Local governments, state governments, and the federal government have all set their sights on dealing with the issue of plastic waste. The goal of their initiatives is to curb the amount of mismanaged plastic waste that ends up in our environment. This report outlines the current state of mismanaged plastic globally and in the United States, and evaluates the legislative efforts undertaken to combat mismanaged plastic waste. This report concludes with policy suggestions that can be implemented to better curb mismanaged plastic waste.
Less than 9% of all plastic waste is recycled in the United States, which unfortunately means that the bulk of that waste is left to sit in landfills, taking decades to decompose.
Although the United States is failing when it comes to recycling plastic products, Americans are not significant polluters when it comes to global mismanaged plastic waste. Up to 95 percent of all plastic found in the world’s oceans comes from just 10 source rivers, all of which are in the developing world.
In total, the United States is responsible for approximately 1% of the world’s mismanaged marine plastic waste. That is 27 times lower than China, 10 times lower than Indonesia, 6 times lower than the Philippines, and 5 times lower than Vietnam and Sri Lanka.
That remaining 1% of mismanaged plastic should, and can be, eliminated. The question remains, are current legislative efforts to curb plastic going to work, and are these efforts a net benefit for the environment?
SUMMARY: A BETTER WAY FORWARD
In summary, plastic waste is a problem in the United States, but local, state and federal initiatives proposed to deal with plastic waste largely miss the mark. A more comprehensive strategy, embracing the following policy items, would be a far superior way for the US to tackle plastic waste while defending consumer choice:
A ban on the export of plastic waste to countries that fail to meet environmental stewardship standards. The US should not offload its plastic waste to countries that mismanage that waste, which results in such waste ending up in the environment. That said, the ban should only apply to countries that fail to properly manage plastic waste. For countries that have advanced recycling capacity, there should be no prohibition on the exportation of plastic waste.
Expansion of advanced recycling technology and chemical depolymerization permits. By inciting private investment into advanced recycling, the US can do a much better job in ensuring that plastic waste is reclaimed, and then either recycled, repurposed or converted. At the same time, policies should endorse technology neutrality and ultimately leave it to the marketplace on whether recycling a product makes sense or not.
Embrace innovation and market solutions to the United States’ plastic problem. There are a variety of new and innovative products that are being brought to market to address plastic waste. There are new single-use polyhydroxyalkanoate (PHA) product classes of cups, takeout containers, and straws that are almost entirely biodegradable, solving the issue of mismanaged plastic waste taking decades, or centuries, to decompose.
Evaluate market mechanisms to price waste accordingly, so that the externalities of mismanaged waste are not offloaded onto communities and local waste management agencies. We propose a full review of how the US can effectively price waste appropriately, in consultation with both consumers and producers.