Reckoning with the U.S. Role in Global Ocean Plastic Waste


Plastic waste can be found in almost every marine habitat, from the ocean surface to deep sea sediments to the ocean’s vast mid-water region, as well as in the Great Lakes.

An estimated 8 million metric tons (MMT) of plastic waste enters the world’s ocean each year—the equivalent of dumping a garbage truck of plastic waste into the ocean every minute (Jambeck et al. 2015). If current practices continue, the amount of plastic discharged into the ocean could reach up to 53 MMT per year by 2030, roughly half of the total weight of fish caught from the ocean annually (Borrelle et al. 2020, Jambeck and Johnsen 2015, Pauly and Zeller 2016).

Society is grappling with the massive scale of the challenge of plastic waste with responses ranging from beach cleanups and local bans to producer responsibility schemes and calls for country-level commitments and a global treaty. The bipartisan Save Our Seas 2.0 Act, passed into law in December 2020, called for this report on the U.S. contribution to global ocean plastic waste and its role in addressing plastic waste.


The U.S. contribution to global ocean plastic waste begins with the plastics produced and used in this country or exported to other nations, as well as imported plastics. Over a 50-year period, global plastic production increased nearly 20-fold, from 20 MMT in 1966 to 381 MMT in 2015 (Geyer, Jambeck, and Law 2017). In 2019, a total of 70 MMT of plastic resin was produced in North America, compared to a global production of 368 MMT (Plastics Europe 2020). The U.S. trend of both plastic exports and imports has been increasing over the last three decades.

Projected increase in global plastic production

The plastics industry expects growing populations and rising household incomes to create new markets and increase global plastics production, which will ultimately result in increased plastic waste.

Data from 1950–2015 from (Geyer, Jambeck, and Law 2017) supplemental material and projected numbers      from Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s annual industry growth (World Economic Forum, Ellen MacArthur Foundation, and McKinsey & Company 2016)
Source: Data from 1950–2015 from (Geyer, Jambeck, and Law 2017) supplemental material and projected numbers from Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s annual industry growth (World Economic Forum, Ellen MacArthur Foundation, and McKinsey & Company 2016)


In 2016 US generated 42 MMT of plastic waste

In 2016, the United States generated more plastic waste than any country in the world, with a total of 42 MMT (Law et al. 2020). However, the United States only has 4.3% of the world’s population (World Bank 2021). U.S. per capita plastic waste generation is 130 kg/year, which is about 2-8 times higher than many other countries (Law et al. 2020).

U.S. plastic waste generation has been increasing since 1960, with the fastest increase seen from 1980 to 2000. Figure source: U.S. EPA
The steep increase in plastic production has been mirrored by an increase in U.S. plastic solid waste (by mass), most of which ends up in landfills. While plastic waste recycling and combustion techniques expanded in the 1980s and 1990s, today’s recycling processes and infrastructure are grossly insufficient to manage the diversity, complexity and quantity of U.S. plastic waste.

U.S. Plastic Waste Leakage to the Environment

U.S. plastic waste is estimated to “leak” at a rate of 1.13–2.24 million metric tons (MMT) per year based on 2016 estimates

Determining the amount of U.S. plastic waste leakage into the environment is difficult to assess because of the lack of data. A number of researchers have estimated the amounts for the United States and these estimates are illustrated in the table below.

Estimates of global input of plastic waste to the environment vary by orders of magnitude, although few are directly comparable because of differences in modeling approaches, and none is grounded in extensive empirical measurements of plastic waste abundance or transport into the environment. However, these estimates do convey the scale of the problem. In the U.S., despite a well-developed formal waste management system, approximately 1 to 2 MMT of plastic waste generated domestically was estimated to enter the environment at home and abroad (after export for recycling) in 2016 (Law et al. 2020).

