Charting a sustainable path through America's plastic waste 

The growing awareness of the limitations of plastic recycling provides a pivotal moment for the nation to pivot towards a more sustainable future. By Luke Martin.

Of the estimated 40 million tonnes of municipal plastic waste generated in 2021, 85% found its final resting place in landfills. Credit: MOHAMED ABDULRAHEEM via Shutterstock

In the era of progress and innovation, the United States faces a paradoxical crisis—drowning in its own creation. Plastic, hailed as a revolutionary material, has woven itself into the fabric of modern life.  

Yet, beneath the convenience it offers lies an escalating predicament: a burgeoning plastic waste problem that imperils ecosystems, marine life, and human health.  

As the World Economic Forum sounds the alarm on the plummeting recycling rates, environmental groups unravel the intricacies of the plastic lifecycle, and global projections forecast an impending surge in plastic waste, the need for decisive action looms larger than ever. 

Growing issues: landfills, oceans and microplastics

In the vast expanse of the US, landfills stand as solemn witnesses to the nation's mounting plastic predicament. According to The Last Beach Clean Up and Beyond Plastics’ 2022 report, “The Real Truth About the U.S.  

Plastics Recycling Rate”, of the estimated 40 million tonnes of municipal plastic waste generated in 2021, 85% found its final resting place in landfills.  

Despite a surge in plastic waste generation, the fact that recycling rates dwindled to a mere 5%-6% in 2021, has intensified the burden on landfills. This alarming drop from 8.7% in 2018 underscores the urgency of addressing the plastic waste crisis domestically.  

The report highlights the consequences of relying on other countries to process US plastic waste, as nations like China and Turkey implement import bans. 

This silent burial of plastic poses multifaceted challenges. The longevity of plastics in landfills raises concerns about leaching harmful chemicals into the soil and water, impacting both ecosystems and human health. 

Beneath the surface of awareness lies a pervasive issue—microplastics, the invisible remnants of America's plastic consumption. Recycling challenges and inefficient waste management contribute to the fragmentation of larger plastic items, giving rise to these minuscule particles that infiltrate the environment.  

From cosmetics containing microbeads to the breakdown of larger plastic debris, microplastics permeate air, water, and soil. 

Recent studies reveal the alarming extent of this microscopic pollution, with recycling facilities releasing hundreds of tonnes of microplastics annually. The consequences extend beyond environmental contamination, posing potential threats to human health as these particles enter the food chain. 

Dr Ashlee Jahnke, Teysha Technologies, said in an article from the company: “Microplastics in the ocean are often mistaken for food by small marine organisms, thinking it small plankton or eggs.  

These smaller creatures can then be consumed by larger, moving up the food chain. This also leads to bioaccumulation of copious amounts of microplastics in the tissues of seafood, only to be ingested by humans further on.” 

“In the hidden depths of our oceans, 4.5 million tonnes of microplastics silently weave their ghostly presence, haunting the very essence of our planet,” added Jahnke. 

Beyond the borders of the nation, the repercussions of America's plastic consumption ripple through the world's oceans. In 2021 alone, discarded plastic waste in the US saw nearly 95% destined for landfills, oceans, or dispersed as tiny toxic particles in the atmosphere.  

Marine life bears the brunt of this plastic onslaught, with entanglement, ingestion, and habitat disruption becoming pervasive issues.  

The US, in 2021, was titled the world's largest plastic polluter and thus urgent calls for a national strategy echo, emphasising the need to curb plastic production, promote reusable alternatives, and establish robust waste capture standards. 

A global plastics treaty 

The urgency of the plastic waste crisis is not limited to the United States. A historic UN resolution in 2022, backed by over 170 nations, sets the stage for an international legally binding agreement to end plastic pollution by 2024.  

This global initiative, encompassing a comprehensive approach to reduce plastic production, promote alternative materials, and set stringent waste collection standards, reflects a unified commitment to combating plastic pollution. 

Recognising plastic pollution as a global crisis, the US Department of State highlights the need for international cooperation.  

The adoption of a resolution at the United Nations Environmental Assembly signals a commitment to developing a new legally-binding instrument on plastic pollution by 2024. This initiative aims to address the transboundary nature of plastic pollution. 

Legislative measures are crucial in addressing the plastic waste crisis. The absence of a comprehensive regulatory framework, exemplified by the US not ratifying the Basel Convention Plastic Waste Amendments in 2019, has contributed to the challenges.  

The bipartisan infrastructure bill's allocation of funds to support local waste management infrastructure and recycling programs signals a step in the right direction. However, the effectiveness of these measures hinges on their timely implementation and enforcement. 

Shifting consumer habits 

According to a 2022 survey by WWF in association with Corona Insights, the majority of Americans recognise the pressing need for change in addressing the country's plastic waste issue, with over 80% calling for improvements in the plastic recycling system and an embrace of reusing and recycling plastics in the economy.  

Interestingly, there's a shift in attitudes from 2020, with fewer respondents now placing full confidence in recycling as the ultimate solution. While 68% believed in 2020 that increased recycling would solve the plastic pollution problem, this figure has dropped to 57% in 2022. 

Furthermore, the survey outlined that scepticism about the current impact of recycling on plastic pollution has fuelled a growing consensus on the need to reduce reliance on plastic, eliminate single-use plastic packaging, and encourage producers to opt for more recyclable materials.  

Despite the push for reduced plastic use, a noteworthy portion of Americans still sees value in plastics, with the proportion agreeing that plastics do more good than harm increasing from 36% in 2020 to 45% in 2022. 

Businesses as catalysts for change 

Enterprises play a pivotal role in driving sustainable change. As the public becomes more aware of the limitations of plastic recycling, businesses have the chance to lead by example.  

Embracing circular economy principles, reducing unnecessary plastic production, and adopting innovative packaging solutions can position businesses as catalysts for positive environmental change.  

Lisa Ramsden, Greenpeace USA Senior Plastics Campaigner, said in the group’s 2022 report: “Corporations like Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Nestlé, and Unilever have worked with industry front groups to promote plastic recycling as the solution to plastic waste for decades.  

But the data is clear: practically speaking, most plastic is just not recyclable. The real solution is to switch to systems of reuse and refill.” 

“We are at a decision point on plastic pollution. It is time for corporations to turn off the plastic tap,” Ramsden added. 

Navigating towards sustainability 

The growing awareness of the limitations of plastic recycling provides a pivotal moment for the nation to pivot towards a more sustainable future.  

By combining regulatory measures, industry accountability, and individual responsibility, the US can lead the way in navigating the depths of plastic pollution towards a brighter, cleaner, and more sustainable tomorrow.