History of Plastic Production

Post-consumer Recycling

End of Life Plastic Distribution
Ocean and River Plastic Pollution
The Market for Post-Consumer plastic
Source Reduction
References and More Information

Trash: The People's Burden

Environmental Costs

 earth logoPlastic Planet

End Of Life Plastic Distibution

Of the over 500 billion pounds of new plastic manufactured each year, roughly 1/3 of that is single use and thrown away.

According to the EPA, 32 million tons of plastic waste was generated in 2011, representing 12.7 percent of total MSW (Municipal Solid Waste). Of the total plastic waste of 2011, only 8% was recovered for recycling.

7.7 percent is combusted in waste-to-energy facilities, which create electricity or heat from garbage.

MSW 2011plastic waste1

Where does the rest go?


 The plastics that are not either recycled or combusted end up in landfills where
they can take up to many years to decompose.
The United Nations estimates plastic accounts for four-fifths of the accumulated

garbage in the world's oceans. It’s estimated that there are also 100 millions tons of plastic    
debris floating around in the oceans threatening the health and safety of marine life.

    Much of the un-recycled, un-volatized plastics end up globally distributed in landfills. Burial of waste in landfills is the oldest form of solid waste management. Non-hazardous waste materials can be compacted and confined to an area of the lithosphere by covering in soil or other materials and compressed. The surface area of the Earth covered in Landfills in increasing as human production of non-recovered waste increases. Huge landfill complexes such cover thousands of acres, process thousands of tons of trash a day, and can house tens of millions of tons of trash in total.  One benefit of landfills is the containment of trash in localized areas instead of widespread accumulation of waste. However, Landfills are associated with multiple environmental and human health impacts.

    Groundwater contamination by toxic leachate, soil contamination, and generation of methane gas are environmental problems associated with landfills. Plastic burial in landfills is the equivalent of burying a source of energy. Therefore, landfills can be abundant sources of material. Waste Pickers, or catadores, seen in the documentary film WASTE LAND retrieve recyclable materials in Jardin Gramacho as a living.  The current market demand for post-cosumer plastic materials like PET and HDPE currently exceed the amount recovered for the waste stream. Tons of these retrieved plastics can be sold or used to make art, furniture, or jewelry. In the words of the catadore, 'o seu lixo e o meu luxo,' roughly translated as "your trash is our luxury."'

    The basics of landfill contruction involve a bottom liner, a leachate collection system, a cover, and a natural hydraulic system. Failure of any of these elements can lead to hazardous contamination. Landfills have a limited lifespan, as the plastic covers that prevent leaching eventually degrade. Landfills are often closed and replaced with newer, more modern options, as seen in the story of Bordo Poniente and Jardin Gramacho below. Problems occur when landfills are not properly maintained or use exceeds the proper lifespan.

There are tens of thousands of Landfills in the world (According to the EPA, the US has over 3,000 active landfills and 10,000 old municipal landfills).
We will focus of some of the largest in the World. For more information about landfill uses and hazardous Leachate systems visit Zero Waste America.

Bordo Mexico: Bordo Poniente
 Bordo Poniente, located in Mexico City, is of the largest landfills in the world with 76 million tons of trash was closed in 2012. Mexican officials are striving for a more “European style” of handling garbage to recycle,
burn and compost everything save a small fraction of the garbage that the city now generates. This does not necessarily act in the best interest of 1,500 trash pickers, or pepenadores, who rely on Bordo Poniente for picking valuables out of trash, including high-energy potential plastics.

Image Source: Climate Voices

JardinBrazil, Rio de Janiero:  Jardin Gramacho
Jardin Gramacho is one of the three largest landfills in the world and is the workplace of thousands of catadores. It is located in the wetlands of Guanabara Bay and has been closed since 2012 as part of an effort led by Rio’s state environment minister to close the five official open air landfills in Brazil as well as lesser known open air landfills by 2014 (CNN) replaced by more modern facilities to reduce environmental impact and reduce pollution into Guanabara Bay. 

Image Source: Business Insider

SudokwonSouth Korea: Sudokwon Landfill
The Sudokwon Landfill in South Korea is estimated to process 18,000 to 20,000 tons of MSW daily. The Sudokwon Landfill also collects released methane landfill gas to generate electricity. Interestingly, in South Korea, plans have been made to convert landfills to tourist attractions for the region. Golf, swimming, and equestrian events of the 2014 Incheon Asian Games are scheduled to be held at the Sudokwon landfill site.

Image Source: Waste Management World

More examples of the worlds largest landfills inclue Las Vegas' Apex Landfill, Los Angeles' Puente Hills, Kansas' Johnson County Landfill, Nigeria's Olusosun Landfill, India's Deonar Landfill, and China's Laogang Landfill. All of these landfill facilities receive thousands of tons of trash each day. Without scavengers or machinery to collect plastic, tons of unrecovered plastics would be burried in landfills. They study of landfills also allows exploration into the treatment of non-plastic MSW that represents the other 87% of municipal solid waste.

