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US called a leading contributor to ocean plastics

by Alexander H. Tullo
October 31, 2020 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 98, Issue 42


The US is the third-largest contributor to plastic pollution in coastal environments, according to a new paper in Science Advances (2020, DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.abd0288). The paper builds on work published in 2015 in Science by Jenna Jambeck of the University of Georgia estimating that 8 million metric tons (t) of plastic waste ends up in the ocean every year because of bad waste management practices. The 2015 paper pointed to China and Southeast Asian nations like Thailand and Malaysia as leading sources of the waste. It ranked the US 20th. The new study, led by Kara Lavender Law, professor of oceanography at the Sea Education Association, and coauthored by Jambeck, takes into account US exports of waste plastic, ostensibly for recycling, to countries with leaky waste management systems. It estimates, based on 2016 data, that up to 1 million t of waste plastics might have ended up in the ocean based on this route, making the US a much larger contributor to ocean waste than previously reported. But in a conference call with reporters, Law acknowledged that National Sword, a 2018 Chinese policy that halted imports of plastic waste, changed the picture; some of the material is now exported to different countries or landfilled domestically. “The total amount that is being exported has decreased,” she said.


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