About 5,000 billion plastic bags are consumed each year in the world and, like the bulk of plastic, a tiny proportion is recycled, says Tuesday the UN in a report pointing to a challenge of a “discouraging” scale.
In this document released on the occasion of World Environment Day, the UN notes that if current consumption patterns and waste management practices continue, there will be about 12 billion tonnes of plastic waste in the world, landfills and the environment by 2050. “The scale of the challenge is daunting,” says the UN. “Since the 1950s, plastic production has surpassed that of almost every other material.”
“Our oceans have been used as a landfill, causing choking of marine life and turning some marine areas into a plastic soup,” UN Environment chief Erik Solheim said in the report. “In some cities, plastic waste clogs pipes, which causes disease. Eaten by livestock, they find their way into the food chain,” he added.
The bulk of this waste is single-use plastics, such as plastic bottles, plastic caps, food packaging, supermarket plastic bags, plastic lids, straws, tumblers and take-out food containers, according to the the report. It is estimated that about 5,000 billion plastic bags are consumed worldwide each year, almost 10 million per minute.
“If they were tied together, they could circle the planet seven times every hour,” the report says. Furthermore, only 9% of the nine billion tons of plastic the world has ever produced has been recycled. A little more – 12% – was cremated.
The rest has ended in landfills, oceans, pipelines, where it will take thousands of years to completely decompose. In the meantime, it contaminates soil and water with microplastic particles, some of which have been found by the UN in commercial table salt.
Studies show, says the report, that 90% of bottled water and 83% of tap water contains plastic particles.
The UN welcomes a beginning of awareness of the scale of the problem, noting that more than 60 countries have adopted policies to reduce this pollution. But this is not enough, according to the UN, which advocates for better waste management, incentives to encourage consumers to change their consumption habits or even more research on alternative materials.
“We urgently need leadership and intervention from the government to cope with the rising tide of plastics,” the report says.