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The U.S. Is the World’s Number One Source of Plastic Waste

In 2016, the average American produced 286 pounds of plastic waste, the highest rate per capita of any country on Earth

Litter, much of it plastic, dots a beach in Santa Monica, CA, the morning after a beach cleanup. (Rafeed Hussain / Ocean Conservancy)
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A new study finds the United States may be responsible for as much as five times more plastic pollution than previously estimated, reports Veronica Penney for the New York Times.

The findings complicate the narrative that Asian countries, such as China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam, generate the majority of the world’s plastic pollution, reports Damian Carrington for the Guardian.

Previous work placed Asian countries atop a list of the world’s worst marine plastic polluters, but the new study published last week in the journal Science Advances better accounts for plastic waste the U.S. exports around the world as well as illegal dumping within its own borders.

While China remains the world’s largest producer of plastic, the researchers find that in 2016 the U.S. was the world’s number one source of plastic waste, loosing some 42 million metric tons into the global environment, reports Laura Parker for National Geographic. That’s nearly twice the tally of the next country on the list, India, which produced 26.3 metric tons of plastic waste that year. Americans also used more plastic per capita in 2016 than residents of any other country on the planet at roughly 286 pounds per person, per the study.

“Plastic pollution globally is at crisis level,” Nick Mallos, a conservation biologist specializing in ocean debris at the Ocean Conservancy and co-author of the new research, tells Justine Calma of the Verge. “Most problematic is that rather than looking the problem in the eye, for more than 30 years, [the U.S.] outsourced our waste problem to developing countries.”

Diagram illustrating study's main findings
Diagram illustrating some of the study's major findings regarding the United States' contributions to global plastic pollution in 2016. (Law et al., Sci. Adv. 2020)

Per the Times, because the U.S. lacks the waste management infrastructure to recycle all its plastic waste, the country sends around half of its recyclable materials overseas. Countries considered to have inadequate waste management infrastructure themselves receive 88 percent of that plastic waste.

“A country’s contribution to plastic pollution does not stop at its border,” Winnie Lau, a plastic pollution specialist at the Pew Trusts who was not involved in the research, tells the Guardian. “The export of plastic waste from the US, for example, can contribute substantially to the global ocean plastic problem, and this important research puts a number on just how much pollution that is.”

The study compiled World Bank data on waste streams from 217 countries, focusing on the U.S., and folded in data on littering and illegal dumping within the U.S. as well as the flow of exported plastic waste that was unlikely to be recycled, according to the Guardian.

The most recent year for which data was available was 2016, but it’s worth noting that the global exchange of plastic waste was upended in 2018 when China announced it would no longer buy U.S. plastic scrap. Many other countries in Southeast Asia have followed suit and lower oil prices have also softened the market for recycled plastics, per the Times.

But the 2016 figures remain sobering: just 9 percent of U.S. plastic waste was recycled, which Mallos tells the Guardian is “incredibly low.”

“What the new study really underscores is we have to get a handle on source reduction at home,” Mallos tells the Times. “That starts with eliminating unnecessary and problematic single-use plastics.”

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