Oct. 30 (UPI) — The coastline of the United States is relatively clean compared to other parts of the world, but new research suggests the U.S. is one of the world’s top contributors to coastal plastic pollution.
The U.S. exports large amounts of plastic waste. Previous studies have ignored plastic scrap exports, offering the impression that the United States was effectively collecting, disposing and recycling its plastic waste, researchers have said.
According to a new study, published Friday in the journal Science Advances, more than half of the plastic waste collected for recycling in the U.S. — 1.99 million metric tons of 3.91 million metric tons — is shipped out of the country.
Researchers found the vast majority of exported plastic scraps, 88 percent, ends up in countries that are struggling to adequately manage plastic waste. Environmental scientists determined at least 1 million metric tons of plastic waste exported by the U.S. ends up polluting environments abroad every year.
“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,” study lead author Kara Lavender Law said in a news release.
“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,” said Law, a research professor of oceanography at the Sea Education Association.
Researchers also determined that a small but not inconsequential amount of plastic waste collected in the U.S. each year — 2 to 3 percent — is littered or illegally dumped.
After accounting for exported waste, as well as littered or illegally dumped domestic waste, researchers determined the U.S. was responsible for 2.25 million metric tons of plastic pollution in 2016, the last year for which pollution data is readily available.
Roughly two-thirds of the plastic polluted by the U.S. ends up in coastal environs, according to the new study — making the U.S. the world’s third largest producer of coastal plastic pollution.
Despite accounting for just 4 percent of the world’s population, the U.S. is responsible for 17 percent of the world’s 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 study co-author Nick Mallos.
“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,” said Mallos, senior director of the Ocean Conservancy’s Trash Free Seas program.
The researchers suggest their findings should serve as a wakeup call for U.S. policy makers and industry leaders to take responsibility for the nation’s plastic pollution 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 study co-author Natalie Starr.
“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,” said Starr, principal at DSM Environmental Services.