The U.S. is the world’s leading producer of plastic waste by volume, the largest plastic waste producer per capita and the second-largest exporter of plastic waste, according to a report published in Science Advances on Oct. 28.
Globally, there was a 26% increase in plastic production from 2010-16, the years analyzed in the report, with plastics in solid waste increasing 2% during this time period.
In 2016, the U.S. generated more than 320.81 million metric tons (MT) of total waste, with more than 42 million MT of that total being plastic waste.
The next closest country in total waste production was India at more than 277.1 million MT, with the European Union (EU) being the next closest in terms of plastic waste at more than 29.8 million MT.
This annual plastic waste is 130.09 kilograms per capita in the U.S., compared to 54.56 kilograms per year in the EU and 19.88 kilograms per year in India.
Only 9.3% of the plastic waste produced annually in the U.S. is recycled, according to Environmental Protection Agency data; the Science Advances report notes that this EPA estimate “does not consider litter or illegal dumping or the fate of waste once it has been collected for recycling.”
The additional amount of plastic waste from litter and illegal dumping is estimated to be as high as 1.26 MT, which is 2.99% of all the reported plastic waste generated in the U.S. each year.
Another factor unaccounted for by official EPA estimates is the volume of material placed into the U.S. recycling system that ultimately ends up in landfills.
“The United States is the second largest exporter of plastic scrap globally,” the report said. “If imported material is not properly managed in the receiving country, environmental inputs of plastic waste generated in the United States may be much higher than previously assessed.”
As much as 25% of plastic scrap bales and as much as 5% of paper scrap bales exported to other nations from the U.S. and the U.K. are unusable products that likely end up in landfills.
An April 2019 report from GAIA and a February 2020 report from Greenpeace documented how materials that are technically recyclable are ending up in both formal and informal landfills across the world.
“The most straightforward way to reduce environmental inputs of plastic waste is to produce less … Waste reduction must begin with material, product and packaging design that addresses end-of-life management, including an explicit cost for recovery and treatment,” the Science Advances report concluded.
“Ultimately, reducing plastic waste in the United States and assuming full responsibility for its reprocessing or disposal will require substantially greater commitments by resin producers, consumer products and retail companies, and the U.S. federal government.”