Few people consider used plastic to be a valuable global commodity. Yet China has imported 106 million tons of old bags, bottles, wrappers and containers worth $57.6 billion since 1992, the first year it disclosed data. So when the country announced last year that it finally had enough of everybody else’s junk, governments the world over knew they had a problem. They just didn’t know exactly how large it was.
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 visualise in the abstract. It’s 621,000 Tesla Model 3s. 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.