United States contributing five times more plastic than previous study showed

Maeve Reiter, Brand & Social Media Editor

Too much of a good thing can be bad. But for something that is dangerous in the first place, too much can be catastrophic.

According to a study published in the journal Science Advances, America’s contribution to plastic in the ocean is actually much higher than originally thought. It is about five times more than what previously published data from 2015 by the same authors showed.

Plastic is not biodegradable, meaning that it cannot be broken down naturally and leaves toxins in the environment. This leads to pollution, and as plastic production grows, more waste accumulates and pollution increases greatly. The increased contribution to plastic waste in the environment shown in the results of the study only furthers this process.

As plastic amounts rise, it gets harder and harder to dispose of it properly and safely. An article from The New York Times says that only around 9% of the United States’ plastic waste is actually recycled. Some go to landfills or are incinerated and some go directly into the environment. Also, because plastic is cheap to make and expensive to recycle, most plastic waste is actually exported to other countries such as China instead of recycled in the United States.

While the exportation of plastics was seemingly successful at first, the countries that receive America’s waste are now inadequately prepared to recycle it because of the rise in plastic production and usage noted in the study. An article from NPR explains how China once willingly accepted the plastic the US sent over, but now with a considerably larger increase in the amount of plastic, they are running out of places for it to go. With the plastic having nowhere to safely be disposed of, it accumulates and further pollutes the environment, having lasting effects on nature and wildlife.

The most dangerous types of plastic to the environment are single-use plastics, as explained in an article by the organization Earth Day. These plastics, since they are single-use, are discarded quickly and include items such as packaging and straws. Because of their short lifetime, it is not long before they are disposed of and need someplace to go. Around 32% never even make it into landfills and go directly into the ocean. This can harm ocean life and release toxins into the environment.

While the main cause of plastic pollution, especially single-use plastics, is the amount being produced, small short-term steps taken by individuals can still help long-term. Suggestions for ways to cut down on single-use plastic in everyday life include using reusable bags and storage containers, according to an article from The New York Times. Buying things at bulk stores such as spices and grains in reusable containers saves plastic in the long run by cutting down on food packaging. Thrift shopping, wearing natural or sustainably made clothes, or even making your own clothes cut down on microplastic pollution caused by synthetic fibers used in clothing. 

The study solidifies the need to handle production of plastic in the United States instead of shifting the problem on other countries. While the plastic problem may take a while to solve, the problem is clear and brainstorming solutions can truly begin.

A variety of plastic waste is washed up on a beach. Plastic packaging accounted for 52% of thrown away plastic in 2015, according to the Earth Day organization. (Creative Commons/Brian Gratwicke)