Overall, the US contributed around 42 million metric tons (MMT) in plastic waste in 2016 — more than twice as much as China and more than the countries of the European Union combined, unveiled a recent report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. [1] On average, every American generates 130 kilograms (286 pounds) of plastic waste per year, with Britain next on the list at 99 kilos per person per year, followed by South Korea at 88 kilos per year.

Environmental and social crisis

According to Margaret Spring, chief science officer of Monterey Bay Aquarium, who chaired the committee of experts that compiled the report, the success of plastics in the 20th century has produced “a global scale deluge of plastic waste.

She added global plastic waste was an "environmental and social crisis" that impacted inland and coastal communities, polluted rivers, lakes and beaches, and placed economic burdens on communities, endangered wildlife and contaminated waters that humans depend on for food.

Global plastic production rose from 20 million metric tons in 1966 to 381 million metric tons in 2015, a 20-fold increase over half a century, the report said.

Lack of capabilities

It is now known that almost any plastic on land has the potential to reach the oceans via rivers and streams, the report added.

An estimated 8 million metric tons of plastic waste enters the world annually, "the equivalent of dumping a garbage truck of plastic waste into the ocean every minute." At the current rate, the amount of plastics discharged into the ocean could reach up to 53 million metric tons per year by 2030, roughly half of the total weight of fish caught from the ocean annually, it said.

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. Part of the reason is that while the generation of plastic waste has exploded, particularly since 1980, the scale of recycling capabilities has not kept up.

Reduce single-use plastics

The report recommends the U.S. establish a coherent and comprehensive federal policy and research strategy by the end of 2022, to reduce its contribution of plastic waste to the environment and ocean.

The suggested actions to address the crisis include reducing virgin plastic production, for example by establishing a national cap, using materials that degrade more quickly and are more easily recycled, the reduction of certain single-use plastics, and improved waste management.