American Ocean plastic pollution causes a variety of problems that kill aquatic animals

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A new study published Friday in the journal Science Advances estimates that the United States could be among the world’s biggest contributors to sea plastic pollution – not just because of littering, but as a result of improper management in other states where the U.S. has historically shipped plastic scrap for recycling.

In the study, a study team led by Kara Lavender Law of Woods Hole’s Sea Education Association decided that the United States generated 42 million tonnes of plastic waste in 2016, over any other nation. Based on existing per-capita estimates for littering and illegal dumping, they estimated that roughly 2-3 per cent (1-1.25 million tonnes) was improperly disposed of within America. Most of the remainder was landfilled or incinerated, using a small nine per cent share recycled.

A significant share of America’s recycled plastic garbage has been sent abroad, typically in a polluted form requiring sorting to be used. In addition, the export-grade post-consumer paper is usually infected with vinyl, which also has to be removed before the paper waste can be recycled. Whenever these two recycled commodity courses are processed in growing nations like Malaysia and Indonesia, the sorting process often results in uncontrolled dumping of the undesirable plastic contaminants. The team estimated the quantity of this improperly handled waste plastic at up to an additional one million tonnes per year.

With the addition of overseas mishandling of American waste, the group calculated that the United States may rank as the planet’s third-largest contributor of plastic waste into the coastal environment (as of 2016). A subset of the waste is washed into or deposited in the ocean.

The study relies upon information that predates China’s clampdown on recycled waste imports, which sharply curtailed its domestic plastic recycling industry. This prompted developed-world plastic waste exports to shift to other nations, particularly in Southeast Asia; it’s also directed U.S. waste management companies to boost domestic recycling capacity and landfill more vinyl. The American Chemistry Council reports that America’s plastic waste exports have plummeted 70% within the past four decades.

“Ultimately, reducing plastic waste from the USA and assuming full responsibility for its reprocessing or disposal may require substantially greater obligations by resin producers, consumer goods, and retail businesses, along with the U.S. federal government,” the investigators concluded.

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