US Top Contributor to Coastal Plastic Pollution Crisis

Exported plastics make a major impact.

Plastic bottles at a recycling factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh.
Plastic bottles at a recycling factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Rehman Asad / Getty Images

Contrary to relatively recent reports, the U.S. is not doing an adequate job managing its plastic waste. A new study finds that the U.S. is one of the top countries contributing to coastal plastic pollution when including the scrap plastic exported to other countries for recycling.

The new research, published in the journal Science Advances, challenges previous findings that the U.S. was successfully collecting plastic waste and properly maintaining it in landfills, recycling it, or otherwise containing it. Those earlier findings used 2010 data that did not include plastic scrap exports. The 2010 study ranked the U.S. 20th globally in its contribution to ocean plastic pollution. The new study ranks the U.S. as high as third among all countries.

“The United States is the number-one generator of plastic waste in the world, both at a country level and per capita, and this has serious consequences for the environment and our ocean,” Nick Mallos, senior director of Ocean Conservancy’s Trash Free Seas program and a co-author of the study, tells Treehugger.

“This new study used the latest available data to analyze where exactly all that plastic waste has been going, and it turns out a lot of it has ended up in coastal environments abroad. When you combine that with updated estimates of how much plastic waste is dumped illegally or littered here in the U.S., the United States is as high as third among global coastal plastic polluters.”

For the new study, scientists from Sea Education Association, DSM Environmental Services, the University of Georgia, and Ocean Conservancy used plastic waste generation data from 2016 to calculate that more than half of all plastics collected for recycling in the U.S. were shipped abroad. That’s 1.99 million metric tons of 3.91 million metric tons collected.

Of these exports, 88% went to countries that have difficulties recycling or disposing of plastics and between 15-25% were contaminated or low-value, meaning they were unrecyclable. Considering this information, researchers estimated that as many as 1 million metric tons of plastic waste that originated in the U.S. ended up polluting the environment outside the country.

“The reality is that a lot of our recyclables aren’t actually recyclable. Single-stream recycling systems — common across the U.S. — mean that importing recyclers need to take time to sort through tons and tons of ‘mixed bale’ waste, often composed of low-value plastics like thin films and bags, or items that are too dirty to process, like unwashed food containers,” Mallos explains.

“Our study estimated that in 2016 up to half of the United States’ plastic waste exports likely ended up in the environment because they simply had nowhere else to go in importing countries.”

Littering and Illegal Dumping

The researchers also estimated that  2-3% of all plastic waste generated in the U.S. was either littered or illegally dumped into the environment domestically, contributing about 1 million metric tons of plastic waste into U.S. ecosystems in 2016. In comparison, the U.S. collected 3.9 million tons of plastic for recycling.

“In other words, for every four or so plastic items collected for recycling, one ended up littered or illegally dumped,” Mallos says. “It’s a significant number.”

The researchers calculated that although the U.S. makes up just 4% of the world’s population, it generates 17% of global plastic waste. On average, Americans generated nearly double the plastic waste per capita as residents of the European Union.

“This study really changes the narrative around the ocean plastics crisis. So-called developing and developed countries alike are contributing to ocean plastic pollution, and we can’t just focus on any one region to solve this crisis,” Mallos says.

“The results also reiterate the need for waste reduction in addition to waste management. It’s not realistic to assume that we can carry on business as usual here in the United States, producing more plastic waste than any other country in the world, without seeing impacts on our ocean. We need to phase-out unnecessary single-use plastic products, mandate recycled content minimums for the plastic products that are necessary, and invest in systems right here at home that allow us to process it all.”