Plastics in numbers, An embarrassing contemplation

Author: Stephane Girois, Ph.D.

Plastics Consumption

Plastics have been around since WWII, and world production increased 20 fold between 1950 and 2010. It’s gone from a yearly 3.3 billion lbs. to 708 billion lbs. in 2015. North America alone accounts for about 20% of this production (similar to Europe).

The world of plastics became the obvious answer to the fast expanding demand for new technologies in our everyday lives. Scientists had to respond to issues related to the materials available at the time which were limited by their inherent performability (wood, metal, natural fibers, ceramics, and glass).

Plastics Consumption

Plastics Arena

New materials were needed that would bring infinite possibilities for different shapes, technical performances, and lower costs (see Part 1). Here are some of the main innovations associated with the introduction of plastics:

  • Food packaging that allows for long term food preservation
  • Weight is light when compared to metal (improving, for example, fuel efficiency of cars)
  • Sterile materials for medical applications
  • Infinite possibilities of shapes and colors (without paint)

Plastics can be shaped from a microfiber, with significantly better strength than any natural fiber, to create a one-piece car frame, as recently realized using 3D printing technologies (see picture below).

Plastics Arena

So here we are, producing in our Country today about 13 billion pounds of plastics each year. In terms of consumption, 45% of the plastic consumed in the US is used for packaging, with the rest going to building and construction, automotive, and electrical/electronic materials. Our daily life is so filled with plastics that we no longer pay attention to them. Below is a chart illustrating the individual plastics consumption rate over the last 25 years.

Plastics Arena

When Plastics Meet Our Trash

Our lives are filled with plastics, and so is our trash. In 2013, Americans generated about 560 billion lbs. of trash, a 68% increase from 1980. Per day, each person on average in the US creates 4.4 lbs. of trash, and plastics represent nearly 13% of it.

When Plastics Meet Our Trash

US Municipality Solid Waste, 2013

To summarize, we need plastics today to allow for a clean, safe, flexible, cheap, and fun way of life. We consume and trash at the same pace. Some interesting facts about our consumption and disposal of plastics:

  • According to the Environmental Protection Agency, over 380 billion plastic bags, sacks, and wraps are consumed in the U.S. each year.
  • Every year 5.3 billion lbs. of PETE plastic (category 1) are discarded in the U.S., with around 30% being water bottles.
  • Each year Americans throw away 25 billion Styrofoam cups (Polystyrene, category 6)

The question now is the following: What is happening to the 71 billion lbs. of plastics that we trash each year?

More to come in Part Three: The Dilemma of Plastic Waste.

More to read:

https://www.plasticsinsight.com

https://plastics.americanchemistry.com

http://www.plasticseurope.org

http://css.umich.edu/factsheets/municipal-solid-waste-factsheet

EPA website: https://www3.epa.gov

Stephane Girois, Ph.D.