Estimates of plastic waste inputs to the environment, including land, aquatic ecosystems, coastlines and the ocean, in the United States. This table represents best available estimates, which were made using data, methods, and assumptions that vary by study or source. MMT = million metric tons



Estimate of plastic entering environment (land, aquatic ecosystems, coastline, ocean)


Receiving environment






Year of estimate


MSW not collected in formal infrastructure


Illegal dumping (USA only)




Microplastics input


Informal sector


Export of waste


Entire population


Population in inland watersheds (via rivers)


Coastal population (50 km buffer)


Primary data source for plastic waste (MSW) estimation

Jambeck et al. 2015

0.04 - 0.11 MMT















World Bank
(Hoornweg and Bhada-Tata 2012)

0.28 MMT

Coastline (50 km buffer)













Lebreton & Andrady 2019

0.0029 - 0.29 MMT















Waste Atlas 2016
(Hoornweg and Bhada-Tata 2012)
Also (Jambeck et al. 2015)

Borrelle et al. 2020

0.20 – 0.24 MMT

Aquatic ecosystems














World Bank

(Kaza et al. 2018);  Also (Jambeck et al. 2015, Lebreton and Andrady 2019)


Law et al. 2020

1.13 - 2.24 MMT















World Bank

(Kaza et al. 2018); Also USA- specific data

0.51 - 1.45 MMT

Coastline (50 km buffer)














Meijer et al 2021

0.0024 MMT














(Lebreton and Andrady 2019)

0.27 MMT















The ocean is the Earth’s ultimate sink, the downstream recipient of human activities. Almost any plastic waste on land has the potential to eventually reach the ocean. Major paths of plastics to the ocean include urban, coastal, and inland stormwater; treated wastewater discharges; atmospheric deposition; direct deposits from boats and ships; beach and shoreline wastes; and transport from inland areas by rivers and streams.


Data from U.S. Beaches
In 2019, more than 32 million individual items were collected and categorized from more than 24,000 miles of beaches around the globe in the International Coastal Cleanup (Ocean Conservancy). The Top 10 list (highest number of items collected) has included the same consumer products year after year, including cigarette filters, food wrappers, beverage bottles and cans, bags, bottle caps and straws.

Impacts on and Distribution by Marine Life

Plastic waste has two especially well-studied impacts on marine and freshwater life: entanglement in plastic waste, and ingestion of plastic waste. One review by Kuhn and van Franeker (2020) found documented cases of entanglement or ingestion by marine biota in 914 species from 747 studies—701 species having experienced ingestion and 354 species having experienced entanglement. Microplastics ingested by marine biota may move through the food web, ultimately to humans, but there is limited knowledge of effects throughout the food web and to humans specifically.



Vision for a U.S. Marine Debris Tracking and Monitoring

Characteristics of a tracking and monitoring system that would be most effective in ultimately reducing plastic waste in aquatic systems include:

  • A study design that is scientifically robust, hypothesis-driven, and conceptualized a priori to answer critical knowledge gaps, rather than approaches applied post-hoc to plastic waste tracking and monitoring questions.
  • Technologically adaptive to incorporate and utilize current and emerging technologies such as remote sensing crowdsourcing apps, and biochemical markers and tracers
  • Applying sufficient spatial and temporal resolution to capture meaningful data concerning knowledge and policy needs. 
  • Collecting data that are comparable, and, when scientifically robust, compatible with prior efforts, for example, using standardized measurement units or experimental design.
  • Leveraging, rather than separating, the U.S. federal investment in the reduction of mismanaged plastic waste and creating synergies in the federal response to such waste.
  • Encompassing the full life cycle of plastics, thereby achieving an understanding of the “upstream” plastic waste compartments and associated leakages.


The United States should substantially reduce solid waste generation (absolute and per person) to reduce plastic in the environment and the environmental, economic, aesthetic, and health costs of managing waste and litter. There is no single solution to reducing the flow of plastic waste to the ocean. However, a suite of actions (or “interventions”) taken across all stages of the path from source to ocean could reduce ocean plastic waste and achieve parallel environmental and social benefits.

