Now they know. By 2030, an estimated 111 million metric tons of used plastic will need to be buried or recycled somewhere else — or not manufactured at all. That's the conclusion of a new analysis of UN global trade data by University of Georgia researchers.
Everyone's bottles, bags and food packages add up. Factories have churned out a cumulative 8.3 billion metric tons of new plastic as of 2017, the same Georgia team reported last year. Even 1 million metric tons, the scale that this material trafficks in every year, is hard to visualize in the abstract. It's 621,000 Tesla Model 3s. It's 39 million bushels of corn kernels. The world’s 700 million iPhones make up roughly a tenth of a million metric tons.
Nearly four-fifths of all that plastic has been thrown into landfills or the environment. A tenth of it has been burned. Several million tons reach oceans every year, sullying beaches and poisoning vast reaches of the northern Pacific. Just 9 percent of the total plastic ever generated has been recycled. China took in just over half the annual total in 2016, or 7.4 million metric tons.
As the industry matured and the negative effects on public health and the environment became clear, China got more selective about the materials it was willing to buy. A "Green Fence" law enacted in 2013 kept out materials mixed with food, metals or other contaminants. Exports consequently dropped off from 2012 to 2013, a trend that continued until last year, when the world's biggest buyer warned that its scrap plastic purchases would stop altogether.
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