The Royal Statistical Society has chosen a UCSB marine scientist’s finding as its International Statistic of the Year for 2018: 90.5 percent of plastics have never been recycled. Roland Geyer’s paper published last year in Science Advances analyzed plastic production to date and its place in the waste stream. Of the more than 8 billion metric tons of virgin plastic ever produced around the world, about 30 percent remains in use, the report states. Roughly 6.3 billion metric tons of waste was created as of 2015, and about 9 percent of that has been recycled, 12 percent incinerated, but 79 percent persists in landfills or the environment. At the current rate, 12 billion metric tons will be in landfills or strewn on land or water by 2050.
“We cannot continue with business as usual unless we want a planet that is literally covered in plastic,” Geyer told UCSB’s The Current when his paper was published in 2017. “This paper delivers hard data not only for how much plastic we’ve made over the years but also its composition and the amount and kind of additives that plastic contains. I hope this information will be used by policymakers to improve end-of-life management strategies for plastics.”
It was the citation of the statistic in a 2018 United Nations Environment report on single-use plastics that caught the judges’ attention. The 2017 paper, titled “Production, use, and fate of all plastics ever made,” was co-authored by Geyer, who teaches industrial ecology at UCSB’s Bren School; Jenna Jambeck of the University of Georgia; and Kara Lavender Law at the Sea Education Association in Woods Hole, Massachusetts.
The U.K.’s winning statistic was 27.8 percent, which represented the amount of solar energy produced on a sunny June 30, 2018, significant as it outpaced gas-generated electricity. Other “highly commended” stats in the contest’s second year were 9.5 percent (the reduction in “absolute poverty” worldwide over the past 10 years, indicating a halving of such poverty since 2008), $1.3 billion (Snapchat’s valuation loss within one day of a Kylie Jenner tweet), 6.4 percent (female directors in FTSE 250 companies), and 85.9 percent (British trains that ran on time, a low for the decade).