A new study published in the journal Science Advances has revealed that the United States is contributing far more to coastal plastic pollution than was previously believed. A previous study using 2010 data ranked the US 20th globally, in its contribution to ocean plastic pollution from mismanaged waste. The new study ranks the U.S. third among the world’s countries.
The largest contributor to the discrepancy is that the earlier study did not account for plastic scrap exports. Using plastic waste generation data from 2016 – which is the most recent global data available – the study’s authors calculated that more than half of all plastics collected for recycling in the US were shipped abroad. This amounts to over 2 million tons. Of this amount, some 88% went to countries struggling to effectively manage, recycle, or dispose of plastics, and between 15-25% was, in fact, low-value or contaminated, meaning that it was effectively unrecyclable. When all of these factors were taken into account, the researchers estimated that a million tons of US-generated plastic waste ended up polluting the environment. It just occurred beyond our own borders.
Overall, 2-3% of all plastic waste generated in the US – about a million tons – is either littered or illegally dumped into the domestic environment. When this is combined with the exported waste, the US is responsible for more than 2 million tons of plastic waste being dumped into the environment. About two-thirds of that ends up in coastal environments, where it is likely to enter the ocean by wind or through waterways.
The United States generates the most plastic waste of any country in the world. Unfortunately, we have been operating under the illusion that we were doing a pretty good job of dealing with it.
Photo, posted April 3, 2015, courtesy of Vaidehi Shah via Flickr.