A new study published in the journal Science Advances on October 30, 2020, found that the US is responsible for as much as five times more plastic pollution than previously thought, making the nation the biggest plastic waste producer in the world.
In 2016 alone, the study found, the United States contributed 42 million metric tons of plastic waste into the global ecosystem — twice as much as what India produced then. Though Asian countries including China, Thailand, and India were generally considered to be the biggest plastic polluters, the study proves conclusively that the United States, in fact, tops the list, followed by the UK, South Korea, and Germany.
“In 2016, the United States generated the largest amount of plastic waste of any country in the world (42.0 Mt). Between 0.14 and 0.41 Mt of this waste was illegally dumped in the United States, and 0.15 to 0.99 Mt was inadequately managed in countries that imported materials collected in the United States for recycling,” the study explains.
The study’s findings show that plastic waste exported from the US for recycling or disposal (usually to Asia or Africa in countries like Bangladesh, Laos, Ethiopia, and Senegal) was not previously accounted for, and thus the amount of US-consumed plastic polluting the environment is as much five times greater than estimated in the past. The research also shows that Americans are using more plastic than ever before.
“The US is 4% of the world’s population, yet it produces 17% of its plastic waste,” said Nick Mallos at the Ocean Conservancy and one of the study authors.
Part of the problem stems from misconceptions around the recyclability of plastic. Though some single-use plastics are recyclable, those stained with foods or otherwise tarnished by non-recyclable matter cannot be recycled, and thus end up pulled from recycling centers. “Only 9 percent of US plastic waste was recycled in 2016,” The Guardian reports.
2016 is the most recent year in which data about plastic pollution are available; however, China’s decision in 2018 to stop importing plastic waste from the US brought the matter to the attention of more American consumers. The Guardian reports that Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand, India, and Indonesia have imposed their own restrictions regarding the import of waste from other countries. Since then, multiple jurisdictions and states have enacted or passed plastic bag bans, including New Jersey and New York.