by George Stubbs
Sometimes, to make a point, proponents of a particular position will supply analogies, numbers, or statistics that are designed to dazzle you into agreement. “Millions of dollars spent on lobbying”; “thousands of birds killed by wind farms”; the numbers can sound impressive, but without some context, it’s sometimes hard to know what the real level of concern is, or how outraged we should feel.
Then an analogy or a stat comes along and pops your eyes wide open, and context seems to matter less. If true, the claim is stunning and almost unbelievable. Except when it is totally believable.
The Associated Press reported on July 19 the findings of a study concluding that the volume of plastic waste generated to date around the world could bury Manhattan in a pile of waste that is two miles deep. That’s nearly six times as high as the new World Trade Center in downtown Manhattan, from the base to the tip of the tower.
Remember when comedian Steven Wright quipped, “It’s a small world—but I wouldn’t want to paint it”? Perhaps burying Manhattan in two miles of plastic isn’t so impressive in the scheme of things to some people, but I wouldn’t want to be the one tasked with finding a responsible way of disposing of all that waste.
The study cited by AP was conducted by researchers at the Bren School if Environmental Science and Management at the University of California-Santa Barbara, the College of Engineering at the University of Georgia, and the Sea Education Association at Woods Hole. It was published in the July 19 issue of journal Science Advances. (Atlantic monthly recently published an article on the same study.)
The researchers estimate that, of the 9.1 billion tons of plastic that have been produced, nearly 7 billion tons are no longer in use. They also found that only 9 percent of that plastic waste has been recycled, while another 12 percent has been incinerated. That leaves 5.5 billion tons of plastic waste that has been disposed of in landfills or has simply been recklessly tossed aside, on land and in the water, including our oceans.
The researchers based their findings on the plastics industry’s own data, as well as publicly available records. One key finding: The volume of plastics produced and discarded is increasing. Producers generated 448 million tons of plastic in 2015, more than twice the volume in 1998.
“The growth is astonishing, and it doesn’t look like it’s slowing down soon,” AP quoted industrial ecologist Roland Geyer of UC-Santa Barbara as saying. “At the current rate, we are really heading toward a plastic planet. It is something we need to pay attention to.”
Pay attention indeed. Geyer’s characteristic scientific conservatism notwithstanding, there’s quite a lot we know about the harm plastic waste is doing to the environment—and quite a lot we can do to reduce our own use of plastics. Switch to reusable cloth or canvas bags when shopping. Purchase a refillable water bottle. Select non-plastic packaging for as many goods as you can. You can do all this, and more, and it doesn’t have to mean a reduction in your standard of living.