The U.S. Should Stop Blaming Other Countries for Plastic Pollution

Photo: Isaac Mead Long/Ocean Conservancy

Study after study have suggested that Asian countries, particularly ones in Southeast Asia, are the biggest contributors to plastic pollution. This belief has informed policy, too—the Environmental Protection Agency’s recent plan for how to tackle the issue of plastic pollution, for instance, said that together, China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam “account for over half of the plastic waste input into the ocean.” New research shows that’s not a fair assessment.


It’s true that China is the top producer of plastic, but huge amounts of that product aren’t used domestically. The new research, based on World Bank data on littering and dumping, found that the U.S. is actually among the worst contributors to global plastic pollution.

The study, published in Science Advances on Friday, shows that the U.S. produced 46 million tons of plastic waste in 2016 (the most recent year from which data is available). That’s far more than any other country in the world produced that year.

“The U.S. is 4% of the world’s population, yet its produces 17% of its plastic waste,” Nick Mallos, seanior director of the Trash Free Seas program at the Ocean Conservancy and an author of the study, said on a press call.

The authors said that previous studies on America’s plastic waste have only tracked what’s accounted for in official parts of the waste stream, like the plastic that goes into landfills, incinerators, and recycling centers. That includes an oft-cited 2015 study authored by many of the same scientists, which suggested that the U.S. didn’t rank in the top 10 for worst plastic polluters.

The new results show those figures paint too rosy a picture, though, because it doesn’t account for illegal dumping or for the 51% of U.S. plastic waste that got shipped overseas. Upon closer consideration, the researchers estimated that in 2016, between 1.2 million and 2.5 million tons of U.S. plastic waste ended up as litter on land or in the oceans.

If you laid all those discarded shopping bags, straws, and other littered products out, it would create a stack as long and wide as the White House lawn and as tall as the Empire State Building, the researchers said on the press call. To make matters worse, despite the country’s wealth and access to resources, a shameful 9% of U.S. plastic waste was recycled in 2016.


“For years, corporations and governments in the Global North have scapegoated countries in Asia for the plastic pollution crisis,” Graham Forbes, global plastics project leader at Greenpeace USA, who did not work on the study, said in an emailed statement. “This comprehensive study now reveals that the U.S. has generated more plastic waste than any other country, and an enormous amount of that is ending up in our environment.”

The study also shows that U.S. citizens also produce more plastic waste per person than any other country, followed by UK citizens, presumably because of the wealthy countries’ high rates of plastic consumption.


“The U.S. needs to stop blaming other countries for its problem and give up its addiction to single-use plastic,” Forbes said.

Earther staff writer. Blogs about energy, animals, why we shouldn't trust the private sector to solve the climate crisis, etc. Has an essay in the 2021 book The World We Need.


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For effective pollution control you have to take into consideration mass rate and total periodic mass discharge. Plastic discharged per person would be the rate. Concentration is also rate, if anyone was wondering. That is the occurrence of something per unit of measure (e.g. time, volume, etc). Total plastic discharged from a grouping of people, let’s say country, over a time period, let’s say a year, would be the total annual discharge from country X. There’s a lot of Asians on this great planet of ours, like the majority of the planet. But now we’ve expanded the unit of measure for people grouping from country to continent. Types of people groupings could be endless. One could take a tiered approach based on a grouping station, too, for example.

I guess the best the US could do would be to cut domestic plastic consumption drastically so to become the exceptional kickass world leader boss people at plastic consumption reduction. We could also export our world class self-criticism skills that’s enjoyed by not only the few, but the many throughout this great land of ours. The US might produce the finest everlasting and ever-insufferable liberal arts college sophomores. A nonprofit fellow should study that. Anyway, back to the point... and/or the US could diminish opportunity so to keep low rate plastic consuming people away so to not become high rate plastic consuming, with an ever increasing rate from generation to generation.

That said, life wasn’t too horrible when soda pop glass bottles had to be returned for reuse.