U.S. Is a Larger Source of Plastic Pollution than Previously Thought, Report Finds

A worker removes caps from bottoms to prepare for recycling at a waste facility in the Philippines.

A worker removes caps from bottoms to prepare for recycling at a waste facility in the Philippines. Nick Mallos/Ocean Conservancy

The United States generates more plastic waste than any other country in the world — producing 42 million metric tons, or 286 pounds per person, in 2016 alone, according to a new study published in the journal Science Advances. The research also found that the U.S. is the third-largest contributor of plastic pollution in coastal environments.

The findings contradict the widely-held belief that the world’s plastic pollution problem is driven by Asian nations, including China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam. Previous research has largely looked at the direct sources of pollution, researchers argue, but not where the plastic originated from. This framing, they say, ignores the global waste export system, in which wealthy countries like the U.S. often ship their waste abroad to lower-income countries that have inadequate recycling methods.

“The United States generates the most plastic waste of any other country in the world, but rather than looking the problem in the eye, we have outsourced it to developing countries and become a top contributor to the ocean plastics crisis,” Nick Mallos, senior director of Ocean Conservancy’s Trash Free Seas program and a co-author of the study, said in a statement.

Less than 10 percent of plastic waste in the U.S. was collected for recycling in 2016, according to the study. As much as half of this plastic was shipped overseas — 88 percent of which went to countries with ineffective waste management systems. The researchers estimate that “up to 1 million metric tons of U.S.-generated plastic waste ended up polluting the environment beyond its own borders,” the report says. Since the scientists’ 2016 data, China has largely halted the import of trash, but waste is still flowing to other developing nations in Asia and Africa.

The study also found that between 2 to 3 percent of plastic waste generated in the U.S. in 2016 was either discarded as litter or illegally dumped, according to the research. Combined with waste exports, it means the U.S. contributed 2.25 million metric tons of plastic to global pollution levels — 1.5 million of which ended up in coastal environments that directly feed into the ocean. That is five times more than in 2010.

“The solution has to start at home,” Mallos said. “We need to create less, by cutting out unnecessary single-use plastics; we need to create better, by developing innovative new ways to package and deliver goods; and where plastics are inevitable, we need to drastically improve our recycling rates.”