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.