The researchers estimated that up to one million metric tonnes of US-generated plastic ended up as pollution in environments beyond its own borders
A new study has revealed the US ranks as high as third among countries contributing to coastal plastic pollution when taking into account its scrap plastic exports.
The research challenges the once-held assumption the country is adequately “managing” – that is, collecting and properly landfilling, recycling or otherwise containing – its plastic waste.
Using plastic waste generation data from 2016, scientists from the Sea Education Association, DSM Environmental Services, University of Georgia, and Ocean Conservancy calculated that more than half of all plastics collected for recycling in the US were shipped abroad.
Of this, 88% of exports went 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.
The researchers estimated that up to one million metric tonnes of US-generated plastic waste ended up polluting the environment beyond its own borders.
The Sea Education Association’s research professor of oceanography and lead author of the study Dr. Kara Lavender Law said: “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.”
Between 0.91 and 1.25 million metric tonnes of plastic pollution illegally dumped in the US, says study
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 tonnes – was either littered or illegally dumped into the environment domestically.
Combined with waste exports, this means the US contributed up to 2.25 million metric tonnes of plastics into the environment.
Up to 1.5 million metric tonnes of these plastics ended up in coastal environments, 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.
Nick Mallos, senior director of Ocean Conservancy’s Trash Free Seas programme and a co-author of the study, said: “The US generates the most plastic waste of any other country in the world, but rather than looking 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.”
The study noted that although the US accounted for just 4% of the global population in 2016, it generated 17% of all plastic waste, with Americans on average generating nearly twice as much plastic waste per capita as residents of the EU.
Dr. Jenna Jambeck, professor at the University of Georgia’s College of Engineering and a co-author of the study, said: “Previous research has provided global values for plastic input into the environment and coastal areas, but detailed analyses like this one are important for individual countries to further assess their contributions.
“In the case of the US, it is critically important that we examine our own backyard and take responsibility for our global plastic footprint.”
Natalie Starr, principal at DSM Environmental Services and a co-author of the study, added: “For some time, it has been cheaper for the US to ship its recyclables abroad rather than handle them here at home, but that has come at great cost to our environment.
“We need to change the math by investing in recycling technologies and collection programmes, 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.”