The USA likes to live large. However, there are some things you probably don’t want to stand out as the biggest and best at. Take plastic pollution for example: 242 million metric tons of the stuff is discarded worldwide every year, equivalent to about ten billion statues of liberty. More than one-sixth of that total comes from just one country – the good old US of A.
“In 2016, the United States was the top generator of plastic waste,” reads a new report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. The report was commissioned by Congress as part of the Save Our Seas 2.0 Act, passed with bipartisan support in December 2020.
“Plastic waste is an environmental and social crisis that the U.S. needs to affirmatively address from source to sea,” said Margaret Spring, chief conservation and science officer at Monterey Bay Aquarium, who chaired the committee of experts that compiled the report.
“Plastic waste generated by the U.S. has so many consequences – impacting inland and coastal communities, polluting our rivers, lakes, beaches, bays, and waterways,” Spring added. “[It is] placing social and economic burdens on vulnerable populations, endangering marine habitats and wildlife, and contaminating waters upon which humans depend for food and livelihoods.”
The report found the USA was responsible for “an estimated 42 [million metric tons]” of plastic waste in 2016 – that’s more than double almost any other country on the planet, and more than the entire 28 countries of the European Union combined.
Per capita, Americans generate around 130 kilograms (286.6 pounds) of plastic waste annually – that’s the equivalent of every person in the country throwing away one whole plastic Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson AND his adorable French bulldog Hobbs each year.
The vast majority of this waste ends up in landfills, but far too much ends up “leaking” into the environment, the report notes – and not only because of obviously irresponsible choices like littering or shipping the equivalent of 68,000 shipping containers of trash to already-overwhelmed developing countries. Even properly managed plastic waste can end up in the environment – and does so at a rate the report puts at around one or two million megatons per year.
We already know what the consequences of this will be: in less than a decade, the report warns, “the amount of plastic waste discharged into the ocean could reach up to 53 [million megatons] per year by 2030, roughly half of the total weight of fish caught from the ocean annually.”
According to a 2016 report by the Ellen Macarthur Foundation, the ocean is set to be more plastic than fish by 2050. That’s on top of the myriad species that have been found choking, suffocating, being poisoned, and so much more, thanks to what is described as a “global scale deluge of plastic waste seemingly everywhere we look.”
“There is an urgency to the issue,” Jenna Jambeck, a member of the scientific committee behind the report, told The Guardian. “Production is increasing, waste generation is increasing and therefore leakage impacts have the potential to increase too.”
The solution – or at least the start of one – is laid out in a six-point intervention plan. First, the committee says that the US should reduce plastic production, especially plastics that are not reusable or practically recyclable. The second intervention takes this further, asking for innovation of new materials to replace plastic – ones which degrade more quickly or can be more easily recycled or reused.
Third: we need to change the types of plastic we use – quite simply, if we use fewer single-use, disposable products, then we throw fewer products away.
The fourth intervention target is to improve the nation’s waste management systems – that means everything from infrastructure, collection, treatment, leakage control, even accounting. In particular, the committee recommends “efforts to increase collection of plastics into waste management systems, plastic recycling, and isolation or treatment of remaining plastic [waste] to avoid leakage into the environment” – basically, recycle more, and what we can’t recycle, contain.
Point five involves “capturing waste.” In other words, we need to start picking up litter, clearing rivers or beaches where plastic accumulates, that kind of thing. If we clear the waste before it reaches the sea, like so much currently does, the task of ocean clean-up will be much easier: dredging the sea itself is “very expensive, inefficient, and impractical,” the report points out.
Finally, we come to point six – the simplest of all. Point six calls for “minimizing at-sea disposal” of plastic waste – that is to say, just stop chucking trash directly into the sea, litterbugs!
Of course, these things are easier said than done, and when you’re talking about a problem of this complexity and magnitude – and the “grossly insufficient” infrastructure that currently exists to deal with it – the report is clear that “no single solution will be sufficient to address the problem.” Nevertheless, with this week’s report offering a “scientifically robust” vision, the committee says that the US could find a leadership role in the worldwide fight against plastic pollution, influencing global innovation, production, and economics.
“The report recommends the U.S. establish a coherent, comprehensive, and crosscutting federal policy and research strategy to reduce its contribution of plastic waste to the environment and ocean,” says a press release from the National Academies. “This strategy should be developed by a group of experts, or external advisory body, by Dec. 31, 2022. The strategy’s implementation should be assessed by Dec. 31, 2025.”