This is our main data entry on plastics, with a particular focus on its pollution of the environment. The first synthetic plastic, Bakelite, was produced in 1907 and is said to mark the beginning of the global plastics industry. However, the rapid growth in global plastic production was not achieved until the 1950s. Over the next 65 years, annual plastics production increased nearly 200 times to 381 million tons in 2015. For context, this is roughly equivalent to the mass of two-thirds of the world's population.
- Plastic pollution is having a negative impact on our oceans and the health of wildlife. There have been many cases of marine impacts.
- High-income countries tend to generate more plastic waste per person.
- However, the way plastic waste is managed determines its risk of entering the ocean. High-income countries have very effective waste management systems; Therefore, poorly managed waste (and ocean inputs) are low. Poor waste management in many low- and middle-income countries means they dominate the sources of global ocean plastic pollution.
- This makes improving waste management systems around the world critical to tackling plastic pollution. Overall, about 80 percent of ocean plastics come from land-based sources and 20 percent from marine sources. But, in particular regions, marine sources can dominate. More than half of the plastics in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP) come from fishing nets, ropes and lines.
- It is also important to note that plastic is a unique material with many benefits: it is cheap, versatile, lightweight, and strong. This makes it a valuable material for many functions. It can also provide environmental benefits through certain supply chains: it plays a critical role in maintaining food quality, safety, and preventing waste. Trade-offs between plastics and substitutes (or outright bans) are therefore complex and could lead to negative environmental impacts
World plastic production
How much plastic does the world produce? In the table below we see the evolution of the annual world plastic production, measured in tons per year. This is shown from 1950 to 2015.
In 1950, the world produced only 2 million tons per year. Since then, annual production has increased nearly 200 times, reaching 381 million tonnes in 2015. For context, this is roughly equivalent to the mass of two-thirds of the world's population.
The brief downturn in annual production in 2009 and 2010 was predominantly the result of the 2008 global financial crisis - this dent is seen in several resource production / consumption metrics, including energy.
Use of plastics by sector
To which industries and product uses is the primary production of plastic allocated? In the table below we see the allocation of plastic production by sector for 2015.
Packaging was the dominant use of primary plastics, with 42 percent of plastics entering the use phase.6 Construction and construction was the second largest sector with 19 percent of the total. The primary production of plastic does not directly reflect the generation of plastic waste (as shown in the next section), as this is also influenced by the type of polymer and the useful life of the final product.
Plastic waste by sector
The table above shows the use of primary plastics by sector; In the table below we show these same sectors in terms of generation of plastic waste. The generation of plastic waste is strongly influenced by the primary use of plastic, but also by the useful life of the product.
Packaging, for example, has a very short "in use" shelf life (typically around 6 months or less). This is in contrast to buildings and construction, where the use of plastic has an average life of 35 years.7 Thus, packaging is the dominant generator of plastic waste, responsible for almost half of the world's total.
In 2015, the production of primary plastics was 407 million tons; about three-quarters (302 million tons) ended up as waste.