The scale of the plastic waste problem is almost too large to comprehend, but a new report has revealed who the biggest culprits are when it comes to ocean-clogging trash.
In a study published in Science Advances, researchers revealed that residents of the U.S. and the U.K. produce more plastic waste per person than any other nation, with Americans generating an average of 105kg (231lbs) of plastic per year. The British are close behind, throwing away almost 99kg (218lbs) annually.
The report shows that people in richer nations generate more plastic waste than people in less developed countries: South Korea and Germany take the respective third and fourth spots in the top 10 countries ranked by plastic trash per capita.
On the other hand, China came out as the top producer of plastic for the global market, even though Chinese people on average use relatively little of the stuff—just 15kg per person.
The report sheds further light on the origins of the 300 million tons of plastic trash that are produced annually, of which at least 8.8 million tons end up in the ocean. Once plastics are in the environment, they can harm humans, plants and animals in many ways, some of which we do not fully understand.
Yet those figures are set to grow even further as plastic production increases, roughly doubling every 11 years. Production is expected to accelerate as oil companies, facing falling demand for crude oil, switch to plastic production.
According to Jennifer Allan, a U.K.-based lecturer in international relations at Cardiff University’s School of Law and Politics, the news that British and American consumers throw away the most plastic should surprise no one.
“U.K. and U.S. supermarkets are awash in plastic—it is very difficult to buy groceries or anything else without it,” she says. “Most media attention to plastics focuses on the consumer and consumer choice, but that misses the point entirely, as it’s nearly impossible to avoid. It’s everywhere because it’s cheap and saves companies transportation costs.”
Unfortunately, recycling doesn’t seem to be the answer: of the plastic we’re using, Allan notes, only about 9% is recycled. Indeed, a 2017 paper revealed that only 9% of all the plastic ever created has been recycled.
“People view recycling as a pro-environment behaviour, and for tin, glass and aluminum, recycling works very well. But for plastic it doesn’t,” she says.
For one thing, there are many different types of plastic, which get mixed together in recycling collections and are difficult to sort, which takes money and time. Even the British Plastics Federation, which represents plastic manufacturers, admits this is a problem.
But the larger issue is the sheer volume of trash being produced.
“There is absolutely too much plastic in the system,” Allan says. “It’s overloading global capacity for recycling, but there is little incentive to recycle it in the first place: it’s difficult to recycle and has low value on the market. This means there’s little money to be made. It’s a broken system.”
As a result, in Britain, about half of recyclable waste ends up in landfill or is burned, while two thirds of plastic waste separated for recycling is simply exported to other countries, including Malaysia, Vietnam and Turkey. Malaysia has since been overwhelmed by the influx of both legal and illegal British plastic trash, and has hit back at Western powers saying the nation has no intention of becoming “the garbage dump of the world.”
Why rich countries are using so much plastic can be hard to untangle, but there are some obvious suspects. Research published in September by the Netherlands-based Changing Markets Foundation claimed that the corporations responsible for producing the largest quantities of plastic packaging—companies like Coca-Cola, Colgate-Palmolive
As well as actively opposing the introduction of measures that might reduce waste, such as bottle return programs, the report found that among the corporations, “One of the key tactics has been to saddle ‘litterbug’ consumers with most of the blame—and public authorities with most of the cost—for a waste problem created by these corporations.”
Nusa Urbancic, campaigns director at the Changing Markets Foundation, says corporations “claim to be committed to solutions, but at the same time use a host of dirty tricks to ensure that they can continue pumping out cheap, disposable plastic, polluting the planet at a devastating rate.”
In addition to corporations helping to inflate the plastic problem, Jennifer Allan believes there are systemic reasons why Britain in particular produces so much waste.
“Some supermarkets believe they need plastic to keep pests out,” she says. “The UK also imports a lot of its food, which may have a role to play.”
So what is the answer?
Changing Markets offers a raft of recommendations, stating that “voluntary initiatives and commitments by the industry do not work.” Policymakers, the foundation says, should begin by instituting deposit return schemes, in which consumers pay a small fee when they purchase items in single-use containers. That fee is refunded when the container is returned, for reuse or recycling. Such schemes are already underway in European nations such as Germany, where such schemes have seen a 98% return rate, and in Canada, Australia and several U.S. states, but Britain lags far behind. A motion tabled by a group of British MPs in July would see the introduction of a deposit return scheme in the U.K. by 2023.
Elsewhere, pressure groups such as the World Wildlife Fund and Resource Association have suggested a tax on virgin plastics, to level the playing field for recycled material which tends to be more expensive.
It is notable that the U.K.’s close neighbor France generates just under 44kg (97lbs) of plastic waste per person—less than half that produced by Brits. France has taken a proactive stance against single-use plastic, including the introduction of a penalty system that increases the cost of non-recyclable plastics.
Beyond policy, Changing Markets says corporations should be expected to make more ambitious commitments to sustainability, support rather than oppose plastic-reducing legislation, and publish a “plastic footprint” to show exactly how much of the material they are producing.
But it is abundantly clear that, despite the mounting urgency of the plastic crisis, some wealthy nations are stuck in their ways. Underpinning outmoded national attitudes to plastics in both the U.K. and the U.S., Allan says, requires a systemic reappraisal and adoption of the waste hierarchy, which can be defined as “refuse; reduce; reuse; recycle.”
“In countries like the U.S. and the U.K., we skip straight to recycle,” Allan says. “Refusing plastic is difficult when all the affordable and available options are plastic; reducing is also difficult, for similar reasons. Re-using can work, to a point.”
“Without thinking through why we have so much plastic foisted on us, we can’t start to address the issue overall.”