetime time T were calculated as the sum over all T − 1950 years of plastics mass distributions for the eight industrial use sectors used in this study (22, 25–29). production. Examples are cumulative primary production CP ðTÞ¼ table S5. Global primary plastics production and primary waste generation (in million metric ∑ P ðtÞ and cumulative primary plastic waste generation, t¼1950 tons) in 2015 according to industrial use sector. CPWðTÞ¼ ∑ PWðtÞ (Fig. 3). table S6. Global primary plastics production and primary waste generation (in million metric t¼1950 tons) in 2015 according to polymer type/additive. table S7. Additional data sources for U.S. plastics recycling and incineration. Recycling, incineration, and discard rates table S8. Complete list of data sources. 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Production, use, and fate of all plastics ever made

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SCIENCE ADVANCES RESEARCH ARTICLE PLASTICS Copyright © 2017 The Authors, some rights reserved; exclusive licensee American Association 1 2 3 Roland Geyer, * Jenna R. Jambeck, Kara Lavender Law for the Advancement of Science. No claim to Plastics have outgrown most man-made materials and have long been under environmental scrutiny. However, original U.S. Government robust global information, particularly about their end-of-life fate, is lacking. By identifying and synthesizing dis- Works. Distributed persed data on production, use, and end-of-life management of polymer resins, synthetic fibers, and additives, we under a Creative present the first global analysis of all mass-produced plastics ever manufactured. We estimate that 8300 million Commons Attribution metric tons (Mt) as of virgin plastics have been produced to date. As of 2015, approximately 6300 Mt of plastic waste NonCommercial had been generated, around 9% of which had been recycled, 12% was incinerated, and 79% was accumulated in land- License 4.0 (CC BY-NC). fills or the natural environment. If current production and waste management trends continue, roughly 12,000 Mt of plastic waste will be in landfills or in the natural environment by 2050. INTRODUCTION density polyethylene (PE), low-density and linear low-density PE, A world without plastics, or synthetic organic polymers, seems un- polypropylene (PP), polystyrene (PS), polyvinylchloride (PVC), poly- imaginable today, yet their large-scale production and use only dates ethylene terephthalate (PET), and PUR resins; and polyester, poly- back to ~1950. Although the first synthetic plastics, such as Bakelite, amide, and acrylic (PP&A) fibers. The pure polymer is mixed with appeared in the early 20th century, widespread use of plastics outside additives to enhance the properties of the material. of the military did not occur until after World War II. The ensuing rapid growth in plastics production is extraordinary, surpassing most other man-made materials. Notable exceptions are materials that are RESULTS AND DISCUSSION used extensively in the construction sector, such as steel and cement Global production of resins and fibers increased from 2 Mt in 1950 to (1, 2). 380 Mt in 2015, a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 8.4% Instead, plastics’ largest market is packaging, an application whose (table S1), roughly 2.5 times the CAGR of the global gross domestic growth was accelerated by a global shift from reusable to single-use product during that period (12, 13). The total amount of resins and fi- containers. As a result, the share of plastics in municipal solid waste bers manufactured from 1950 through 2015 is 7800 Mt. Half of this— (by mass) increased from less than 1% in 1960 to more than 10% by 3900 Mt—was produced in just the past 13 years. Today, China alone 2005 in middle- and high-income countries (3). At the same time, accounts for 28% of global resin and 68% of global PP&A fiber pro- global solid waste generation, which is strongly correlated with gross duction (13–15). Bio-based or biodegradable plastics currently have national income per capita, has grown steadily over the past five dec- a global production capacity of only 4 Mt and are excluded from this ades (4, 5). analysis (16). The vast majority of monomers used to make plastics, such as eth- We compiled production statistics for resins, fibers, and additives ylene and propylene, are derived from fossil hydrocarbons. None of the from a variety of industry sources and synthesized them according to commonly used