Intervention by category

Types of interventions


Specific Examples

Production or manufacturing restrictions and limits

National goals and strategies to cap or reduce virgin plastic production

Reductions in plastic production (as carbon equivalents) as part of global, U.S., and state greenhouse gas emissions goals

Moratorium on new petrochemical plants and capacity to reduce production from fossil feedstocks

National, state, and tribal governments and industry standards

European Union (EU) Circular Economy Action Plan, March 11, 2020, and EU Directives 2018/850 and 2018/851 (landfill limits and recycling targets)

Intervention by category

Types of interventions


Specific Examples

Enforceable product standards for manufacturers

Timebound targets and limits on plastic content of specific products and packaging


End-of-life material and design specifications (simplification) for some products, packaging to facilitate reuse, recycling

National and state governments, standards organizations Industry (standards and systems)

Minimum recycled content requirements
(California bottle recycled content law [Keller and Heckman 2020]; Washington state and Connecticut [LaMotte et al. 2021])

EU Directive 2018/852 (minimum 55% recycled content in plastic packaging by 2030)


Prohibitions on sale of packaging with some plastics, such as polystyrene (e.g., Washington State SB5022, enacted 2021 [Quinn 2021])


Voluntary commitments and collaborations for innovative material and product design

Government-sponsored research and development collaborations, incentives, and roadmaps (see also “Other Activities” below)

Promote industry-wide innovation, standards, collaboration, and regulation by constraining the types of resins used in some applications to maximize value and recyclability

Streamline and standardize design to limit variability in packaging

End-of-life material and design specifications (simplification) for some products, packaging to facilitate reuse, recycling

Encourage following the Principles of Green Engineering and Green Chemistry

Industry, government, academia, nongovernmental (scientific, funding, environmental) organizations, global standards organizations


U.S. Plastics Pact


Precompetitive and open innovation collaborations within and across industry sectors (e.g., Ellen MacArthur Circular Economy 100 Group [Kleine Jäger and Piscicelli 2021])


SOS 2.0 Genius Prize for Save our Seas Innovations (Department of Commerce and new Marine Debris Foundation)

Standards for labeling and marketing

Restrict use of chasing arrows symbol on products which lack broad, functional recycling infrastructure (e.g., can be collected, sorted, cleaned, and economically reprocessed) in place in the United States

Restrict chasing arrows symbol to items following material standards for that product or material


Create enforceable feedstock, performance, and labeling standards for “biodegradable,” “compostable,” “biobased” products, to prevent consumer confusion and potential “greenwashing”

Publicly available assessments of and reports on recycling efficacy (markets for recycled materials and fate of items collected in recycling process)

National, state, and tribal governments; consumers and civil society

U.S. Federal Trade Commission Green Guides for Environmental Marketing Claims


CA SB 343 (restricts use of the chasing arrows symbol to only those plastic products that are truly recyclable in California); 
CA AB 1201 (restricts manufacturers from making the compostable claim unless the product meets specific compostability criteria)

Nongovernmental and governmental reports (e.g., Greenpeace 2020, U.S GAO 2020)


Intervention by category

Types of interventions


Specific Examples

Plastic product bans (and substitutes)

Ban specific products based upon criteria such as potential for loss to the environment, toxicity, and necessity of use


National, state, local, and tribal governments

EU Directive 2019/904 (Single-Use Product Ban), effective 2021

Various U.S. state and local bans on single-use products (bags, straws, food service items); See Box 7.1 and Appendix C

Mandatory procurement rules favoring reusable products

Procurement rules to replace single-use items with reusable goods


National, state, and tribal governments

Private-sector companies, nongovernmental institutions

Canada 2018 Strategy: Zero plastic waste (Government of Canada 2021)


Reduce loss of pre-production pellets that become waste

Reduce pellet losses and wastes

National and state governments; industry

2007 California law (AB 258) on pre-production plastic source controla

Fiscal tools (fees, taxes, incentives)

