U.S. Leads the World in Plastic Waste, New Study Finds
The U.S. is the No. 1 generator of plastic waste in the world and as high as the No. 3 generator of ocean plastic waste.
That's the finding of a new study published in Science Advances last Friday that sought to paint a more accurate picture of the U.S. contribution to the plastic crisis. While previous studies had suggested that Asian countries were responsible for the bulk of ocean plastics, the new study upends this assumption by taking into account the plastic that the U.S. ships abroad.
"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 United States," lead author and Sea Education Association professor of oceanography Dr. Kara Lavender Law said in a press release emailed to EcoWatch. "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."
It has long been known that the U.S. produces lots and lots of plastic, but the assumption was that this plastic was being effectively managed. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, (EPA), for example, reports that 75.4 percent of plastic waste is landfilled, 15.3 percent is incinerated and 9.3 percent is recycled, which suggests that all U.S. plastic is accounted for. But this does not take into account illegal littering or what happens once plastic is collected for recycling, the study authors pointed out. A 2010 study ranked the U.S. 20th in terms of its overall contribution to ocean plastic pollution. But that study also did not consider the plastic that the U.S. exported to developing countries.
The new analysis concluded that the U.S. generated around 42 million metric tons of plastic in 2016. Of the U.S. plastic collected for recycling, more than half of it was shipped abroad, and 88 percent of that was to countries that struggle to adequately recycle. Further, 15 to 25 percent of it was contaminated or poor quality plastic that would be extremely difficult to recycle anyway. These figures mean that the U.S. is polluting coasts in foreign countries with as much as one million tons of plastic.
Further, the paper estimated that between 0.98 and 1.26 million metric tons of plastic were either littered or illegally dumped within the U.S. In total, the authors estimated that the U.S. added as many as 2.25 million metric tons of plastic to the environment in 2016 and up to 1.5 million metric tons of plastic to coastal ecosystems. Using the upper estimates for plastic waste, this would put the U.S. at No. 3 in terms of overall contribution to marine plastic pollution.
"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," study coauthor and Distinguished Professor at the University of Georgia's College of Engineering Dr. Jenna Jambeck said in the press release. "In the case of the United States, it is critically important that we examine our own backyard and take responsibility for our global plastic footprint."
The study was based on 2016 plastic waste data from both the World Bank and additional U.S. data and was collected and analyzed by the Sea Education Association, DSM Environmental Services, the University of Georgia and the Ocean Conservancy.
Greenpeace, which was not involved in the study, noted in a press release emailed to EcoWatch that many of the same authors had contributed to a 2015 study that also looked at the sources of ocean plastic pollution. That study, Greenpeace argued, had been misinterpreted by corporations and governments to put the blame for the ocean plastic crisis on Asian countries.
"For years, corporations and governments in the Global North have scapegoated countries in Asia for the plastic pollution crisis," Greenpeace USA Global Plastics project leader Graham Forbes said in the press release. "This comprehensive study now reveals that the United States has generated more plastic waste than any other country, and an enormous amount of that is ending up in our environment. This proves that the recycling infrastructure argument we see from industry is a ruse. Plastic producers and major consumer goods companies have argued that if we just build up recycling infrastructure in Africa and Asia, then we can continue churning out single-use plastic. The U.S. has a relatively robust waste infrastructure, yet an estimated five times as much plastic pollution entered the oceans in 2016 than in 2010. The U.S. needs to stop blaming other countries for its problem and give up its addiction to single-use plastic."
Correction: An earlier version of this article mistakenly said that the U.S. was the leading generator of plastic pollution. In fact, the U.S. was the leading generator of plastic waste, defined as the total amount of plastic that needs to be disposed of, but does not necessarily enter the environment. Plastic pollution refers only to mismanaged plastic waste that does enter the environment.
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By Peter Giger
The speed and scale of the response to COVID-19 by governments, businesses and individuals seems to provide hope that we can react to the climate change crisis in a similarly decisive manner - but history tells us that humans do not react to slow-moving and distant threats.
