How Can We Solve America’s Plastic Waste Crisis?

By: Anneken Tappe · April 29, 2024 · Reading Time: 3 minutes

Plastic Predicament

The world produces some 400 million tons of plastic waste every year, according to the United Nations , with the U.S. alone adding more than 35 million tons, per the Environmental Protection Agency . But what happens with our plastic waste after we put it in the recycling bin?

Here’s what we used to do: A lot of America’s plastic waste was exported to China, effectively outsourcing our waste management. But in 2018, and as part of the U.S.-China trade war, Beijing halted plastic imports, forcing the U.S. to reckon with the full environmental impact of its plastics industry.

Waste Woes

After China’s import ban, the U.S., U.K., and Europe turned to countries like Thailand and Malaysia to fill the void, but that wasn’t enough.

So what gives?

One potential solution comes from an unlikely source: big oil. ExxonMobil (XOM) and Chevron (CVX) have championed pyrolysis, a chemical recycling process that effectively turns plastic into crude oil for fuel and other petrochemicals. Sounds great, right? Unfortunately, this process is also pollutive and heavily reliant on government subsidies, so it’s no panacea.

Searching for Solutions

While recycling is effective in some ways — the EPA says recycling and composting trash saved nearly 200 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent in 2018 — only 9% of global plastic waste was actually being recycled in 2022, according to the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development. The percentage was so low due to the difficulty of cleaning and sorting the plastic waste, per the OECD.

So where does it all go? The landfill.

The plastic waste problem is complicated and the path to finding solutions is tricky. But there are ways to keep it from getting worse. In the U.S., 12 states and 500 cities have already banned the use of plastic bags. Worldwide, a sweeping U.N. resolution aimed at ending all plastic pollution is set to go into effect this year.

For consumers, this can mean minor inconveniences on the go, but nothing you can’t begin to tackle with a refillable water bottle and a reusable tote bag.

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