The equivalent of a garbage truck worth of plastic enters the world’s oceans every minute, according to a report published Dec. 1 by The National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine.
Worldwide, of the roughly 2 billion metric tons (BMT) of annual waste, 242 million metric tons (MMT) is plastics. Of this total, around 8 MMT of plastic waste makes its way into the ocean annually, with a projected increase to 53 MMT by 2030 if trends continue unabated.
Total plastic waste in the U.S. rose from less than 5 MMT in 1975 to around 42 MMT by 2016, with nearly 25 MMT of this total ending up in landfills. The per capita rate of waste generation in the U.S. is currently 2-8 times higher than other nations.
In 2016, plastic waste from the U.S. was the largest of any other nation – the European Union produced 30 MMT, India 26 MMT and China 22 MMT that year.
“Despite a well-developed formal solid waste management system, approximately 1 to 2 MMT of U.S. plastic solid waste was estimated to enter the environment at home and abroad (after export for recycling) in 2016,” the report said. “This would rank the United States in a range of the third to twelfth largest contributor of plastic waste into the coastal environment. Because many leakage estimates rely only on [Municipal Solid Waste] data they are likely conservative.”
An October 2021 report published by the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) found that 85% of all marine debris is from plastics and noted the various negative impacts to both marine life and humans from the consumption of plastics, most notably microplastics.
Increases in plastic waste correspond to increases in plastic production, with global totals rising from 20 MMT in 1966 to 381 MMT by 2015, with totals projected to surpass 1,400 MMT by 2050 if current trends continue.
The report urged a more robust tracking and data analysis system to be adopted, which would monitor and assess the impact of plastics from the point of production to the point that plastics enter the oceans.
Further investigation of how plastic debris impacts marine life – and, ultimately, humans through consuming ocean creatures that have ingested microplastics – was also encouraged.
In addition, various mechanisms to reduce the overall of plastic production and consumption in the U.S. should be considered, as well as pathways to improve waste management practices to limit the plastic and microplastic waste entering waterways.
“Plastic waste is an environmental and social crisis that the U.S. needs to affirmatively address from source to sea,” committee chair Margaret Spring, chief conservation and science officer at Monterey Bay Aquarium, said in a press release announcing 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, placing social and economic burdens on vulnerable populations, endangering marine habitats and wildlife, and contaminating waters upon which humans depend for food and livelihoods,” she said.
NASEM’s report is the result of the Save Our Seas 2.0 Act passed on Dec. 18, 2020, which called for “a multifaceted study” looking into the U.S. contribution to plastic waste in the oceans and considering possible means to reduce such debris.