Fee on purchase of specific items at point-of-sale to disincentivize their use (e.g., thin film shopping bags)


National, state, municipal, and tribal governments, and consumers

U.S. state and municipal plastic bag laws


Deposit return systems

Systems that use a deposit to incentivize return or reuse of the packaging or product


U.S. state bottle return laws (see Appendix C)

Norway tax on plastic producers, forgiven if recycling tops 95% (now 97% bottles are recycled; 92% can be reused) (Steffen 2020)

Extended producer requirements (EPR) (end-of-life management)

Place legal or fiscal responsibility on producers for management and disposal of plastic waste. EPR campaigns often rely on government to set and enforce standards even though responsibility is placed upon companies.

Laws and policies that enable life-cycle management such as EPR, take back schemes that meet specific targets for waste diversion and recycling

Require recycling rates for products (e.g., beverage bottles). If rates are not met, then fees are charged.

National, state and local, and tribal governments

Industry funded/
government oversight

Maine and Oregon packaging EPR laws (2021) and other state EPR laws

British Columbia EPR law (85% recovery rate; Paben 2021)


Many plastic and non-plastic examples in states (e.g., paint, mattresses)b

U.S. EPR requirements for e-waste and pharmaceuticals


EU and Norway EPR legislation

Reusable and refillable systems

Investment in affordable and convenient reuse/refill systems to reduce single-use packaging

Fund programs to promote reuse/refill systems

National, state, and tribal governments

Investment through Small Business Innovation Research, government funding, private funders

CA laws: (1) AB 962 allows beverage producers to sanitize and refill intact glass bottles; (2) CA AB 619c—amends health laws to allow consumers to bring containers for restaurants to fill for to-go.

Business examples: Algramo,

Intervention by category

Types of interventions


Specific Examples

Disposal, collection, and recycling improvements

Infrastructure for source separation, industrial composting, recycling (including beyond mechanical)

Recycling collection and reuse targets and incentives (e.g., bottle bills, deposit/refund schemes)

Place and maintain receptacles in plastic “hotspot” or high traffic areas

Research and development investment in new methods of depolymerizing plastic waste to promote material/chemical recovery

National, state, tribal, and local governments

Infrastructure grants under Save Our Seas 2.0 Act and related legislation (Clean Water Act and Safe Drinking Water Act; see Appendix C)



State bottle bills (e.g., CA AB 962d requires the creation of a returnable bottle system in California by January 1, 2024) 

Cigarette butt bins

Lidded trash cans

U.S. Department of Energy investments (e.g., 2020); Industry initiatives and multiparty alliances; See also research and development below.

Plastic waste export/ import controls

Limit, ban, or voluntarily eliminate plastic waste exports and imports to incentivize waste reduction

National, state, and tribal governments; private sector

None at federal level (not signatory to Basel Convention)
CA AB 881 prevents municipalities from counting plastic waste exports as “recycled” 
Private industry voluntary commitments (Waste Management, Republic Services)

China 2018 Import Ban

Basel Convention 2019 amendments (require prior informed consent for exports of hazardous plastic waste and most non-hazardous plastic waste)

Treatment improvements to remove plastic waste from discharges

Wastewater treatment standards to remove microplastics and microfibers

Products to prevent microfiber releases of from equipment (e.g., washing and industrial machines)

Government, private sector


California requires plastic waste removal from industrial and municipal discharge

National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System, stormwater limits and treatment

Stormwater discharge regulations for plastics

Green infrastructure to filter stormwater

National, state, and tribal governments

California, Hawaii Trash total maximum daily loads to address plastic waste in stormwater

Nonpoint source permit requirements (facility specific, per U.S. Environmental Protection Agency guidance)

Ocean/river discharge limits

Establish regulatory limits on macroplastic or microplastic waste in ocean and river discharges

