US must create a post-plastic economy, scientists say in new study

As much as 2 million metric tons of plastic wind up in the ocean.
Image: Shutterstock

The US is the world’s largest consumer of plastic, and every year — despite well-established public-waste systems — as much as 2 million metric tons of the stuff wind up in the ocean.

If America is to control its outsized plastic ‘leakage’, it needs comprehensive reforms by the end of 2022 that address everything from design and production through disposal, according to a report released Wednesday by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.

Margaret Spring, chairwoman of the committee of the 10 experts that has been studying plastic marine dumping for a year, says the US waste system is too decentralised to target the problem. “Our overarching recommendation is that a national strategy is going to be needed to deal with this,” she said.

Right now, several states are acting aggressively to curtail the use of single-use plastics and to tighten their recycling stream, she said.  But states largely address waste only after it’s already created.

Without national standards, she said, “We cannot reduce plastic production and design products meant to be recycled in the first place.”

The US plastics industry operated 15 688 manufacturing establishments, employed 758 000 people and made shipments worth $334 billion in 2020. Reducing production would mean reversing long-standing growth trends. Plastic manufacturing and use in the US has soared over the decades and the nation’s production is expected to increase as oil companies launch enormous ‘cracker’ plants for raw materials.

Despite industry claims that plastic can be recycled, only a small portion actually is. The vast majority ends up in landfills.

Yet, plastics are so ubiquitous that some slip out of our waste system and into waterways often in the form of street litter. While experts can’t track exactly how much leakage there is, a report last year found that the US is a top marine polluter.

Worldwide, at least 8.8 million metric tons of plastic waste enter oceans each year— and is destroying marine life across the globe.

The National Academies panel made six recommendations:

  • Reduce production through mechanisms such as a cap on virgin-plastic production.
  • Substitute materials that can degrade more quickly or can recycled more easily.
  • Decrease waste by limiting single-use and particularly toxic products.
  • Improve waste management infrastructure.
  • Capture waste by cleaning up beaches and rivers.
  • Minimise at-sea disposing of any litter including sea vessels or platforms.
© 2021 Bloomberg

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