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How Much Plastic Have Humans Created?

New research shows that humans have produced over 8 billion tons of plastic since 1950 -- and most of that plastic has been discarded, not recycled. The 2017 study published in the journal Science Advances found that about half of that amount was manufactured in the past 13 years alone, fueled significantly by China’s emerging economy. China is now the world’s largest producer of plastic, and also one of the world’s largest plastic recyclers. China recycles 25 percent of its plastic products, compared to only 9 percent of plastic being recycled in the United States.

The long life of plastic:

  • Only about 2 billion tons of those plastic products are still in use, the Washington Post reports. And 90 percent of recycled plastic only gets recycled once.
  • More than 250,000 tons of plastic are now floating in Earth's oceans, much of it in the form of tiny pieces that can easily be carried by currents -- and harmfully consumed by sea creatures and birds.
  • Plastic takes more than 400 years to degrade, so most of it still exists in some form. Only 12 percent has been incinerated, which presents its own set of ecological issues.
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