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Plastic waste in the United States - statistics & facts

Plastic has become one of the most important materials in human history since it first became commercially used more than 50 years ago. It is found in virtually all products, from packaging and vehicles to medical equipment and electronics. Because of this, the production of plastic has increased massively worldwide in recent decades, thus creating the serious issue of plastic waste, of which the United States is a leading contributor. In fact, it is estimated that the U.S. is the world’s largest generator of plastic waste, with the average American generating roughly 130 kilograms of plastic waste per year.

Plastic waste treatment in the U.S.

Plastics accounted for 12 percent of the 292 million tons of municipal solid waste generated in the U.S. in 2018, totaling some 35.7 million tons. However, the volume of plastic waste recycled in the U.S. that year was 3.1 million tons, giving a recycling rate of just 8.7 percent. There are many reasons why the recycling rate of plastic waste is so low in the U.S., such as contamination when items are disposed of incorrectly. Another big hurdle is the fact that not all recycling facilities can treat every type of plastic product collected. This means that large volumes of plastic waste that could potentially be recycled ends up landfilled or incinerated for energy recovery.
Plastic waste can come in a number of forms, but containers and packaging account for the largest share of plastics found in the U.S. MSW stream. However, just 14 percent of these products are recycled, with 70 percent dumped in landfills. The plastic packaging products with the highest recycling rates are PET bottles and jars, at 29.1 percent.

Plastic waste exports

Like many wealthy countries around the world, the U.S. exports huge volumes of scrap plastic to developing countries every year as a convenient and cheap way of dealing with its waste. However, while this waste is typically collected as “recycled”, many of the countries this waste is exported to have inadequate waste management infrastructures. Most recently in 2020, the volume of scrap plastic exported by the U.S. amounted to 1.37 billion pounds. This is a noticeable drop compared to the amount exported in 2017, which totaled 3.68 billion pounds.
In previous years the U.S. used to ship the majority of its plastic waste to China. However, in 2017 China introduced restrictions on waste imports, and in 2018 imposed a ban on recovered plastic imports. This meant the U.S. has had to look elsewhere to send its waste, with exports to countries such as Malaysia and Vietnam increasing dramatically. Although the U.S. ships its waste all around the world, neighboring Canada has become the top market for U.S. scrap plastic exports. This is expected to continue due to changes to the Basel Convention, which restricts the movement of scrap plastics to developing countries in an effort to mitigate the global plastic crisis. However, while the U.S. signed the Basel Convention, it has not ratified it, meaning it is not bound by the rules. Despite these new regulations being introduced in early 2021, in January of that year the U.S. exported millions of pounds of plastic scrap to developing countries such as Malaysia, Vietnam, and Indonesia.

Plastic pollution in the U.S.

While the importance of plastics cannot be underestimated, the majority of it is not biodegradable, therefore it can stay in the environment for hundreds, if not thousands of years. This can cause devastating pollution, especially in oceans. Unfortunately, with such large volumes of plastic waste generated each year, it is inevitable that some will leak into the environment. It is estimated that in 2016, the U.S. produced a total of 2.24 million tons of mismanaged plastic waste through littering, illegal dumping, and other poor management practices, with some 1.45 million tons produced by country’s coastal population. Mismanaged plastic waste in these regions is very likely to end up as marine litter. Plastic waste such as cigarette butts, food wrappers, bottles, straws, and cups are found in their thousands along U.S. beaches each year during the annual International Coast Ocean Clean Up day. This highlights the need for improved waste management, as well as raising awareness of the impacts of plastic waste.

Interesting statistics

In the following 6 chapters, you will quickly find the 32 most important statistics relating to "Plastic waste in the United States".


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