plastics are biodegradable. As a result, they accumu- type and consuming sector (table S2 and figs. S1 and S2) (12–24). Data late, rather than decompose, in landfills or the natural environment (6). on fiber and additives production are not readily available and have The only way to permanently eliminate plastic waste is by destructive typically been omitted until now. On average, we find that nonfiber thermaltreatment,suchascombustionorpyrolysis.Thus,near-permanent plastics contain 93% polymer resin and 7% additives by mass. When contamination of the natural environment with plastic waste is a grow- including additives in the calculation, the amount of nonfiber plastics ing concern. Plastic debris has been found in all major ocean basins (6), (henceforth defined as resins plus additives) manufactured since 1950 with an estimated 4 to 12 million metric tons (Mt) of plastic waste increases to 7300 Mt. PP&A fibers add another 1000 Mt. Plasticizers, generated on land entering the marine environment in 2010 alone fillers, and flame retardants account for about three quarters of all ad- (3). Contamination of freshwater systems and terrestrial habitats is ditives (table S3). The largest groups in total nonfiber plastics produc- also increasingly reported (7–9), as is environmental contamination with tion are PE (36%), PP (21%), and PVC (12%), followed by PET, PUR, synthetic fibers (9, 10). Plastic waste is now so ubiquitous in the and PS (<10% each). Polyester, most of which is PET, accounts for environment that it has been suggested as a geological indicator of the 70% of all PP&A fiber production. Together, these seven groups ac- proposed Anthropocene era (11). count for 92% of all plastics ever made. Approximately 42% of all non- We present the first global analysis of all mass-produced plastics fiber plastics have been used for packaging, which is predominantly ever made by developing and combining global data on production, composed of PE, PP, and PET. The building and construction sector, use, and end-of-life fate of polymer resins, synthetic fibers, and addi- which has used 69% of all PVC, is the next largest consuming sector, tives into a comprehensive material flow model. The analysis includes using 19% of all nonfiber plastics (table S2). thermoplastics, thermosets, polyurethanes (PURs), elastomers, coatings, We combined plastic production data with product lifetime distri- and sealants but focuses on the most prevalent resins and fibers: high- butions for eight different industrial use sectors, or product categories, to model how long plastics are in use before they reach the end of their Bren School of Environmental Science and Management, University of California, useful lifetimes and are discarded (22, 25–29). We assumed log- Santa Barbara, Santa Barbara, CA 93106, USA. College of Engineering, University normal distributions with means ranging from less than 1 year, for of Georgia, 412 Driftmier Engineering Center, Athens, GA 30602, USA. Sea Edu- packaging, to decades, for building and construction (Fig. 1). This is cation Association, Woods Hole, MA 02543, USA. *Corresponding author. Email: geyer@bren.ucsb.edu a commonly used modeling approach to estimating waste generation Geyer, Jambeck, Law Sci. Adv. 2017; 3 : e1700782 19 July 2017 1of5 | SCIENCE ADVANCES RESEARCH ARTICLE Fig. 1. Product lifetime distributions for the eight industrial use sectors plotted as log-normal probability distribution functions (PDF). Note that sectors other and textiles have the same PDF. Fig. 2. Global production, use, and fate of polymer resins, synthetic fibers, and additives (1950 to 2015; in million metric tons). for specific materials (22, 25, 26). A more direct way to measure plastic By the end of 2015, all plastic waste ever generated from primary waste generation is to combine solid waste generation data with waste plastics had reached 5800 Mt, 700 Mt of which were PP&A fibers. characterization information, as in the study of Jambeck et al. (3). There are essentially three different fates for plastic waste. First, it However, for many countries, these data are not available in the detail can be recycled or reprocessed into a secondary material (22, 26). and quality required for the present analysis. Recycling delays, rather than avoids, final disposal. It reduces future We estimate that in 2015, 407 Mt of primary plastics (plastics plastic waste generation only if it displaces primary plastic production manufactured from