Ocean and River Plastic Pollution
United Nations that there is about 100 million tons of plastic debris in the ocean that accounts for four-fifths of total accumulated garbage in the world's oceans. Unlike Municipal Solid Waste, which is about 12% plastic, the majority of waste in the ocean and hydrosphere is plastic.
Plastic that accumulates in rivers leading to pollution that eventually, if not recovered, will be dumped into the ocean.
Plastic, once submerged in the ocean, follows oceanic currents and often ends up caught in oceanic gyres.

A scavenger collecting plastic in the Ciliwung river in Jakarta, Indonesia. Photograph: Ardiles Rante/EPA

What is an Oceanic Gyre?
    An Oceanic gyre is a large circulation feature found in Earth's major ocean basins. Subtropical gyres are centered in the subtropics, near 30 degrees lattitude. Subtropical         gyres rotate clockwise in the Northern hemisphere and counterclockwise in the Southern hemisphere. There are also subpolar gyres in the areas above 45 degrees N and S.         Subpolar gyres rotate counterclockwise in the Northern Hemisphere and clockwise in the Southern Hemisphere.

wind currentsImage source: Environmental Geology Textbook, Fall 2013

    The generation of the circulation of oceanic gyres is explained by the Ekman Spiral, which shows how the Coriolis effect of atmospheric circulation controls most of the  major features of surface ocean water circulation. The North Pacific ocean gyre is the most famous for being a "garbage patch" of plastic, but scientists now know that all of  oceanic gyres have accumulated plastic waste.
    Plastic in the ocean is very difficult to see because the density of plastic is such that it floats below the surface of the water, making it very difficult to visualize with satellite  imagery.

oceanplasImage source: Daily Galaxy

Plastic Degradation in Oceanic Gyres

    Once entering the ocean, most plastics break down slowly by photodegradation, oxidation, and mechanical weathering. Despite the fact that plastic degrades much more quickly in the ocean than scientists once thought, plastics tend to take much longer to degrade in water that on land due to reduced UV exposure & lower temps. This leads to a large amount of plastic that has mechanically been broken down to small pieces referred to as long-lasting plastic "confetti". Although plastic remains a polymer, it breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces, and as it does so, toxic compounds are released.

One scientist who studies plastic degradation in the gyres, Dr. Marcus Eriksen, sailed a vessel named "Junk" made out of plastic bottles from LA to Hawaii to research the problem and raise awareness. Learn more about his studies here.
Image Source: Ocean Motion

Plastic is a threat to Marine Life

Plastic in the oceans can be very detrimental to oceanic habitat. 44% of all seabirds eat plastic, which can be fatal, and 267 marine species in total are affected by plastic garbage every day. One salient example of this is a dead gray whale beached in WA that had "more than 20 plastic bags, small towels, surgical gloves, sweat pants, plastic pieces, duct tape, and a golf ball."
For more information about the environmental impacts of the plastic industry and plastic waste, visit the
Environmental Costs portion of this website.

The Market For Post-Consumer Plastic
PlasticsEurope explains the potential energy source of Plastics:
“At the end of their service life, plastics are still much too valuable a resource to be simply thrown away. They can be recycled back into their original forms or a new article and where this is not possible used for energy recovery as a substitute for virgin fossil fuels.”
According to the EPA, the markets for some recycled plastic resins, including PET and HDPE, are stable in the United States and have the potential to expand. This means that processing capacity of post-consumer plastics is currently greater that the actual amount of plastics that are recovered post-consumer. The American Chemistry Council cites PET resin demand stems mainly from carpet and textile fiber use, and HDPE resins are used for bottles. Other uses for PET and HDPE include fabric (such as fleece) production, and other moldable HDPE products such as furniture. There is a market demand both in the U.S. and Europe for materials made from post-consumer plastic.

market plastics
Recycled Plastics (published November 2012)
Bruce Parker, The CEO of The National Solid Wastes Management Assn. of Washington, explains it best: "Garbage is now more of a resource than a waste,"…"Landfills are still very, very important today, but we're doing so much more,"

Source Reduction

In response to growing awareness of plastic pollution of the hydrosphere, an effort has been made to reduce the amount of waste generated. According to the EPA, the plastics industry has succesfully been able to reduce the amount of material needed for conumer products; seen the the devlopment of thinner plastic bottles that signficantly decrease the amount of resin used. In addition, these lighter materials require less fuel to transport.

Some countries, such as Switzerland, Germany and Belgium, either recycle or incinerate (with energy recovery) practically all plastic waste, with very little going into land-fill.

References and More Information
For More Information, visit:

Plastics Europe
Columbia: What Happens to all that plastic?
Daily Galaxy: Oceanic Gyres
American Chemistry Council: Life cycle of Plastic
Worlds Biggest Dumps: Business Insider
Total Refining Chemicals: End of Life Plastics
Inspiration Green: Plastic Waste as Fuel
EPA: Plastic Materials
Waste Management World: Trashy Tourism
New York Times: Bordo Poniente Landfill Pickers
National Geographic: Plastic degradation in Oceans
Zero Waste America: Basics of Landfills
Packaging Digest: Demand for post consumer recycled plastics
Environmental Geology Textbook, The Hydrosphere. Dartmouth College Fall 2013

 End of Life Plastic Distribution: Shelby Hinds
Environmental Geology Fall 2013
Xiahong Feng