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Woods Hole Scientist: U.S. Leading World in Plastic Waste

Sarah Mizes-Tan
Bales of plastic awaiting shipment outside a municipal recycling facility called E.L. Harvey in Westborough, MA.

In recent years the United States produced more plastic waste than any country in the world, according to new research led by a Woods Hole scientist. 


The research, published in the journal Science Advances, shows the United States generated 42 million metric tons of plastic waste in 2016. 

“I wasn’t so surprised that that the US was number one,” said Kara Lavender Law, lead study author and a research professor of oceanography at the Sea Education Association in Woods Hole. “In fact, we found that despite having only 4 percent of the world’s population, we produce 17 percent of the world’s plastic trash." 


Of all the plastic waste the U.S. generated that year, about 5 percent was “mismanaged,” meaning it was tossed as litter or dumped illegally in the U.S., or improperly handled after being shipped to other countries for recycling. 


“In the end, when we talk about the amount of plastic waste generated in the U.S. ending up in the environment, either at home or abroad, we’re talking up to 2.24 million metric tons in a single year,” Law explained. “If you piled all that plastic on the White House lawn it would reach as high as the Empire State building.”  


Law and her fellow researchers from the Ocean Conservancy, DSM Environmental Services, and the University of Georgia’s College of Engineering say the U.S. needs to invest in infrastructure to collect and recycle more plastic.


“For some time, it has been cheaper for the United States to ship its recyclables abroad rather than handle them here at home, but that has come at great cost to our environment,” wrote Natalie Starr, principal at DSM Environmental Services and a co-author of the study. “We need to change the math by investing in recycling technologies and collection programs, as well as accelerating research and development to improve the performance and drive down the costs of more sustainable plastics and packaging alternatives to address the current challenge.”


Individuals should also consider reducing their single-use-plastic purchases, Law said.


“We take all of this time and effort to separate out our recyclables put them in the blue bin. But actually very little of what’s in that blue bin is getting recycled, so it’s not an excuse to buy more and use more,” she said. “We can’t think of that as absolving us of creating the waste in the first place."  


Scientists have estimated that about 710 million metric tons of plastic could end up in the environment by 2040 even if there are immediate improvements in waste management and major reductions in plastic-use. 


“This is a global problem and it’s a wicked problem," Law said. “We have to attack it in lots of different ways.” 

Eve Zuckoff covers the environment and human impacts of climate change for CAI.