AP Photo/Arnulfo Franco
REUTERS/Antonio Bronic
AP Photo/Arnulfo Franco
Getty Images News/Mario Tama

Global plastic consumption is gargantuan. It needs to be discussed in terms of hundreds of years and billions of tons. But to most, those digits don't mean anything. They're incomprehensibly greater than any figures we use day-to-day. We can't help but struggle to understand the scale of the situation.

Take, for example, this mind-boggling statistic (pdf): The total amount of plastic ever created is 8.3 billion metric tons.

Recognizable analogies—it's the same mass as 1 billion elephants—result in similarly large and difficult-to-comprehend quantities. That's 2,500 times the number of elephants that actually exist.

Let's scale down. In 2015, about 407 million metric tons (pdf) of plastic was manufactured. That is the equivalent of roughly one cargo ship’s worth of plastic created every 30 minutes.

Now think about that pace of production over 20 years—every hour, two ships’ worth of plastic. That becomes about 8.3 billion metric tons, which is the total amount of plastic produced since the middle of the 20th century. Put another way, at this rate the world will create as much plastic in the next 20 years as it did in the prior 70.

Widespread use of plastic products only really kicked off after World War II. Since the 1950s, plastic production has outpaced any other material, and humanity has created so much that it's one of the defining factors of a new geological era.

It's not a long time, especially if you consider how long it takes for that plastic to break down. The rise and fall of the Roman Empire took around 500 years. It takes nearly that long for a single plastic bottle to biodegrade, estimates suggest (pdf).

If Shakespeare drank from plastic water bottles, we might still have them today.

Of those 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic in the world, 6.3 billion metric tons (pdf) has become waste.

On the cargo-ship amount of plastic that is created every 30 minutes, globally, 76% of it becomes waste, according to historical trends. Landfill and litter account for 79% of that refuse. Incinerators burn 12% of it and only about 9% gets recycled.

A lot of that waste ends up in the ocean. Each year, between 4.8 to 12.7 million metric tons (pdf) of plastic end up in the sea, according to a study of data from 2010. A value in the middle of that range—let's say 9 million metric tons—is roughly equivalent to 19 shipping containers of plastic dumped into the sea every 30 minutes, all year long.

Since the rate of global plastic production is increasing each year, the values are even greater now. By 2050, it is predicted (pdf) that current levels of plastic waste will double from the 6.3 billion metric tons already in existence, to 12 billion.