Study shows US is major contributor to coastal plastic pollution

Ocean trash swept up on remote areas of Alaska costs millions of dollars to clean up

A new study published in the journal Science Advances identifies the United States as among the top 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.

The research, published Friday, Oct. 30, challenges a long time held assumption that the U.S, adequately manages the collection and landfilling, recycling or otherwise containing its plastics wastes. A previous study that used 2010 data, that did not account for plastic scrap exports, ranked the U.S. 20th globally in its contribution to ocean plastic pollution from waste mismanagement.

Alaskans have seen the impact of coastal plastic pollution and more in the continuing tons of ocean wastes swept up on coastal areas of the state. Such pollution has a detrimental impact on the marine environment and costs millions of dollars continue cleaning up, particularly because of the remote locations where tons of such trash accumulates.

Scientists from Sea Education Association, DSM Environmental Services, the University of Georgia and Ocean Conservancy used the latest available global numbers on plastic waste generation for this study. They calculated that more than half of all plastics collected for recycling in the U.S. were shipped abroad.  Of this total 88 percent of exports went to countries struggling to effectively manage, recycle or dispose of plastics, and that between 15 percent to 25 percent was low-value or contaminated, meaning it was effectively unrecyclable. Using these factors, 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.

Lead author Kara Lavender Law, a research professor of oceanography at Sea Education Association, said that for years so much plastic put into bins for recycling has been exported for recycling to countries struggling with their own waste issues and then not recycled for various reasons. When considering that so much waste is not recycled, it is not surprising that a lot of it ends up instead polluting the environment.

Researchers using that 2016 data the calculated that up to 1.25 million metric tons either litters or illegally was dumped into the environment domestically.


Nick Mallos, senior director of Ocean Conservancy’s Trash Free Seas program, said the U.S. generates the most plastic waste of any other country in the world, but rather than looking the problem in the eye, has outsourced it to developing countries and become a top contributor to ocean plastics crisis.

“The solution has to start at home,” he 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.”

The study also points out that while the U.S. accounted for just 4 percent of the global population in 2016, it generated 17 percent of all plastic waste. On average, Americans generated nearly twice as much plastic waste per capital as residents of the European Union.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Nick Mallos.