virgin materials) entered the use phase, whereas (30); however, because of its counterfactual nature, this displacement 302 Mt left it. Thus, in 2015, 105 Mt were added to the in-use stock. is extremely difficult to establish (31). Furthermore, contamination For comparison, we estimate that plastic waste generation in 2010 was and the mixing of polymer types generate secondary plastics of limited 274 Mt, which is equal to the independently derived estimate of or low technical and economic value. Second, plastics can be destroyed 275 Mt by Jambeck et al. (3). The different product lifetimes lead to thermally. Although there are emerging technologies, such as pyrolysis, a substantial shift in industrial use sector and polymer type between which extracts fuel from plastic waste, to date, virtually all thermal plastics entering and leaving use in any given year (tables S4 and S5 destruction has been by incineration, with or without energy recovery. and figs. S1 to S4). Most of the packaging plastics leave use the same The environmental and health impacts of waste incinerators strongly year they are produced, whereas construction plastics leaving use were depend on emission control technology, as well as incinerator design produced decades earlier, when production quantities were much and operation. Finally, plastics can be discarded and either contained lower. For example, in 2015, 42% of primary nonfiber plastics produced in a managed system, such as sanitary landfills, or left uncontained in (146 Mt) entered use as packaging and 19% (65 Mt) as construction, open dumps or in the natural environment. whereas nonfiber plastic waste leaving use was 54% packaging (141 Mt) We estimate that 2500 Mt of plastics—or 30% of all plastics ever and only 5% construction (12 Mt). Similarly, in 2015, PVC accounted produced—are currently in use. Between 1950 and 2015, cumulative for 11% of nonfiber plastics production (38 Mt) and only 6% of non- waste generation of primary and secondary (recycled) plastic waste fiber plastic waste generation (16 Mt). amounted to 6300 Mt. Of this, approximately 800 Mt (12%) of plastics Geyer, Jambeck, Law Sci. Adv. 2017; 3 : e1700782 19 July 2017 2of5 | SCIENCE ADVANCES RESEARCH ARTICLE Fig. 3. Cumulative plastic waste generation and disposal (in million metric tons). Solid lines show historical data from 1950 to 2015; dashed lines show projections of historical trends to 2050. have been incinerated and 600 Mt (9%) have been recycled, only 10% recycled, 12,000 Mt incinerated, and 12,000 Mt discarded in landfills of which have been recycled more than once. Around 4900 Mt—60% or the natural environment (Fig. 3). of all plastics ever produced—were discarded and are accumulating in Any material flow analysis of this kind requires multiple assump- landfills or in the natural environment (Fig. 2). Of this, 600 Mt were tions or simplifications, which are listed in Materials and Methods, PP&A fibers. None of the mass-produced plastics biodegrade in any and is subject to considerable uncertainty; as such, all cumulative results meaningful way; however, sunlight weakens the materials, causing are rounded to the nearest 100 Mt. The largest sources of uncertainty fragmentation into particles known to reach millimeters or micro- are the lifetime distributions of the product categories and the plastic meters in size (32). Research into the environmental impacts of these incineration and recycling rates outside of Europe and the United States. “microplastics” in marine and freshwater environments has accelerated Increasing/decreasing the mean lifetimes of all product categories by in recent years (33), but little is known about the impacts of plastic 1 SD changes the cumulative primary plastic waste generation (for 1950 to waste in land-based ecosystems. 2015) from 5900 to 4600/6200 Mt or by −4/+5%. Increasing/decreasing Before 1980, plastic recycling and incineration were negligible. Since current global incineration and recycling rates by 5%, and adjusting the then, only nonfiber plastics have been subject to significant recycling time trends accordingly, changes the cumulative discarded plastic waste efforts. The following results apply to nonfiber plastic only: Global recy- from 4900 (for 1950 to 2015) to 4500/5200 Mt or by −8/+6%. cling and incineration rates have slowly increased to account for 18 and The growth of plastics production in the past 65 years has substan- 24%, respectively, of nonfiber plastic waste generated