The Role the U.S. Can Play In Plastic Waste Reduction

According to a congressionally mandated report, the U.S. generated more plastic waste than any other country in 2016, surpassing the plastic waste generated by all of the EU member countries combined

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine report on plastic waste recommended that the U.S. create a national strategy by the end of 2022 to reduce its contribution to plastic waste in the ocean. According to the report, there are six intervention stages the plan should address:

  1. Reducing plastic production
  2. Innovating design and materials to develop more sustainable substitutes
  3. Decreasing waste generation 
  4. Improving waste management
  5. Capturing waste in the environment
  6. Minimizing at-sea disposal.

The report also recommends the U.S. establish a nationally coordinated and expanded monitoring system to track plastic pollution.

The Gigantic Problem of Plastic Waste

Plastic waste is a big problem. At least 8.8 million tons of plastic pollution enter the world’s oceans every year, which is the equivalent of dumping a garbage truck of plastic into the ocean every minute. In 2018, plastic waste in the U.S. accounted for 12 percent of all municipal solid waste, with only 8.7 percent recycled. Containers and packaging accounted for the largest share of plastic waste, and only 14 percent is recycled. 

Containers and packaging fall into the category of single-use plastic. The world produces 300 million tons of plastic, and half of it is for single-use items such as packaging. Most single-use plastics are not recycled. According to a study published in the journal Nature, the most common plastic waste found in oceans is single-use items. Bottles, bags, food containers/cutlery, and wrappings comprise the top four items found in oceans. 

Plastic waste causes plastic pollution. Plastic poses a threat to marine life. Fish mistake plastic pieces for food which cause health problems. Birds get entangled in plastic. Plastic waste also contributes to reef destruction. Plastic pollution is found in the world’s oceans, including in the Pacific Ocean, where plastic waste the size of Texas, known as the Pacific Garbage Patch, pollutes the ocean. Plastic waste is also found in lakes, including the Great Lakes, rivers, and estuaries. 

What the U.S. can do to reduce plastic waste

According to another study, in 2016, the U.S. generated the largest amount of plastic waste of any country. Americans are only five percent of the world’s population. The World Wildlife Fund suggests three things the U.S. can do to tackle its plastic waste problem:

  1. Call for environmental justice. The U.S. needs policies that put community protection above corporations.
  2. Strengthen recycling by putting the responsibility on producers. Recycling is a big problem in tackling plastic waste. California Governor Gavin Newsom signed five bills into law this year to strengthen the state’s recycling system. One of those bills expands the plastic straws upon request law to include other single-use food accessories.
  3. Support international leadership. The world needs a united global response to plastic waste and the U.S. can play a role in developing and signing a UN treaty on plastic pollution.

A Business Case for Improving Plastic Recycling

According to a McKinsey study, the recovery of plastic packaging and food-service plastic waste in the U.S. could generate $2 billion to $4 billion a year. Americans use around 37 million tons of plastic every year, and packaging and food-service plastics comprise 16 tons of all plastic used. Americans use 100 pounds of packaging and food-service plastic per person a year. 

A report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation found that 95 percent of plastic packaging material value, $80 billion to $120 billion a year, is lost to the economy. Most plastic packaging is not recycled, and the cost to the economy, factoring in the greenhouse gas emissions from production, is an estimated $40 billion. 

The U.S. can do better

Given the scale of the U.S. economy, the world’s largest economy, the country can play a major role in plastic waste reduction. The biggest obstacle is the lack of will to do so by politicians. If the American people started crying out for solutions from their elected officials, that obstacle could fall. The U.S. can learn from what other countries are doing to tackle plastic pollution.

What You Can Do to Reduce Plastic Pollution

Aside from demanding political leaders and manufacturers do more to reduce plastic throughput in the economy, individuals can take simple steps to reduce their plastic waste.

Avoid single-use plastics!

Keeping this in mind is likely the most comprehensive, effective, and far-reaching action individuals can take to effect change.

No plastic straws ever: The plastic straw has become something of a meme, often representing the futile nature of individual effort. Estimates indicate as many as 500 million plastic straws are used every day. One straw not used won’t make a perceptible difference, but as more people like you and me refuse plastic straws, we can bend the curve on one of the most ubiquitous examples of plastic waste.

Bottles, bags, and sporks: Straws are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to single-use plastic. From cutlery (sporks!) to packaging and water bottles, we are inundated with single-use plastics. Consumers rejecting their use sends another signal through the economy that it is unacceptable. That signal may be hard to hear at first, but it will soon become impossible to ignore.

Reusable shopping bags: When shopping, carrying a reusable bag, such as those made from cloth, can drastically cut down on the consumption of disposable plastic bags. Keeping a few of these bags in your car or purse ensures you’re always prepared.

Sustainable food storage: Transitioning from plastic to glass or stainless steel containers not only benefits the environment but also enhances personal health by reducing exposure to potentially harmful substances released by some plastics.

Support plastic reduction initiatives: Advocating for and supporting policies like bag taxes or bans can drive systemic change. This collective action can lead to a significant reduction in plastic waste at the community or national level.

Image by Brian Yurasits on Unsplash

Gina-Marie Cheeseman
Gina-Marie Cheeseman
Gina-Marie Cheeseman, freelance writer/journalist/copyeditor Twitter: @gmcheeseman

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