Global plastics production, 1917 to 2050

Graph of global plastic production, 1917 to 2017
Global plastic production, megatonnes, 1917 to 2017

This week’s graph shows global annual plastics production over the past 100 years.  No surprise, we see exponential growth—a hallmark of our petro-industrial consumer civilization.  Long-term graphs of nearly anything (nitrogen fertilizer production, energy use, automobile productiongreenhouse gas emissions, air travel, etc.) display this same exponential take-off.

Plastics present a good news / bad news story.  First, we should acknowledge that the production capacities we’ve developed are amazing!  Worldwide, our factories now produce approximately 400 million tonnes of plastic per year.  That’s more than a billion kilograms per day!  Around the world we’ve built thousands of machines that can, collectively, produce plastic soft-drink and water bottles at a rate of nearly 20,000 per second.  Our economic engines are so powerful that we’ve managed to double global plastic production tonnage in less than two decades.

But of course that’s also the bad news: we’ve doubled plastic production tonnage in less than two decades.  And the world’s corporations and governments would have us go on doubling and redoubling plastics production.  The graph below shows the projected four-fold increase in production tonnage by 2050.

Graph of global plastics production to 2050
Projected global plastics production to 2050

Source: UN GRID-Arendal

Plastics are a product of human ingenuity and innovation—one of civilization’s great solutions.  They’re lightweight, durable, airtight, decay resistant, inexpensive, and moldable into a huge range of products.  But projected 2050 levels of production are clearly too much of a good thing.  Our growth-addicted economic system has a knack for turning every solution into a problem—every strength into a weakness.

At current and projected production levels, plastics are a big problem.  Briefly:

1.  Plastics are forever—well, almost.  Except for the tonnage we’ve incinerated, nearly all the plastic ever produced still exists somewhere in the biosphere, although much of it is now invisible to humans, reduced to tiny particles in ocean and land ecosystems.  Plastic is great because it lasts so long and resists decay.  Plastic is a big problem for those same reasons.

2. Only 18 percent of plastic is recycled.  This is the rate for plastics overall, including plastics in cars and buildings.  For plastic packaging (water bottles, chip bags, supermarket packaging, etc.) the recycling rate is just 14 percent.  But much of that plastic inflow is excluded during the sorting and recycling process, such that only 5 percent of plastic packaging material is  actually returned to use through recycling.   And one third of plastic packaging escapes garbage collection systems entirely and is lost directly into the environment: onto roadsides or into streams, lakes, and oceans.

3. Oceans are now receptacles for at least 8 billion kilograms of plastic annually—equivalent to a garbage truck full of plastic unloading into the ocean every minute.  The growth rates projected above will mean that by 2050 the oceans will be receiving the equivalent of one truckload of plastic every 15 second, night and day.  And unless we severely curtail plastic production and dumping, by 2050 the mass of plastic in our oceans will exceed the mass of fish.  Once in the ocean, plastics persist for centuries, in the form of smaller and smaller particles.  This massive contamination comes on top of other human impacts: overfishing, acidification, and ocean temperature increases.

4. Plastic is a fossil fuel product.  Plastic is made from oil and natural gas feedstocks—molecules extracted from the oil and gas become the plastic.  And oil, gas, and other energy sources are used to power the plastic-making processes.  By one estimate, 4 percent of global oil production is consumed as raw materials for plastic and an additional 4 percent provides energy to run plastics factories.

5. Plastics contain additives than harm humans and other species: fire retardants, stabilizers, antibiotics, plasticizers, pigments, bisphenol A, phthalates, etc.  Many such additives mimic hormones or disrupt hormone systems.  The 150 billion kilograms of plastics currently in the oceans includes 23 billion kgs of additives, all of which will eventually be released into those ocean ecosystems.

It’s important to think about plastics, not just because doing so shows us that we’re doing something wrong, but because the tragic story of plastics shows us why and how our production and energy systems go wrong.  The story of plastics reveals the role of exponential growth in turning solutions into problems.  Thinking about the product-flow of plastics (oil well … factory … store … home … landfill/ocean) shows us why it is so critical to adopt closed-loop recycling and highly effective product-stewardship systems.  And the entire plastics debacle illustrates the hidden costs of consumerism, the collateral damage of disposable products, and the failure of “the markets” to protect the planet.

In a recent paper that takes a big-picture, long-term look at plastics, scientists advise that “without a well-designed … management strategy for end-of-life plastics, humans are conducting a singular uncontrolled experiment on a global scale, in which billions of metric tons of material will accumulate across all major terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems on the planet.”

Graph sources:
• 1950 to 2015 data from Geyer, Jambeck, and Law, “Production, Use, and Fate of All Plastics Ever Made,” Science Advances 3, no. 7 (July 2017).
• 2016 and 2017 data points are extrapolated at a 4.3 percent growth rate derived from the average growth rate during the previous 20 years.
• Pre-1950 production tonnage is assumed to be negligible, based on various sources and the very low production rates in 1950.

Full-world economics and the destructive power of capital: Codfish catch data 1850 to 2000

Graph of North Atlantic cod fishery, fish landing in tonnes, 1850 to 2000
Codfish catch, North Atlantic, tonnes per year

Increasingly, the ideas of economists guide the actions of our elected leaders and shape the societies and communities in which we live.  This means that incorrect or outdated economic theories can result in damaging policy errors.  So we should be concerned to learn that economics has failed to take into account a key transition: from a world relatively empty of humans and their capital equipment to one now relatively full.

A small minority of economists do understand that we have made an important shift.  In the 1990s, Herman Daly and others developed the idea that we have shifted to “full-world economies.”  (See pages 29-40 here.)  The North Atlantic cod fishery illustrates this transition.  This week’s graph shows tonnes of codfish landed per year, from 1850 to 2000.

Fifty years ago, when empty-world economics still held, the fishery was constrained by a lack of human capital: boats, motors, and nets.  At that time, adding more human capital could have caused the catch to increase.  Indeed, that is exactly what happened in the 1960s when new and bigger boats with advanced radar and sonar systems were deployed to the Grand Banks and elsewhere.  The catch tripled.  The spike in fish landings is clearly visible in the graph above.

But in the 1970s and ’80s, a shift occurred: human capital stocks—those fleets of powerful, sonar-equipped trawlers—expanded so much that the limiting factor became natural capital: the supply of fish.  The fishery began to collapse and no amount of added human capital could reverse the decline.  The system had transitioned from one constrained by human capital to one constrained by natural capital—from empty-world to full-world economics.  A similar transition is now evident almost everywhere.

An important change has occurred.  Unfortunately, economics has not internalized or adapted to this change.  Economists, governments, and business-people still act as if the shortage is in human-made capital.  Thus, we continue our drive to amass capital—we expand our factories, technologies, fuel flows, pools of finance capital, and the size of our corporations, in order to further expand the quantity and potency of human-made capital stocks.  Indeed, this is a defining feature of our economies: the endless drive to expand and accumulate supplies of capital.  That is why our system is called “capitalism.”  And a focus on human-made capital was rational when it was in short supply.  But now, in most parts of the world, human capital is too plentiful and powerful and and, thus, destructive.  It is nature and natural capital that is now scarce and limiting.  This requires an economic and civilizational shift: away from a focus on amassing human capital and toward a focus on protecting and maximizing natural capital: forests, soils, water, fish, biodiversity, wild animal populations, a stable climate, and intact ecosystems.  Failure to make that shift will push more and more of the systems upon which humans depend toward a collapse that mirrors that of the cod stock.

Graph source:  United Nations GRID-Arendal, “Collapse of Atlantic cod stocks off the East Coast of Newfoundland in 1992