Plastic waste of all shapes and sizes permeates the world’s oceans. It shows up on beaches, in fish and even in Arctic sea ice. And a new report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine makes clear that the U.S. is a big part of the problem.
As the report shows, the U.S. produces a large share of the global supply of plastic resin – the precursor material to all plastic industrial and consumer products. It also imports and exports billions of dollars’ worth of plastic products every year.
On a per capita basis, the U.S. produces an order of magnitude more plastic waste than China – a nation often vilified over pollution-related issues. These findings build off a study published in 2020 that concluded that the U.S. is the largest global source of plastic waste, including plastics shipped to other countries that later are mismanaged.
And only a small fraction of plastic in U.S. household waste streams is recycled. The study calls current U.S. recycling systems “grossly insufficient to manage the diversity, complexity and quantity of plastic waste.”
As scientists who study the effects of plastic pollution on marine ecosystems, we view this report as an important first step on a long road to reducing ocean plastic pollution. While it’s important to make clear how the U.S. is contributing to ocean plastic waste, we see a need for specific, actionable goals and recommendations to mitigate the plastic pollution crisis, and would have liked to see the report go further in that direction.
Plastic is showing up in seafood
Researchers started documenting marine plastic pollution in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Public and scientific interest in the issue exploded in the early 2000s after oceanographer Charles Moore drew attention to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch – a region in the central north Pacific where ocean currents concentrate floating plastic trash into spinning collections thousands of miles across.
More plastic garbage patches have now been found in the South Pacific, the North and South Atlantic, and the Indian Ocean. Unsurprisingly, plastic pervades marine food webs. Over 700 marine species are known to ingest plastic, including over 200 species of fish that humans eat.
Humans also consume plastic that fragments into beverages and food from packaging and inhale microplastic particles in household dust. Scientists are only beginning to assess what this means for public health. Research to date suggests that exposure to plastic-associated chemicals may interfere with hormones that regulate many processes in our bodies, cause developmental problems in children, or alter human metabolic processes in ways that promote obesity.