Each year, the Royal Statistical Society issues a list of notable statistics. Topping the list is the estimate that a whopping 90.5% of all plastics that have ever been produced have never been recycled. The statistic is from a research article published (actually in 2017) in the journal ScienceAdvances. Entitled, “Production, Use, and Fate of all plastics ever made“, the article consolidated data about the production, use, and end-of-life management of polymer resins, synthetic fibers, and additive to determine the total accumulation of plastic goods ever produced. The study found that 6300 metric tons of plastic waste has been produced of which only 9% has been recycled. Of that recycled amount, only 10% has been recycled more than one. The remaining waste has either been incinerated (12%) or tossed into a landfill or littered the environment (79%).
The statistic is significant as plastics have infiltrated all aspects of our world. For example, a substantial amount of plastics, ranging from macro (>25mm) to nano (<100nm) sizes, end up in marine ecosystems (see: Monitoring and Mapping Microplastics in Marine Ecosystems). The switch from wood to plastics for many aspects of the fishing industry also means that organisms can travel longer distances over the oceans. As plastics don’t degrade like wooden structures do, marine species can hitch rides across vast open oceans. A study that looking at tsunami debris from the 2011 Japan earthquake found over 300 marine species that were able to travel from the coastlines of Japan over to the western coast of the United States on various non-organic materials such as plastics, fiberglass, and metals.
Geyer, R., Jambeck, J. R., & Law, K. L. (2017). Production, use, and fate of all plastics ever made. Science advances, 3(7), e1700782.