More than 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic has been created since plastic production began in the early 1950's. Of this staggering amount of plastic, comparable to the weight of 25,000 Empire State Buildings, 79% has ended up in the natural environment, where it will never break down.
Of the total amount of plastics produced since the 1950s, about half has been produced in the last 13 years. Plastic is only surpassed in global production by steel and concrete, both which have a far longer useful lifespan.
"Most plastics don't biodegrade in any meaningful sense, so the plastic waste humans have generated could be with us for hundreds or even thousands of years," said Jenna Jambeck, study co-author and associate professor of engineering at UGA.
When I was a little girl, my father took me to a terrible place.
It was 1975. I was four. We stopped in the middle of nowhere. In the trunk of our gas-guzzling Ford were garbage bags full of things no longer welcome in our lives. He hauled out the plastic bags, bulging with kitchen garbage; empty shampoo bottles; pantyhose with runs in them, even a dead mouse, its life sacrificed for a scrap of tainted cheese.
When I cried out, stunned by the crime he was about to commit, he said: This is the way it is done, and flung the bag away from him. It tumbled into the gaping maw of a savaged earth; a blight torn into the skin of the living world. It was November. The sky hung heavy and cold, layered in tired, leaden clouds limned by the waning light of a dull sun. Soon it was going to be my birthday; this was supposed to be an adventure. Other kids loved going to the dump to watch the garbage slide away; the gulls squabbling over scraps pulled from the rotting insides of the plastic's immortal skin. What was wrong with me, he asked as I wept. Why couldn't I be like normal kids?
I stared, stricken, at the horrorscape, its violence stretching as far as I could see. No trees, no grass, just mountains of stinking, decomposing refuse. On top of one of the slippery hills: a mattress, its springs seeking to escape its mouldy, sodden remains.
Our car idled on a dirt track mere feet from the shorn edge of the pit, the frozen mud riven with the treads of those who had come before us to unload their filthy cargoes. Perhaps they thought once they drove away their garbage would disappear as if by magic. But it hadn't. It remained, an underworld of remnants—temporary things once shiny and new, now valueless. A nuisance. I asked what would happen when the pit filled up. My father said they would dig out the land behind us. I turned. A forest. They would cut down the trees, I asked, to make—this?
Where else are we supposed to put our garbage? he asked.
Not here, I whispered. Not like this.
Forty-three years later, it is almost my birthday. I live by the sea in one of the 192 countries who, in 2010, contributed to the eight million metric tons of plastic waste dumped in the oceans and seas—into the Earth's most fragile repositories of life. The fatal consequences of our convenient, single-use plastic lifestyle far more devastating than the landfill horrors I witnessed as a child.
I stand on the shore and listen.
From under the suffocating weight of our plastic waste, the cries of the creatures of the sea rise in the wash of the waves.
Not here, they whisper. Not like this.