Reckoning with the U.S Role in Global Ocean Plastic Waste concludes plastic waste in the U.S. is ubiquitous and increasing. Worldwide, at least 8.8 million metric tons of plastic waste enter the world’s oceans each year — the equivalent of dumping a garbage truck of plastic into the ocean every minute — and in 2016 the U.S. generated more plastic waste than any other country, exceeding that of all European Union member states combined.
Plastic waste has devastating impacts on the ocean’s health, marine wildlife, and communities. Without changing current practices, the report says, plastics will continue to accumulate in the ocean with adverse consequences.
The report says today’s recycling processes and infrastructure are grossly insufficient to manage the complexity and quantity of plastic waste produced, and that a large portion of plastic waste is disposed of in landfills. While the U.S. solid waste management system is advanced overall, the committee that wrote the report concluded there is both a need and opportunity to expand and evolve municipal solid waste management in the U.S. to ensure it better manages plastic waste, and serves communities and regions equitably, efficiently, and economically.
“Plastic waste is an environmental and social crisis that the U.S. needs to affirmatively address from source to sea,” said committee chair Margaret Spring, chief conservation and science officer at Monterey Bay Aquarium. “Plastic waste generated by the U.S. has so many consequences — impacting inland and coastal communities, polluting our rivers, lakes, beaches, bays, and waterways, placing social and economic burdens on vulnerable populations, endangering marine habitats and wildlife, and contaminating waters upon which humans depend for food and livelihoods.”
A National Strategy
The report recommends the U.S. establish a coherent, comprehensive, and crosscutting federal policy and research strategy to reduce its contribution of plastic waste to the environment and ocean. This strategy should be developed by a group of experts, or external advisory body, by Dec. 31, 2022. The strategy’s implementation should be assessed by Dec. 31, 2025.
Recognizing U.S. actions taken to date, no single solution will be sufficient to address the problem, the report says, and therefore the national strategy should employ a suite of interventions at every stage of plastics’ flow into the ocean. It should also build on efforts underway, fill gaps in coverage, and apply lessons learned in the U.S. and other countries.
Taking a leadership role in preventing plastic pollution would position the U.S. to shape and influence global plastic production, design, and innovation — and possibly create new economic opportunities, the report says. While government will play a critical role in organizing a national strategy, collaboration across actors in plastic waste systems will be essential, as will a robust monitoring and research program and active public engagement.
The report lays out six intervention stages that the strategy should address:
- Reducing plastic production, especially for plastics that are not reusable or practically recyclable, thereby decreasing the need for waste management — for example, by establishing a national cap on virgin plastic production.
- Innovating design and materials to develop substitutes that degrade more quickly or can be more easily recycled or reused, such as through government-sponsored research and development collaborations.
- Decreasing waste generation by reducing the use of disposable plastic products intended for short periods of use, including by limiting products and creating targets for recycling — for example, by creating a ban on specific products based on their toxicity or necessity.
- Improving waste management, including infrastructure, collection, treatment, leakage control, and accounting — for example, by establishing regulatory limits on plastic or microplastic waste discharged into the ocean by river systems.
- Capturing waste in the environment, including from ground litter, storm water, or directly from waters where it accumulates — such as during river or beach cleanups.
- Minimizing at-sea disposal by directly targeting the flow of plastic from vessels or platforms — for example, by increasing enforcement for dumping trash at sea.
U.S. Contributions to Plastic in the Ocean
The committee was asked to estimate U.S. contributions to global ocean plastic waste, including both plastics produced in the U.S. and plastics made elsewhere that enter U.S. waste streams. The report presents several scientific estimates, but cautions that precisely defining U.S. contributions is not possible given gaps in data, monitoring, and reporting under existing law. The known estimates, while likely conservative, convey the enormous scale of the problem.
The report also confirms U.S. contributions to waste and production are outsized compared with other nations. Previous studies have found that Americans generate on average between 4.5 and 6 pounds of solid waste every day — which is between 2 and 8 times the waste generation in many countries. In 2016 the U.S. generated 42 million metric tons of plastic waste, the largest mass of any other country. In addition, U.S. plastic production has consistently increased each year since the 1960s.
Tracking and Measuring Plastic Waste
Data collection is critical to better understanding the sources, extent and patterns of plastic waste in the ocean, and priorities for prevention, management, and cleanup. The report recognizes gaps in the data, as well as the potential for integrating and enhancing existing monitoring systems. The U.S. should establish multiple complementary tracking and monitoring systems to help identify sources and hotspots, understand the scale of the plastic waste problem, and measure progress in addressing it.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Marine Debris Monitoring and Assessment project should conduct a national shoreline survey every five years, the report says. In addition, federal agencies with mandates over coastal and inland waters should establish new or enhanced monitoring programs, coordinated across agencies.
The study — undertaken by the Committee on United States Contributions to Global Ocean Plastic Waste — was sponsored by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine are private, nonprofit institutions that provide independent, objective analysis and advice to the nation to solve complex problems and inform public policy decisions related to science, technology, and medicine. They operate under an 1863 congressional charter to the National Academy of Sciences, signed by President Lincoln.