A Game of Jenga<p>Think of it as a game of Jenga and the planet's climate system as the tower. For generations, we have been slowly removing blocks. But at some point, we will remove a pivotal block, such as the collapse of one of the major global ocean circulation systems, for example the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), that will cause all or part of the global climate system to fall into a planetary emergency.</p><p>But worse still, it could cause runaway damage: Where the tipping points form a domino-like cascade, where breaching one triggers breaches of others, creating an unstoppable shift to a radically and swiftly changing climate.</p><p>One of the most concerning tipping points is mass methane release. Methane can be found in deep freeze storage within permafrost and at the bottom of the deepest oceans in the form of methane hydrates. But rising sea and air temperatures are beginning to thaw these stores of methane.</p><p>This would release a powerful greenhouse gas into the atmosphere, 30-times more potent than carbon dioxide as a global warming agent. This would drastically increase temperatures and rush us towards the breach of other tipping points.</p><p>This could include the acceleration of ice thaw on all three of the globe's large, land-based ice sheets – Greenland, West Antarctica and the Wilkes Basin in East Antarctica. The potential collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet is seen as a key tipping point, as its loss could eventually <a href="https://science.sciencemag.org/content/324/5929/901" target="_blank">raise global sea levels by 3.3 meters</a> with important regional variations.</p><p>More than that, we would be on the irreversible path to full land-ice melt, causing sea levels to rise by up to 30 meters, roughly at the rate of two meters per century, or maybe faster. Just look at the raised beaches around the world, at the last high stand of global sea level, at the end of the Pleistocene period around 120,0000 years ago, to see the evidence of such a warm world, which was just 2°C warmer than the present day.</p>
Cutting Off Circulation<p>As well as devastating low-lying and coastal areas around the world, melting polar ice could set off another tipping point: a disablement to the AMOC.</p><p>This circulation system drives a northward flow of warm, salty water on the upper layers of the ocean from the tropics to the northeast Atlantic region, and a southward flow of cold water deep in the ocean.</p><p>The ocean conveyor belt has a major effect on the climate, seasonal cycles and temperature in western and northern Europe. It means the region is warmer than other areas of similar latitude.</p><p>But melting ice from the Greenland ice sheet could threaten the AMOC system. It would dilute the salty sea water in the north Atlantic, making the water lighter and less able or unable to sink. This would slow the engine that drives this ocean circulation.</p><p><a href="https://www.carbonbrief.org/atlantic-conveyor-belt-has-slowed-15-per-cent-since-mid-twentieth-century" target="_blank">Recent research</a> suggests the AMOC has already weakened by around 15% since the middle of the 20th century. If this continues, it could have a major impact on the climate of the northern hemisphere, but particularly Europe. It may even lead to the <a href="https://ore.exeter.ac.uk/repository/handle/10871/39731?show=full" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cessation of arable farming</a> in the UK, for instance.</p><p>It may also reduce rainfall over the Amazon basin, impact the monsoon systems in Asia and, by bringing warm waters into the Southern Ocean, further destabilize ice in Antarctica and accelerate global sea level rise.</p>
The Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation has a major effect on the climate. Praetorius (2018)
Is it Time to Declare a Climate Emergency?<p>At what stage, and at what rise in global temperatures, will these tipping points be reached? No one is entirely sure. It may take centuries, millennia or it could be imminent.</p><p>But as COVID-19 taught us, we need to prepare for the expected. We were aware of the risk of a pandemic. We also knew that we were not sufficiently prepared. But we didn't act in a meaningful manner. Thankfully, we have been able to fast-track the production of vaccines to combat COVID-19. But there is no vaccine for climate change once we have passed these tipping points.</p><p><a href="https://www.weforum.org/reports/the-global-risks-report-2021" target="_blank">We need to act now on our climate</a>. Act like these tipping points are imminent. And stop thinking of climate change as a slow-moving, long-term threat that enables us to kick the problem down the road and let future generations deal with it. We must take immediate action to reduce global warming and fulfill our commitments to the <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Paris Agreement</a>, and build resilience with these tipping points in mind.</p><p>We need to plan now to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, but we also need to plan for the impacts, such as the ability to feed everyone on the planet, develop plans to manage flood risk, as well as manage the social and geopolitical impacts of human migrations that will be a consequence of fight or flight decisions.</p><p>Breaching these tipping points would be cataclysmic and potentially far more devastating than COVID-19. Some may not enjoy hearing these messages, or consider them to be in the realm of science fiction. But if it injects a sense of urgency to make us respond to climate change like we have done to the pandemic, then we must talk more about what has happened before and will happen again.</p><p>Otherwise we will continue playing Jenga with our planet. And ultimately, there will only be one loser – us.</p>
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