Published by Ian Tiseo, Feb 8, 2023
- Plastics use in the U.S.
84.3 million tons
- Plastics share of U.S. MSW generation
- Total U.S. plastic waste generation
73 million ton
Plastic production has soared since it became commercially produced more than 50 years ago and is now ubiquitous in daily life. It is found in virtually all products, from packaging and vehicles to medical equipment and electronics. This growth has seen plastic become one of the biggest environmental issues worldwide, with plastic waste polluting land, oceans, air, and even food and human blood.
And as one of the world’s largest consumers of plastics, the United States is a major contributor to this growing problem.
How much plastic waste does the U.S. produce?
Plastics use in the U.S. has roughly tripled since the 1980s to more than 80 million metric tons annually, of which huge volumes end up as waste. In 2019, total U.S. plastic waste generation reached 73 million metric tons, equivalent to 221 kilograms of plastic waste per inhabitant. This was roughly five times more than the global per capita average. With plastics demand showing little signs of slowing down, U.S. plastic waste generation is projected to grow to 142 million metric tons by 2060. Plastics account for roughly 12 percent of U.S. municipal solid waste generation, with plastic containers and packaging the main source of plastic waste.
The majority of U.S. plastic waste is landfilled
Of the estimated 40 million tons of municipal plastic waste generated in the U.S. in 2021, at least 85 percent was sent to landfill sites. Despite plastic waste generation soaring in the U.S., the recycling rate is falling. Only five to six percent of municipal plastic waste was recycled in 2021, compared with almost nine percent in 2018.
Although U.S. municipal plastic waste generation has increased five-fold since 1980, the country doesn’t have the capacity to recycle all its waste domestically. Therefore, the U.S. exports large volumes of plastic waste to countries around the world to be treated every year. These exports count towards domestic recycling rates even though shipments often go to developing countries that lack efficient waste management infrastructure. This means waste is often open-dumped or burned, exacerbating the already considerable plastic waste problem. U.S. plastic waste exports have fallen in recent years since countries such as China restricted foreign waste imports, and in 2021 shipments dropped to 0.6 million tons. This has put further strain on the already struggling U.S. recycling system.
Negative impacts of plastic waste
Plastic waste has numerous negative environmental and health impacts, though the most concerning to Americans is the impact plastic pollution has on marine life. Large amounts of plastic waste leak into the ocean every year, contributing to the deaths of thousands of sea mammals and fish. Because of this, there is considerable frustration with the U.S. recycling system due to how much plastic waste ends up in the ocean. Some of the most common waste items found along beaches in the U.S. are plastic products such as food wrappers, grocery bags, straws and stirrers, and beverage bottles.