The US and UK produce more plastic waste per person than any other major countries, according to new research.
Researchers found the US produces the most plastic waste in total and that its citizens may rank as high as third in the world in contributing to plastic pollution in the oceans.
Among the 20 nations with the highest total plastic waste production, the UK was second to the US per capita, followed by South Korea and Germany.
When the researchers estimated how much of each country’s plastic waste ends up in the oceans, Indonesia and India ranked highest
Plastic footprint ‘outsourcing’
The Sea Education Association, DSM Environmental Services and the University of Georgia, Ocean Conservancy published a study (Law et al., 2020) in the journal Science Advances that should ‘change the way the world thinks about the United States’ role in tackling global plastic pollution’.
The findings suggest that the US has ‘outsourced’ its plastic footprint to developing countries and, in so doing, has become a top contributor to the global ocean plastics crisis, according to researchers.
Researchers show that in 2016 the US shipped upwards of one million metric tonnes of plastic waste overseas
Using the latest data from the World Bank, researchers show that in 2016 the US shipped upwards of one million metric tonnes of plastic waste overseas, primarily to countries in Asia that lack the capacity to effectively manage, recycle or dispose of such gargantuan amounts of plastics.
Upwards of 25% of these exports were so low-value or so contaminated with items like thin plastic films, dirty food containers and food wrappers, that they were effectively unrecyclable, the research found.
Taking these exports into account and adding in the 2-3% of plastic waste that the researchers say is ‘littered or illegally dumped domestically’, its analysis suggests the role the US has in perpetuating the ocean plastics crisis is greater than previously thought.
According to the research, the US generates the most plastic waste of any country in the world (both overall and per capita).
While it has just 4% of the world’s population, it creates 17% of the world’s plastic waste, researchers found. They also highlighted another study that quantified the scale and scope of the problem.
This study showed that to stabilise ocean plastic inputs to 2015 levels, the global community must reduce plastic waste by 40% while simultaneously increasing waste management capacity across all economies and massively scaling up the environmental clean-up of the remaining plastics that flow into waterways and the ocean.
Our new study should be a call to action for all Americans to address plastic pollution at home. We can no longer simply put these materials in the blue recycle bin and assume our job is done
‘Reducing plastic waste generation here at home will not only reduce plastic pollution locally but it will also reduce the mounting pressure to adequately manage plastics in many rapidly developing economies where waste capacity is lacking but to where we have outsourced most of our plastic waste,’ said Ocean Conservancy authors George Leonard and Nick Mallos.
‘Our new study should be a call to action for all Americans to address plastic pollution at home. We can no longer simply put these materials in the blue recycle bin and assume our job is done.
‘We must work to ensure the United States is not a leading contributor to the problem, but rather a leader in advancing practical and effective solutions. First, we must come to grips with our massive reliance on plastic, including unnecessary single-use plastics.
‘Then we must work to advance state and federal policy to reduce its production, while also ensuring we have the capacity to manage the remaining waste stream in all communities, both domestically and abroad. Doing anything less will only exacerbate what is already an unacceptable ocean crisis of our own making.’