A study published today in the journal Science Advances has revealed that the United States ranks as high as third among countries contributing to coastal plastic pollution when taking into account its scrap plastic exports as well as the latest figures on illegal dumping and littering in the country. The new research challenges the once-held assumption that the United States is adequately “managing” – that is, collecting and properly landfilling, recycling or otherwise containing – its plastic waste. A previous study using 2010 data that did not account for plastic scrap exports had ranked the United States 20th, globally, in its contribution to ocean plastic pollution from mismanaged waste.

Using plastic waste generation data from 2016 – the latest available global numbers – scientists from Sea Education Association, DSM Environmental Services, University of Georgia, and Ocean Conservancy calculated that more than half of all plastics collected for recycling (1.99 million metric tons of 3.91 million metric tons collected) in the United States were shipped abroad. Of this, 88% of exports went to countries struggling to effectively manage, recycle, or dispose of plastics; and between 15-25% was low-value or contaminated, meaning it was effectively unrecyclable. Taking these factors into account, the researchers estimated that up to 1 million metric tons of U.S.-generated plastic waste ended up polluting the environment beyond its own borders.

“For years, so much of the plastic we have put into the blue bin has been exported for recycling to countries that struggle to manage their own waste, let alone the vast amounts delivered from the United States,” said lead author Dr. Kara Lavender Law, research professor of oceanography at Sea Education Association. “And when you consider how much of our plastic waste isn’t actually recyclable because it is low-value, contaminated or difficult to process, it’s not surprising that a lot of it ends up polluting the environment.”

Using 2016 data, the paper also estimated that 2-3% of all plastic waste generated in the U.S. – between 0.91 and 1.25 million metric tons – was either littered or illegally dumped into the environment domestically. Combined with waste exports, this means the United States contributed up to 2.25 million metric tons of plastics into the environment. Of this, up to 1.5 million metric tons of plastics ended up in coastal environments (within 50 km of a coastline), where proximity to the shore increases the likelihood of plastics entering the ocean by wind or through waterways. This ranks the United States as high as third globally in contributing to coastal plastic pollution.

“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,” said Nick Mallos, senior director of Ocean Conservancy’s Trash Free Seas® program and a co-author of the study. “The solution has to start at home. 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.”

The study noted that although the United States accounted for just 4% of the global population in 2016, it generated 17% of all plastic waste. On average, Americans generated nearly twice as much plastic waste per capita as residents of the EU.

“Previous research has provided global values for plastic input into the environment and coastal areas, but detailed analyses like this one are important for individual countries to further assess their contributions,” said Dr. Jenna Jambeck, Distinguished Professor at the University of Georgia’s College of Engineering and a co-author of the study. “In the case of the United States, it is critically important that we examine our own backyard and take responsibility for our global plastic footprint.”

“For some time, it has been cheaper for the United States to ship its recyclables abroad rather than handle them here at home, but that has come at great cost to our environment,” said Natalie Starr, principal at DSM Environmental Services and a co-author of the study. “We need to change the math by investing in recycling technologies and collection programs, as well as accelerating research and development to improve the performance and drive down the costs of more sustainable plastics and packaging alternatives to address the current challenge.”

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About Sea Education Association/SEA Semester®

Sea Education Association (SEA) is an internationally recognized leader in undergraduate ocean education. For nearly 50 years and with 1.3 million nautical miles sailed, SEA has educated students about the world’s oceans through its Boston University accredited study abroad program, SEA Semester. SEA/SEA Semester is based on Cape Cod in the oceanographic research community of Woods Hole, Massachusetts and owns two research vessels: the SSV Corwith Cramer, operating in the Atlantic Ocean, and the SSV Robert C. Seamans, operating in the Pacific. In 2016, SEA was honored with the National Science Board’s Public Service Award for its role in promoting the public understanding of science and engineering. In 2018, the National Maritime Historical Society presented Sea Education Association with the Walter Cronkite Award for Excellence in Maritime Education. To learn more visit http://www.sea.edu and follow SEA on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

About Ocean Conservancy’s Trash Free Seas® Program

Ocean Conservancy has led the fight for a clean, healthy ocean free of trash since 1986, when the U.S.-based nonprofit launched its annual International Coastal Cleanup (ICC). Since then, Ocean Conservancy has mobilized millions of ICC volunteers to remove trash from beaches and waterways around the world while pioneering upstream solutions to the growing ocean plastics crisis. Ocean Conservancy invests in cutting-edge scientific research, implements on-the-ground projects, and works with conservationists, scientists, governments, the private sector and members of the public to change the plastics paradigm. To learn more about our Trash Free Seas® program visit oceanconservancy.org/trashfreeseas, and follow Ocean Conservancy on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

About the University of Georgia College of Engineering

At the University of Georgia College of Engineering, challenging coursework connects with real-world practice; the energy of a start-up connects with the birthplace of American public higher education; leadership connects with collaboration; and soaring aspirations connect with concrete achievements. Since its formation in 2012, the UGA College of Engineering has grown to more than 2,600 students and more than 80 faculty members. In addition, the College’s research expenditures have increased by more than 300% in the past five years. The College is developing new tools to fight diseases, exploring new ways to improve cyber security, developing innovations to make our infrastructure more resilient, and even transforming engineering education. The UGA College of Engineering is committed to finding solutions that result in healthier people, a more secure future, and stronger communities in Georgia and around the world. Learn more at engineering.uga.edu.

About DSM Environmental Services

DSM Environmental Services, Inc. (DSM), Windsor, Vermont, specializes in improving solid waste management, materials recovery, and sustainability metrics for state and local government. DSM’s two principals are Resource Economists with over 60 years of experience in the waste and recycling industry. DSM was incorporated in 1988 to provide solid waste management expertise to municipalities and state government. DSM’s work quickly expanded to incorporate economic analysis of recycling and organics programs, collection efficiency studies, and analysis of waste minimization, organics management, extended producer responsibility and climate change impacts. While DSM initially worked exclusively in New England, as the firm’s expertise and reputation grew, DSM provided training, support, and leadership on projects throughout the United States as well as in 17 other countries around the world.



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