in 2014 (figs. S5 tially outpaced any other manufactured material. The same properties and S6). On the basis of limited available data, the highest recycling that make plastics so versatile in innumerable applications—durability rates in 2014 were in Europe (30%) and China (25%), whereas in the and resistance to degradation—make these materials difficult or im- United States, plastic recycling has remained steady at 9% since 2012 possible for nature to assimilate. Thus, without a well-designed and (12, 13, 34–36). In Europe and China, incineration rates have increased tailor-made management strategy for end-of-life plastics, humans over time to reach 40 and 30%, respectively, in 2014 (13, 35). However, are conducting a singular uncontrolled experiment on a global scale, in the United States, nonfiber plastics incineration peaked at 21% in in which billions of metric tons of material will accumulate across all 1995 before decreasing to 16% in 2014 as recycling rates increased, with major terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems on the planet. The relative discard rates remaining constant at 75% during that time period (34). advantages and disadvantages of dematerialization, substitution, reuse, Waste management information for 52 other countries suggests that in material recycling, waste-to-energy, and conversion technologies must 2014, the rest of the world had recycling and incineration rates similar be carefully considered to design the best solutions to the environmental to those of the United States (37). To date, end-of-life textiles (fiber challenges posed by the enormous and sustained global growth in products) do not experience significant recycling rates and are thus plastics production and use. incinerated or discarded together with other solid waste. Primary plastics production data describe a robust time trend throughout its entire history. If production were to continue on this MATERIALS AND METHODS curve, humankind will have produced 26,000 Mt of resins, 6000 Mt of Plastic production PP&A fibers, and 2000 Mt of additives by the end of 2050. Assuming The starting point of the plastic production model is global annual consistent use patterns and projecting current global waste manage- pure polymer (resin) production data from 1950 to 2015, published ment trends to 2050 (fig. S7), 9000 Mt of plastic waste will have been by the Plastics Europe Market Research Group, and global annual Geyer, Jambeck, Law Sci. Adv. 2017; 3 : e1700782 19 July 2017 3of5 | SCIENCE ADVANCES RESEARCH ARTICLE fiber production data from 1970 to 2015 published by The Fiber Year Time series for global recycling, incineration, and discard rates (fig. S5) and Tecnon OrbiChem (table S1). The resin data closely follow a were derived by adding the rates of the four regions weighted by their second-order polynomial time trend, which generated a fit of R = relative contribution to global plastic waste generation. In many world 0.9968. The fiber data closely follow a third-order polynomial time regions, waste management data were sparse and of poor quality. For trend, which generated a fit of R = 0.9934. Global breakdowns of total this reason, sensitivity analysis with regard to waste management rates production by polymer type and industrial use sector were derived was conducted. from annual market and polymer data for North America, Europe, The resulting global nonfiber recycling rate increased at a constant China, and India (table S2) (12, 13, 19–24). U.S. and European data 0.7% per annum (p.a.) between 1990 and 2014. If this linear trend is are available for 2002 to 2014. Polymer type and industrial use sector assumed to continue, the global recycling rate would reach 44% in breakdowns of polymer production are similar across countries 2050. The global nonfiber incineration rate has grown more unevenly and regions. but, on average, increased 0.7% p.a. between 1980 and 2014. Assuming Global additives production data, which are not publicly available, an annual increase of 0.7% between 2014 and 2050 yielded a global were acquired from market research companies and cross-checked for incineration rate of 50% by 2050. With those two assumptions, global consistency (table S3) (17, 18). Additives data are available for 2000 to discard rate would decrease from 58% in 2014 to 6% in 2050 (fig. S7). 