The US and UK produce more plastic waste per person than any other major countries, according to new research.
The analysis also shows 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. Previous work had suggested Asian countries dominated marine plastic pollution and placed the US in 20th place, but this did not account for US waste exports or illegal dumping within the country.
Data from 2016, the latest available, show that more than half of the plastic collected for recycling in the US was shipped abroad, mostly to countries already struggling to manage plastic waste effectively. The researchers said years of exporting had masked the US’s enormous contribution to plastic pollution.
“The US is 4% of the world’s population, yet its produces 17% of its plastic waste,” said Nick Mallos at the Ocean Conservancy and one of the study authors. “The US needs to play a much bigger role in addressing the global plastic pollution crisis.”
The size of the US contribution is likely to be the results of high income and consumption levels. “I assume we’re just the best consumers,” said Kara Lavender Law at the Sea Education Association and part of the research team.
“A country’s contribution to plastic pollution does not stop at its border,” said Winnie Lau at the Pew Trusts, who was not involved in the analysis. “The export of plastic waste from the US, for example, can contribute substantially to the global ocean plastic problem, and this important research puts a number on just how much pollution that is.” She said this kind of analysis helped countries to take full responsibility for their plastic waste.
Plastic waste has polluted the whole planet, from the deepest oceans to Arctic snow and Alpine soils, and is known to harm wildlife. Concern is also growing about the quantity of microplastics people consume with food and water, and by breathing them in.
A study led by Lau in September found that even if all currently feasible measures were used to cut plastic pollution it would fall by only 40%, putting 700m tonnes into the environment by 2040. “To avoid a massive buildup of plastic in the environment, coordinated global action is urgently needed to reduce plastic consumption, increase reuse, waste collection and recycling,” the study concluded.
China banned the import of plastic waste in 2018, and Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand, India and Indonesia have followed with their own restrictions. The fate of the plastic no longer going to these countries is not yet fully known, but a Guardian investigation in 2019 found US plastic was being sent to some of the world’s poorest countries, including Bangladesh, Laos, Ethiopia and Senegal, where labour is cheap and environmental regulation limited.
Lavender Law said the Covid-19 pandemic was also increasing plastic waste, particularly discarded PPE, but that data on the scale of the issue was not yet available.
The latest study, published in the journal Science Advances, used World Bank data on waste generation in 217 countries. It focused on the US and used additional data on littering and illegal dumping within the country and on contamination by exported plastic, which is likely to be dumped rather than recycled.
The researchers found the US produced the most plastic waste by World Bank reckoning, at 34m tonnes in 2016, but the total increased to 42m tonnes when the additional data was considered. India and China were second and third, but their large populations meant their figures for per capita plastic waste was less than 20% of that of US consumers.
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. The US ranked between third and eleventh, depending on the assumptions made about waste leakage into the environment. The analysis found that up to 1m tonnes of exported US plastic waste ended up as marine pollution.
“The solution has to start at home,” said Mallos. “We need to create less by cutting out unnecessary single-use plastics, and we need to develop new ways to package and deliver goods. Where plastics are inevitable, we need to drastically improve our recycling rates.” Only 9% of US plastic waste was recycled in 2016. “It is incredibly low,” Mallos said.