US needs a national action plan to stem the tide of plastic pollution

Lightweight, durable, versatile and relatively cheap to make — plastic seemed like a miracle. In 1950. global production was near zero, but by 2019 manufacturers worldwide were churning out about 460 million metric tons of it. Today, it’s hard to find a product without plastic. As it proliferated in our world, so did the negative impacts of this “miracle.”  

As we make, use and discard plastic, it’s piling up all over our planet. It chokes our lakes, rivers and streams. Roughly one garbage truck’s worth of plastic pollutes the ocean every 45 seconds. This deluge of debris has devastating impacts on wildlife. Sea turtles mistake plastic bags for jellyfish. Seabirds feed plastic shards to their chicks. Seals get ensnared in party balloon ribbons. Industrial chemicals used in production leach from plastics, creating more risks to wildlife and also human health.

Plastic doesn’t readily biodegrade in the ocean. It breaks into ever-smaller pieces — microplastic and nanoplastic — and moves through the food web, including the food we eat. Even in a national marine sanctuary like Monterey Bay, plastic is everywhere. Scientists have found microplastics from the bay’s surface to the seafloor, and laboratory analysis showed most of it came from things like bottles, packaging and synthetic clothing.

Most plastic products are made from fossil fuels and hence contribute to rising greenhouse gas emissions. And despite global commitments to reduce fossil fuel emissions, plastic waste is projected to more than quadruple by mid-century.

Plastic manufacturing and disposal facilities produce toxic emissions that pose health hazards to nearby neighborhoods, which are disproportionately home to people of color and low-income families. These “fence line” communities are excluded from decision-making due to historical inequalities, according to a report from the U.N. Environment Program and Azul.

While these impacts of plastic waste are felt worldwide, the source of the problem is truly “Made in America.” The United States leads the world in plastic waste, generating even more than all the countries of the European Union combined.  Each American, on average, discards almost 290 pounds of plastic waste a year. 

That remarkable total is among the top findings of “Reckoning with the U.S. Role in Global Ocean Plastic Waste,” a report released by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. With a bipartisan mandate from Congress and support from the Biden administration, the report offers the first comprehensive look at the U.S. contribution to ocean plastic pollution. It lays bare what we know about our outsized role in the problem that’s overwhelming our planet.

To turn the massive plastic tide, the U.S. must adopt a systemic national action plan. It must drive changes at every stage of the plastic lifecycle: design, production, waste generation, waste management, cleanup and disposal, working with experts or an external advisory body, as soon as possible.

Absent a national action plan, local and state governments across the United States have led the way by restricting single-use plastic products and encouraging reuse. On June 30, California passed the precedent-setting Plastic Pollution Producer Responsibility Act with bipartisan support. When it takes effect, this law will significantly reduce the amount of plastic packaging, hold companies accountable for the waste they produce and jump-start the transition to a circular economy. The federal government can make up for lost time by building a national action plan that follows California’s lead.

The U.S. has a leadership opportunity to join global allies who have surged ahead in the race to reduce plastic waste. The EU, UK, Chile and Kenya have each passed their own sweeping reforms on single-use plastics. Canada issued regulations to ban the manufacture, import, sale and eventually export of six harmful single-use plastics by the end of the year.

The United Nations has begun negotiations on a new global treaty to curb ocean plastic pollution, and Congress and the Biden administration have signaled their intent to act. Officials in the U.S. have expressed support for a global treaty that will “address the full lifecycle of plastics and promote a circular economy.”

With America finally at the world table, a national action plan on plastic pollution is imperative. Such a plan would pave the way for important waste reduction policies and incentives, including those that restrict avoidable, unnecessary, or problematic plastic. It would improve waste management and recycling infrastructure and stimulate the innovation of alternative materials as well as sustainable designs that don’t rely on fossil fuels — supporting U.S. commitment to the global goal of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

By taking swift and bold action, the United States can reduce the harm plastic pollution inflicts on people and wildlife, while making progress toward its climate goals. The United States has all the tools and knowledge it needs to reduce plastic pollution. What we need now is the political will and leadership to act.

Margaret Spring is the chief conservation and science officer for Monterey Bay Aquarium and chaired the Committee on the United States Contribution to Global Plastic Waste.

Rashid Sumaila, Ph.D., is University Killam professor and Canada research chair in interdisciplinary ocean and fisheries economics at the Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries, and the School of Public Policy and Global Affairs, University of British Columbia. Sumaila served on the Committee on the United States Contribution to Global Plastic Waste.