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Roland Geyer

Published On


Page Range

pp. 213-220

Print Length

7 pages

Earth and Plastic

In summer 1970, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology conducted a ground-breaking computer simulation to study the interactions between humans and the environment. The project examined what could happen to the planet's resources as a result of exponential growth in the population. Results, published in a controversial 1972 book entitled The Limits to Growth, showed dire prognoses about the consequences of the continued growth of the human population and the global economy. Today, nearly half a century after the MIT study, there is growing consensus that environmental pollution caused by wastes and emissions is of far greater concern than depletion of non-renewable resources. Fossil fuels are a case in point – the true environmental constraint on the burning of fossil fuels is not its depletion, but the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) released into the environment. In turn, not all fossil fuels are burned – today, 14% of oil production and 8% of natural gas extraction is used to make petrochemicals, such as plastics and fertilizers. In this chapter, Geyer outlines the growth of the plastics industry – an industry that is barely seventy years old, but which has expanded drastically in the last decades: half of all plastic ever made by humankind was produced in just the last thirteen years. Since conventional plastic polymers don’t biodegrade, but rather disperse into the environment as micro-plastics, wherever we look for plastic we find it – arctic sea ice, rain, tap water, bottled water, beer. Geyer examines the full extent of the environmental damage caused by plastic waste, outlines how traditional approaches to solid waste management are unable to cope with the ever-growing amount of this waste, and proposes several alternative solutions for waste management. The chapter calls for substantial reductions in the amount of materials we produce and use in general, in order to avoid further increases of CO2 in the atmosphere, plastic in the oceans and nitrogen in our estuaries and coastal waters.


Roland Geyer

University of California Santa Barbara