Plastic – Where’s It Coming From?

We know that plastic is piling up in our oceans. What we didn’t know, until now, is where it’s coming from. A recent paper in Science,  “Plastic waste inputs from land into the ocean” looks at 192 coastal countries, their populations within 50 km of the coast, their waste per capita, the percentage of that waste that’s plastic, and the quality of their waste management systems. With these data they have come up with a rough estimate of the plastic trash per country that heads out to sea.

They found that sixteen of the top twenty polluters (see list below) are heavily populated, middle income countries. These countries are wealthy enough to buy a lot of plastic, but they lag behind in managing their waste. They have a high percentage of “mismanaged waste.” What has worked in the past, burying, burning and even tossing trash, doesn’t work now because plastic doesn’t decompose like food waste, paper and wood, and it isn’t inert like glass and tin cans.

The countries with large populations but a smaller percentage of mismanaged waste are typically wealthier. These countries have good waste collection, modern landfills that contain waste so it is doesn’t end up in the ocean, and recycling. Though less waste is mismanaged, wealthy countries generate more waste and more of it is plastic. In 1960, plastic made up 1% of our waste in the United States. Today it is 10% and growing, and the developing world is catching up with our plastic consumption.

So what are the answers to this problem? Waste management infrastructure in developing countries must be improved. Collecting garbage, recycling what can be recycled and landfilling  the rest won’t be easy or cheap, but it has to be done to slow the flow of plastic to the sea. We also need to reduce our plastic waste. A good place to start is single-use plastic. We use plastic straws and forks for twenty minutes and then they become waste, possibly mismanaged waste that floats off to sea. We need more recycling of the plastic we do use. Plastic producers need to ensure that their products can be recycled once their useful life is over.

There’s one more thing we can do to help. We can use the BlueTubes at our beach. Next time you’re at the beach, go ahead and take a bag, fill it with trash and throw it in the garbage can. We may pick up trash from a beach visitor who was careless with theirs, or we may pick up weathered trash that floated in from a far away country. It doesn’t really matter where the trash comes from. What does matter is that our beach is cleaner, our ocean has a little less plastic in it, and we are part of the solution.

Top 20 Countries Ranked by Mass of Mismanaged Plastic Waste in 2010

1. China                 11. South Africa
2. Indonesia         12. India
3. Philippines       13. Algeria
4. Vietnam            14. Turkey
5. Sri Lanka          15. Pakistan
6. Thailand           16. Brazil
7. Egypt                 17. Burma
8. Malaysia           18. Morocco
9. Nigeria              19. North Korea
10. Bangladesh    20. United States

Jambeck, James R., Roland Geyer, Chris Wilcox, Theodore R. Siegler, Miriam Perryman,  Anthony Andrady, Ramani Narayan, and Kara Lavender Law. “Plastic Waste Inputs from  Land into Ocean.” Science 347 (2015): 768-71.