2014. Polymer type and industrial use sector breakdowns of polymer The dashed lines in Fig. 3 are based on those assumptions and there- production and the additives to polymer fraction were both stable over fore simply forward projections of historical global trends and should the time period for which data are available and thus assumed con- not be mistaken for a prediction or forecast. There is currently no sig- stant throughout the modeling period of 1950–2015. Any errors in nificant recycling of synthetic fibers. It was thus assumed that end-of- the early decades were mitigated by the lower production rates in those life textiles are incinerated and discarded together with all other years. Additives data were organized by additive type and industrial municipal solid waste. use sector and integrated with the polymer data. P (t) denotes the amount of primary plastics (that is, polymers plus additives) produced in year t and used in sector i (fig. S1). SUPPLEMENTARY MATERIALS Supplementary material for this article is available at http://advances.sciencemag.org/cgi/ content/full/3/7/e1700782/DC1 Plastic waste generation and fate fig. S1. Global primary plastics production (in million metric tons) according to industrial use Plastics use was characterized by discretized log-normal distributions, sector from 1950 to 2015. LTD (j), which denotes the fraction of plastics in industrial use sector i i fig. S2. Global primary plastics production (in million metric tons) according to polymer type used for j years (Fig. 1). Mean values and SDs were gathered from pub- from 1950 to 2015. fig. S3. Global primary plastics waste generation (in million metric tons) according to industrial lished literature (table S4) (22, 25–29). Product lifetimes may vary sig- use sector from 1950 to 2015. nificantly across economies and also across demographic groups, fig. S4. Global primary plastics waste generation (in million metric tons) according to polymer which is why distributions were used and sensitivity analysis was con- type from 1950 to 2015. ducted with regard to mean product lifetimes. The total amount of fig. S5. Estimated percentage of global (nonfiber) plastic waste recycled, incinerated, and discarded from 1950 to 2014 [(12, 13, 34–42) and table S7]. primary plastic waste generated in year t was calculated as PW (t)= 8 65 fig. S6. Annual global primary and secondary plastic waste generation TW (t), recycling RW (t), ∑ ∑ P ðt  jÞ∙LTD ðjÞ (figs. S3 and S4). Secondary plastic waste i i i¼1 j¼1 incineration IW (t), and discard DW (t) (in million metric tons) from 1950 to 2014. generated in year t was calculated as the fraction of total plastic waste that fig. S7. Projection of global trends in recycling, incineration, and discard of plastic waste from was recycled k years ago, SW (t)=[PW(t − k)+SW (t − k)][RR (t − k)], 1980 to 2014 (to the left of vertical black line) to 2050 (to the right of vertical black line). where k is the average use time of secondary plastics and RR (t − k)is table S1. Annual global polymer resin and fiber production in million metric tons (12–15). table S2. Share of total polymer resin production according to polymer type and industrial use the global recycling rate in year t − k. Amounts of plastic waste discarded sector calculated from data for Europe, the United States, China, and India covering the period and incinerated are calculated as DW(t)=[PW(t)+SW(t) ∙ DR(t)and 2002–2014 (12, 13, 19–24). IW(t) = [PW(t) + SW(t)] ∙ IR(t), with DR(t) and IR(t) being the global table S3. Share of additive type in global plastics production from data covering the period discard and incineration rates in year t (fig. S5). Cumulative values at 2000–2014 (17, 18). table S4. Baseline mean values and SDs used to generate log-normal product lifetime time T were calculated as the sum over all T − 1950 years of plastics mass distributions for the eight industrial use sectors used in this study (22, 25–29). production. Examples are cumulative primary production CP ðTÞ¼ table S5. Global primary plastics production and primary waste generation (in million metric ∑ P ðtÞ and cumulative primary plastic waste generation, t¼1950 tons) in 2015 according to industrial use sector. CPWðTÞ¼ ∑ PWðtÞ (Fig. 3). table S6. Global primary plastics production and primary waste generation (in million metric t¼1950 tons) in 2015 according to polymer type/additive. table S7. Additional data sources for U.S. plastics recycling and incineration. Recycling, incineration, and discard rates table S8. Complete list of data sources. 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