On October 30, 2020, a team of researchers published a study in the peer-reviewed journal Science Advances finding that the United States is the top generator of plastic waste in the world and potentially the third greatest source of ocean plastic pollution. Previous reports, including by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), identified that the United States’ plastic waste has been appropriately accounted for via landfilling and recycling processes. However, the new study makes use of updated waste generation and characterization data reported by the World Bank and US sources. It further takes into account illegal dumping within the US as well as the United States’ reliance on exporting the majority of its own plastic waste to countries that do not have adequate recycling infrastructure. Considering all of this, this study challenges the previous narrative and identifies the US as a leading country responsible for increasing global ocean plastic pollution.
The authors report that according to “both the World Bank estimate (34.0 Mt) and our refined U.S. estimate (42.0 Mt), in 2016, the U.S. population produced the largest mass of plastic waste of any country in the world and also had the largest annual per capita plastic waste generation of the top plastic waste–generating countries (>100 kg).” They further identify that “together with litter, the estimated amount of mismanaged plastic waste in the United States in 2016 was between 0.98 and 1.26 Mt, or 2.33 and 2.99% of plastic waste generated.” Of the approximately 50% of plastic waste collected in 2016 in the US for recycling, “more than 88% was exported to countries with greater than 20% inadequately managed waste.” Using these numbers, the authors conclude that based on their “upper-bound estimate, in 2016, the United States was the third largest contributor of mismanaged plastic waste to the coastal environment globally,” which represents “an 82 to 400% increase from the 2010 estimate.”
“For years, so much of the plastic we have put into the blue bin has been exported for recycling to countries that struggle to manage their own waste, let alone the vast amounts delivered from the United States,” lead author the study Kara Lavender Law told EcoWatch. “And when you consider how much of our plastic waste isn’t actually recyclable because it is low-value, contaminated or difficult to process, it’s not surprising that a lot of it ends up polluting the environment.”
The authors conclude that “the most straightforward way to reduce environmental inputs of plastic waste is to produce less, especially waste that is not practicably or economically recyclable, readily escapes to the environment, or is unnecessary.” They advocate that “waste reduction must begin with material, product, and packaging design that addresses end-of-life management, including an explicit cost for recovery and treatment.”
Law, K. et al. (October 30, 2020). “The United States’ contribution of plastic waste to land and ocean.” Science Advances
Olivia Rosane (November 3, 2020). “U.S. Leads the World in Plastic Waste, New Study Finds.” EcoWatch