The average person in the US uses a huge amount of plastic – a lot more than in other countries. And that number has increased in recent decades.
In 1980, annual plastic use in the US was about 60 pounds per person. By 2018, this figure has risen to 218 pounds. A 2020 paper estimates that 46 million tons of plastic waste were created in the US in 2016.
“We’ve calculated that in the US, our population produces more plastic waste than any other country on the planet. It’s total, but it’s also per capita,” says Cara Lavender Lowe, a research professor at the Maritime Education Association and first author of this study.
Plastic Waste Associates
Worryingly, the recorded figures probably don’t even reflect the reality of the total amount of plastic waste, say experts like Lisa Erdle, director of research and innovation at 5 Gyres.
This is because there are many categories of hidden waste that go unmeasured.
“We use and throw away a lot of disposable packaging, like food containers. That’s what many of us know,” she says. “But textiles are actually the second most discarded type of plastic after single-use packaging.”
Sources of plastic pollution
Washing clothes, e.g. can release thousands of tiny microplasticsdepending on the type of material.
“Sometimes these tiny microplastics aren’t included in these types of calculations of how much plastic people throw away or the ones that end up in the environment from our everyday use,” says Erdle. “There are many factors that can affect how much plastic we throw into the environment or landfill.”
In addition, there are many other less visible sources of plastic pollution – such as those related to construction, wear and tear of car tires and other materials – that often escape calculation.
Lavender Law agrees that it is difficult to arrive at firm estimates of total waste. Her team’s findings are based only on household waste, which is complex to calculate on its own.
The problem of plastic waste is growing
Despite these challenges, she also states that the problem is only likely to grow based on projections.
More than 400 million tons of plastic are produced annually worldwide.
And a forecast by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development suggests that figure could triple by 2060.
Plastic pollution in the oceans
In addition to calculating the amount of plastic waste per capita – which of course depends on each person and unique household habits – the researchers also understand what this waste means the people and on environment.
A study published earlier this year, for example, showed that plastic pollution causes a specific disease called “plastic surgery in a seabird.
Erdle’s organization recently published a report detailing the extent of this pollution in the world’s oceans. The Erdle team appreciates this 170 trillion plastic particles float in waters from the Arctic to Antarctica and everywhere in between. That mass amounts to about 2 million tons, according to the study.
This pollution is already known to have an impact marine life.
How to reduce plastic waste
Additional research shows that in the US., the litter plaguing national parks from the East Coast to the West Coast consists mostly of plastic. Cigarette packs, food wrappers and plastic bottles were among the most common items.
Experts say local, national and international solutions are needed to stem the tide of this plastic pollution. In the U.S., Erdle says, that could start with cities.
“I think city-wide inventories are needed to understand the types of plastics that are being released,” she says. “Each city will be different, but if we do the work of looking at individual locations, we can understand what kind of microplastics are in the environment and then find those tailored and most effective solutions.”