Report Confirms US Generates Most Plastic Waste of Any Country on Earth



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‘Reckoning with the U.S. Role in Global Ocean Plastic Waste’ is a new 250-page consensus study that finds the U.S. produces more unreclaimed plastic waste than any other nation by several orders of magnitude.

On Wednesday, the Committee on the United States Contributions to Global Ocean Plastic Waste filed a 250-page consensus study report with the U.S. federal government. Titled “Reckoning with the U.S. Role in Global Ocean Plastic Waste,” the report concludes that the United States is the largest global generator and contributor of plastic waste by far.

The committee of subject matter experts from numerous independent organizations was formed in December 2020 under Congress’ Save Our Seas 2.0 Act.

Within the voluminous report, the committee panel details the many causes behind the accumulating issue, including the current and future implications at corporate, local, national, and multinational levels. It then lays out a handful of “sample blueprints” to address the plastics crisis and provides a plan of action for federal government leaders.

Committee chair Margaret Spring states in the report’s introduction, “This will require strong federal coordination that draws on the advice and knowledge of a range of experts and practitioners, those with a deep understanding of the incentives, processes, and practices that must change if we are to prevent plastics from entering our environment and our ocean as uncontrolled and harmful plastic waste.”

Here’s what you need to know.

Plastic Waste by the Numbers

(Photo/Icebreaker)

In one of the study’s many side-by-side analyses, the committee found that the average American generates two to eight times more waste per day than individuals outside of the U.S. That means, at best, one adult living in the U.S. produces double the amount of trash as an adult outside of the U.S.

In 2015 and 2016, the United States generated 42 million metric tons (MMTs) of plastic waste per year, which is 300 pounds per person over the same period. The total amount of global plastic waste was 242 MMTs.

Translated to percentages, the U.S. houses just 4.3% of the world’s population. Yet, it spins off nearly 20% of total plastics that end up in landfills, waterways, and the food chain.

Today, experts estimate that 8.8 MMTs of plastic waste have “leaked” into waterways annually. If current practices and deficiencies continue, the committee projects that number to hike to 53 MMTs by 2030.

This is not only a mindnumbing figure but one that would likely prove unlivable.

Cumulative Impacts of Plastics Generation

(Photo/Tecnica)

“Plastic waste generated by the U.S. has so many consequences, impacting inland and coastal communities, polluting our rivers, lakes, beaches, bays, and waterways,” said Spring. “[It places] social and economic burdens on vulnerable populations, endangering marine habitats and wildlife and contaminating waters upon which humans depend for food and livelihoods.”

Current practices are already wreaking ecological and social havoc. And the committee’s experts project that nonrenewable plastics production is about to ramp up substantially.

One of the explanations is that new climate-oriented regulations on the fossil fuels industry have oil and gas giants looking for opportunities in neighboring business sectors. The result is a massive lateral transfer of capital from the extraction, production, and refining of petroleum for fuel uses into the research, development, and production of petroleum-based plastics.

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Another contributor is the pandemic-weltered uptick in the production and consumption of single-use medical equipment. Masks, syringes, and other personal protective goods are now commonplace. And while demand for PPE has mellowed out in recent months, experts don’t expect our consumption of such items to return to pre-pandemic levels.

Adding to the issue are incoherent and broken waste management systems, including mishandled recyclables. Up to 80% of stateside plastic waste is from single-use items like plastic water bottles, bags, and cigarette filters.

Paths Forward

(Image/The National Academies Press)

The committee members, however, do offer hope and opportunities for improvement. They suggest that government leaders take multi-pronged approaches. Further, they also offer immediately actionable steps at every tier of the plastics problem — from synthesis to landfill and ocean.

Ultimately, the consensus study recommends a comprehensive national strategy to lessen the flow of plastics into natural systems. The goal is to implement it by the end of next year. The plan must substantially reduce plastics production. And it must provide practical alternatives and deploy a functional method of waste handling at every level.

A qualified pre-publication version of “Reckoning with the U.S. Role in Global Ocean Plastic Waste” is available free of charge through The National Academies Press at nap.edu.

The report’s official publication is slated for spring 2022.

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