The United States must act to curb plastic waste in oceans by developing a comprehensive national strategy that includes reducing plastic production, a new report from the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) has determined.
While only 4.3 percent of Earth’s population resides in the U.S., the country was the world’s “top generator of plastic waste” in 2016 and exceeded that of all European nations combined — generating a total of 42 million metric tons of such waste that year, the report found.
The entire world produces about 242 million metric tons of plastic waste annually, of which an estimated 8 million metric tons enters the oceans, according to the NAS, an independent body of scientists established by former President Abraham Lincoln in 1863.
“Plastic waste is an environmental and social crisis that the U.S. needs to affirmatively address from source to sea,” Margaret Spring, chair of the committee behind the report and chief conservation and science officer at Monterey Bay Aquarium, said in a statement.
So much plastic waste is flowing into the ocean worldwide that the quantities are equivalent to dumping a garbage truck of plastic into the ocean every minute, the report said. Meanwhile, the waste is devastating the ocean’s health and marine wildlife. Without swift changes in current practices, the authors warned, plastics will continue to accumulate with adverse effects.
“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,” Spring said.
If the current trajectory holds, the amount of plastics discharged into the ocean could climb from the current 8 million metric tons to 53 million metrics tons per year by 2030 — or “roughly half of the total weight of fish caught from the ocean annually,” the study found.
The report recommended that the U.S. establish “a coherent, comprehensive, and crosscutting federal research and policy strategy” to slash plastic waste. That policy, according to the authors, should be developed by a group of experts or external advisory body by the end of 2022, with its implementation assessed by the end of 2025.
The authors also called for improved data collection to better understand the sources and patterns associated with plastic waste in the ocean, advising the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to conduct a national shoreline survey every five years.
Within the five-decade period from 1966 to 2015, global plastic production increased nearly 20-fold, from 20 million metric tons to 381 million metric tons, according to the report.
The authors advised that the U.S. substantially reduce its solid waste generation, stressing that materials could be designed with an “end-of-life strategy that strives to retain resource value” and that today’s recycling processes remain “grossly insufficient” to manage U.S. plastic waste.
The American Chemistry Council (ACC) — a trade group that represents 28 companies, including oil giants, major chemical manufacturers and plastic makers — agreed with the report’s conclusion that a comprehensive policy strategy to reduce plastic waste is necessary. However, the ACC slammed the study’s recommendation that plastic production should be limited.
“Today’s report from the National Academy of Sciences underscores the importance of transitioning to a circular economy to conserve resources, protect the environment, and prevent plastic from entering the ocean,” Joshua Baca, vice president of plastics at the ACC, said in a statement. “Plastic is a valuable resource that should be kept in our economy and out of our environment.”
Baca stressed the importance of implementing a comprehensive policy strategy that aims to accelerate a circular economy — one in which production focuses on extending the lifecycle of products and curbing waste. The ACC, he explained, has been urging Congress adopt such a policy and has been pushing the United Nations Environment Assembly to begin negotiating a global treaty to address waste management infrastructure.
“There is significant alignment in what the plastics value chain and NAS report are calling for, particularly in improving access to waste collection and recycling infrastructure,” Baca said, noting that since 2017, more than $7.5 billion in advanced recycling projects have been announced or are already operating.
“Unfortunately, the report also suggests restricting plastic production to reduce marine debris,” Baca said. “This is misguided and would lead to supply chain disruptions, economic and inflationary pressure on already hurt consumers, and worse environmental outcomes, particularly related to climate change.”
In a preface to the report, however, Spring wrote that while plastics may have been a “20th century miracle invention,” this innovation “has also produced a global scale deluge of plastics waste seemingly everywhere we look.”
“The ocean plastic waste problem is linked inextricably to the increasing production of plastics and how we use and treat plastic products and waste from their beginning to well beyond the end of their useful lives,” she added.