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How much is US responsible for plastic pollution? America is a top contributor to coastal environments, study says

Despite claiming a robust and accessible waste management system, the US produced more plastic waste in 2016 than any other country worldwide
(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

The US has earned the dubious distinction of being a top source of plastic pollution in coastal environments. It ranks as high as third among countries contributing to coastal plastic pollution when taking into account US’s scrap plastic exports as well as the latest figures on illegal dumping and littering in the country, according to scientists. 

Despite claiming a robust and accessible waste management system, the US generated about 42 million metric tons of plastic waste in 2016 – more than any other country in the world. The analysis suggests that between 0.14 and 0.41 million metric tons of this waste were illegally dumped in the US, with an additional 0.15 to 0.99 million metric tons of US waste mismanaged after it was shipped to other countries for recycling. The plastic waste inputs of the US to the coastal environment in 2016 were also among the highest in the world. After taking into account these factors, the team concludes that the US contributed up to five times more plastic waste to the coastal environment in 2016 than it did in 2010. 

The findings. published in the journal Science Advances, challenge the once-held assumption that the US is adequately ‘managing’ – that is, collecting and properly landfilling, recycling, or otherwise containing – its plastic waste, say experts from Sea Education Association, DSM Environmental Services, University of Georgia, and Ocean Conservancy.

United States’ contribution of plastic waste to land and ocean (Law et al., Science Advances, 2020)

“The US generates the most plastic waste of any other country in the world, but rather than looking at the problem in the eye, we have outsourced it to developing countries and become a top contributor to the ocean plastics crisis. The solution has to start at home. We need to create less, by cutting out unnecessary single-use plastics; we need to create better, by developing innovative new ways to package and deliver goods; and where plastics are inevitable, we need to drastically improve our recycling rates,” writes co-author Nick Mallos, senior director of Ocean Conservancy's Trash Free Seas program.

Countries with the highest plastic waste generation in 2016 (Science Advances)

The analysis

Scientists have documented the growing issue of ocean plastic pollution for decades, and a recent report estimated that about 710 million metric tons of plastic would enter the environment by 2040 even in a best-case scenario. To better understand the US contribution to this crisis, the researchers calculated plastic waste generation in 2016 for 217 countries using updated waste generation data by the World Bank, as well as additional US data assembled and analyzed by the Environmental Research & Educational Foundation. They also estimated the mass of plastic waste illegally dumped in the US with data from the cities of San Jose and Sacramento, California, and Columbus, Ohio.

The team found that while the US accounted for just 4% of the global population in 2016, it generated 17% of all plastic waste. On average, Americans generated nearly twice as much plastic waste per capita as residents of the EU.

More than half of all plastics collected for recycling (1.99 million metric tons of 3.91 million metric tons collected) in the US in 2016 were shipped abroad. The authors, who analyzed US’s 2016 plastic waste exports, found that over 88% of waste was shipped to countries struggling to effectively manage, recycle, or dispose of plastics, and between 15-25% was low-value or contaminated, meaning it was effectively unrecyclable. Taking these factors into account, the researchers estimated that up to 1 million metric tons of US-generated plastic waste ended up polluting the environment beyond its borders.

Women sorting plastic waste at a facility in Southeast Asia (Jenna Jambeck)

Using 2016 data, the paper also estimated that 2-3% of all plastic waste generated in the US – between 0.91 and 1.25 million metric tons – was either littered or illegally dumped into the environment domestically. Combined with waste exports, this implies that the US contributed up to 2.25 million metric tons of plastics into the environment. Of this, up to 1.5 million metric tons of plastics ended up in coastal environments (within 50 km of a coastline), where proximity to the shore increases the likelihood of plastics entering the ocean by wind or through waterways. This ranks the US as high as third globally in contributing to coastal plastic pollution.

“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 US. 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,” explains lead author Dr Kara Lavender Law, a research professor of oceanography at Sea Education Association. 

According to Natalie Starr, principal at DSM Environmental Services and a co-author of the study, it has been cheaper for the US to ship its recyclables abroad rather than handle them here at home for some time, but that has come at great cost to the environment. “We need to change the math by investing in recycling technologies and collection programs, as well as accelerating research and development to improve the performance and drive down the costs of more sustainable plastics and packaging alternatives to address the current challenge,” suggests Starr.