The U.S. generates more plastic waste than any other nation and exporting it to other countries does not absolve us of its impact
A new study has found that the United States contributes as much as five times more plastic waste to global coastal plastic pollution than previously thought because:
- Americans are using more plastic than ever
- America’s waste management infrastructure is insufficient to handle our population’s recycling demands
- America exports about half of its recyclable waste to other countries
- About 88% of America’s exported waste is sent to countries that also have inadequate waste management infrastructure
- A lot of the waste isn’t actually recycled because it’s low-value, contaminated, and/or difficult to process
- Without waste management infrastructure, unrecyclable plastic and trash go on to pollute the environment
A previous study on America’s contribution to coastal plastic pollution did not include our trash exports. This new study did, which is why our contribution to plastic pollution is significantly higher than previously reported.
Why our plastic waste isn’t being recycled
Only about 9% of America’s total plastic waste enters our recycling system, but there’s no guarantee that even that amount of plastic is recycled into new products. Virgin plastic, or new plastic created with no recycled materials, is “so inexpensive to manufacture that only certain expensive, high-grade plastics are profitable to recycle within the United States, which is why roughly half of the country’s plastic waste was shipped abroad in 2016, the most recent year for which data is available.”
Ultimately, recycling is not and has never been a viable solution to managing plastic waste. It’s a marketing tactic the plastics industry uses to sell more plastic. Look at it this way: If people think their plastic waste is being recycled, even when it’s not, they’ll consume more of it without questioning the consequence. More on that here.
Where our plastic waste actually goes
Our plastic waste is clogging our landfills, many of which are reaching capacity. What doesn’t end up in a landfill is often exported to developing countries. In fact, our trash has been exported all over the world, including to some of the world’s poorest countries like Bangladesh, Laos, Ethiopia, and Senegal, where labor is cheap and environmental regulation is limited.
Our waste is also shipped to places like China, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam, and Turkey. These countries have insufficient waste management infrastructure to handle the needs of their populations’ growing appetite for plastic as well as the high volume of plastic waste they import.
We’re led to believe exporting our waste is a mutually beneficial arrangement. For industrialized nations like the U.S., exporting plastic waste is a convenient way to count plastic waste as “recycled” while avoiding disposal costs and domestic impacts. For developing nations, accepting our trash is a valuable source of income.
However, the plastic waste we export is often “crudely sorted, shredded, and melted by impoverished families in unsafe, unhealthy conditions to create low-quality plastic that never returns to the U.S. in new products,” if it’s recycled at all. Much more of it enters landfills, is burned in open pits, or enters the environment where it will eventually make its way to the ocean.
Some countries are banning plastic waste imports
More and more developing nations are refusing to be a “dumping ground” for wealthier nations like the U.S., Canada, and the European Union. For example, Malaysia and the Philippines have started shipping mislabeled waste exports back to their countries of origin. Others, like China, which imported nearly half of the world’s plastic waste for three decades,banned the import of certain plastic waste. All of these measures are part of an effort to clean the environment, increase domestic recycling capacity, and improve quality of life in countries that have been plagued by plastic pollution.
Does the Save Our Seas Act miss the point?
Plastic waste contaminates all major ecosystems on Earth and concerns about its impact on wildlife and human health are growing. Earlier this month, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released its plan to address marine litter and identified five nations as responsible for more than half of the plastic waste flowing into the oceans every year: China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam.
If that list looks familiar, it’s because they’re all countries where we’ve exported our plastic waste. This is a screenshot of the introduction to the EPA’s strategy:
However, many scientists find this plan problematic because it “distorts the complexities of a global problem and contributes to a sense of complacency in the United States that marine litter is Asia’s problem.”
While the data shows that China is the world’s largest plastics manufacturer, it also shows that America is far and away the world’s largest producer of plastic waste. Blaming, shaming, and finger pointing is not going to produce a global solution to this global problem.
Instead, we must accept responsibility for the impact of our domestic plastic consumption habits — even when we export our waste elsewhere — and work together with the global community to develop sustainable solutions that protect the environment which sustains us all.
This is why we support the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act, a comprehensive piece of ocean-friendly legislation that seeks to address the domestic issues that contribute to plastic pollution globally. It’s in front of Congress right now and desperately needs your support!