Image credit: UC Santa Barbara/University of GeorgiaImage credit: UC Santa Barbara/University of GeorgiaTake a guess: How much plastic have humans created since the early 1950s, when large-scale production first began?

The answer might be higher, and more jarring, than you might think. Here’s a hint -- it’s enough to cover the entire country of Argentina, a little over one million square miles. That’s roughly one-quarter of the size of the U.S.

According to a new study led by UC Santa Barbara industrial ecologist Roland Geyer, humans have created more than eight billion metric tons of plastic in the past six and a half decades or so – and most of it now resides either in landfills, or the natural environment.

"We cannot continue with business as usual unless we want a planet that is literally covered in plastic," said Geyer. “I hope this information will be used by policymakers to improve end-of-life management strategies for plastics.”

The study provides the first global analysis of the production, use and fate of all plastics ever made. Geyer and his team compiled production statistics for resins, fibers and additives from a variety of industry sources. They found that global plastic production has outgrown most other human-made materials. Steel and cement are exceptions – but these are materials used primarily for construction, where they will see decades of use. Plastic, by contrast, is made primarily for packaging – where it gets used once, and then thrown away. According to Geyer, half of all plastics become waste after four years of use, or less.

Moreover, the pace of plastic production has shown no signs of slowing down. Roughly half of the total amount of plastic resins and fibers produced from 1950-2015 was produced in the 2000s.

Image credit: UC Santa Barbara/University of GeorgiaImage credit: UC Santa Barbara/University of GeorgiaPerhaps you’re wondering if most of that plastic doesn’t get recycled. According to the research, humans had produced 6.3 billon tons of plastic waste by 2015. Of that total, only 9 percent was recycled, 12 percent was incinerated and 79 percent accumulated in landfills or the natural environment. If current trends continue, Geyer noted, there will be roughly 12 billion metric tons of plastic waste taking up landfill or natural environment space by 2050.

And just to put that in a little perspective, that’s more than the weight of 36 Empire State Buildings.

"Most plastics don't biodegrade in any meaningful sense, so the plastic waste humans have generated could be with us for hundreds or even thousands of years," said co-author Jenna Jambeck, an associate professor of engineering at the University of Georgia. "Our estimates underscore the need to think critically about the materials we use and our waste management practices."

Noting that there are areas where plastics are indispensable, such as the medical industry, the researchers note that they do not seek to eliminate plastic from the marketplace. Rather, they advocate a more critical examination of its use.

“What we are trying to do is to create the foundation for sustainable materials management," Geyer added. "Put simply, you can't manage what you don't measure, and so we think policy discussions will be more informed and fact-based now that we have these numbers."