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Environment

Contextualizing America’s Plastic Waste

The New York Times amplified a recent study suggesting that U.S. production of plastic waste exceeds previous estimates, but the data is more complex.

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Understanding plastic use and creating solutions to plastic waste require clear data and perspective, two areas where media can enhance the public debate on plastics. The New York Times article, “Americans May Add Five Times More Plastic to the Oceans Than Thought” highlights a recent study claiming the United States’ contribution to coastal plastic waste is “among the highest in the world.”  What the coverage of this study leaves out, though, is how the United States’ large population contributes more to overall plastic use than other factors, and how the researchers’ biases likely played a role in their conclusions.

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A multi-stakeholder solution.

The study, funded by the Ocean Conservancy, does acknowledge that solving plastic waste will require more industry-driven solutions. As the authors write, tackling plastic waste “will require substantially greater commitments by resin producers, consumer products and retail companies, and the U.S. federal government.” Ironically, this is why calling for a ban on these products is so inappropriate: businesses and consumers alike believe that a ban is the wrong approach. If  solving this problem requires input from all stakeholders, then the solution cannot ignore the plastics industry and potentially stunt innovation. Every segment of the plastics supply chain is already involved in leading these efforts through improved product designs, innovative recycling solutions and collaboration with all levels of government.

Plastic producers are creating solutions so packaging can use less plastic while retaining durability. These advancements make it possible for consumer brands to improve plastic waste management and recycling:

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These are just a few of the examples of how brands and their producer partners are moving forward with commitments to improve their practices in this area. Separately, other initiatives are occurring around the world through the Alliance to End Plastic Waste. Although this particular study highlights projected U.S. plastic waste, it’s important to remember that plastic waste is a global challenge, and companies are focusing their efforts around the world.

Misrepresented findings.

The study estimates that in 2016, the United States contributed between 1.1 and 2.2 million metric tons of plastic waste to oceans through a combination of “littering, dumping and mismanaged exports.” Though the Times article characterizes this amount as exceeding expectations five times over, the study includes a range. Really, the purported data bears out a fivefold increase at most but could very well be less than double the estimate. This is where headlines and details become even more important. The researchers provided a range of estimates, yet media coverage of the study has only reported on the high end of this figure without explaining how plastic waste is measured.

As important is the timeframe studied. In 2017—a year after the study’s estimate—China implemented Operation National Sword which greatly limited the kinds of recycled items it would accept from other countries. Yet the following year, China saw a 27 percent rise in its waste in waterways. China’s rivers continue to disproportionately contribute to plastic waste in the ocean. Any report on plastic waste should grapple with Operation National Sword and its effects as well explain where the bulk of plastic waste in the ocean originates.

Missing context.

The study explains its findings, in part, as being due to Americans “using more plastic than ever,” but it doesn’t explain why. Plastic is a necessary, versatile material with robust applications. Many staple products we rely on today were introduced as solutions to environmental concerns and problems faced by vital industries. Plastic bags, for example, were developed to address deforestation concerns; disposable plastic utensils were widely adopted to limit the spread of disease. Plastics also provide us with more sustainable options, especially in automobile design. A 10 percent weight reduction in vehicles increases fuel efficiency by 8 percent.

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Conflicts of interest

The Times story also fails to note potential conflicts of interest that color the study’s findings. Two coauthors of the study are principals at DSM Environmental Services, a consulting firm that stands to benefit from suggestions that the “plastic waste problem” is worse than perceived. Though the article notes that one of the coauthors works for DSM, it does not provide further information on the organization and the work it has  done for the anti-plastics Natural Resources Defense Council. Though DSM has also previously done work for the American Chemistry Council, the Times mentions none of DSM’s work in this space, much less how its conclusions in this study could favorably benefit the business interests of those who authored it.

Another coauthor hails from the Ocean Conservancy, which not only funded the research but lobbies for bans on valuable plastic products including bags and utensils – both vital to protect Americans during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, the very legislation Ocean Conservancy champions is favorably referenced in the study.

A premature solution.

The Times article appropriately concludes with a candid admission from one of the researchers: the goal of the study is “eliminating unnecessary and problematic single-use plastics.” But a sweeping product ban is not a practical policy solution. How would it be implemented? What replaces the gap left by valuable plastics products? Would environmental advocates acknowledge the higher carbon footprint of common plastic alternatives?  The study has no responsibility to account for these concerns, but unbiased media should ask and attempt to answer these questions. Reporting on research should also attempt to include additional viewpoints, perhaps estimating whether new recycling infrastructure would cost less than potential product bans. The study also asserts in its conclusion that the “most straightforward way to reduce environmental inputs of plastic waste is to produce less.”

Unfortunately, this idea is not as straightforward as it seems. Plastics have a critical role to play in improving environmental outcomes. In order to responsibly manage plastic waste, we must also understand the complexities of our own current markets for virgin plastics and post-consumer plastic material.

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