National, state, and tribal governments

California zero discharge goal for trash (including plastics) by 2030

Intervention by category

Types of interventions


Specific Examples

Remove wastes from waterways

Beach, river, and inland waterway cleanups

Trash capture devices in waterways

Municipal governments, community groups

International Coastal Cleanup/Ocean Conservancy

Mr. Trash Wheel, trash booms,

Remove wastes from ocean wildlife and habitats

Ghost net removal; fishing gear return incentives; animal and coral disentanglement

National, state, local, and tribal governments; local, industry, and nonprofit groups

Derelict crab pot removal

Global Ghost Gear Initiative/Ocean Conservancy

Sustainable Coastlines Hawaii/State of Hawaii Marine Debris Rapid Response Ghost Net Removal Program and marine litter removal

U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration National Marine Fisheries Service Pacific Islands Fishery Science Center ghost net removal, protected species disentanglement

U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Marine Debris Program funded community-based marine debris removal projects

Hawaii Pacific University Center for Marine Debris Research ghost net removal in state of Hawaii

The Northwest Straits Foundation ghost net and derelict crab pot removal in Puget Sound


Remove plastic waste from localized hotspots

Tire wear particle capture device for roadways

Land-based cleanups

Research to identify plastic waste hotspots

State, local, and tribal governments

Academia, nongovernmental organizations, agencies

Cleanup efforts

Intervention by category

Types of interventions


Specific Examples

Increase enforcement for at-sea disposal

Reduce at-sea abandonment or discard of fishing gear

Increase enforcement of dumping and disposal of trash

Establish solid waste disposal infrastructure for end-of-life fishing nets and gear

Create incentives for land-based, e.g., dockside, disposal of end-of-life fishing nets, gear, and trash

Establish identification/tagging for deployed active and passive fishing nets and pots

Global treaty organizations; national, state, local, and tribal governments

MARPOL VI; Ocean Dumping Act implementation measures/

EU Directive 2019/904 provides for EPR and proper disposal of fishing gear made of plastics

Various national and state fishing gear marking requirements (e.g., Marine Management Organisation 2016, Ocean Outcomes 2020)

Intervention by category

Types of interventions


Specific Examples

Information/data collection

Coordinated tracking and monitoring systems

Community-based monitoring

National and state economic data, field data and studies

Mandatory annual reports on plastic use inventories of public companies and government institutions

Require plastic producers to report plastic production on carbon equivalents

National, state, local, and tribal governments; industry

Marine Debris Monitoring and Assessment Project, U.S. National Water Quality Monitoring Council,e Marine Debris Tracker, International Coastal Cleanup/CleanSwell, Regional and local activities

Transparency reporting: (1) Shareholder and investor initiatives (e.g., “As You Sow”), (2) Public reporting (e.g., “Plastic Waste Makers Index,” Minderoo Foundation)

Research and development

Methods to deliver products without packaging

Industrially compostable and home compostable polymers, films, and adhesives

Product design that maximizes circularity and recyclability

Circular materials management and leakage characterization to inform upstream interventions

Intersectional and interdisciplinary research to prevent litter and illegal dumping


REMADE Institute

U.S. Department of Energy Plastic Innovation Roadmap

National Science Foundation (NSF) Convergent Accelerator program and NSF Grand Challenges grants

Ellen MacArthur Foundation Plastics Pacts; American Chemistry Council Roadmap to Reuse

Trash Free Seas Alliance; Global Plastics Alliance and related industry investments and partnerships


New Materials Institute
Center for Bioplastics and Biocomposites

Education and outreach

Professional outreach, co-production of knowledge to inform solutions at local and regional scales

Outreach on efficacy of plastic recycling, labeling, and engage public in solutions

Media, school materials, aquaria, and museums including information on ocean plastics

Public behavior-change campaigns

Community outreach to identify and address local barriers to prevent litter, illegal dumping


National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration National Sea Grant College Program


Nongovernmental organization and governmental reports, data, outreach


U.S. coastal and inland aquarium (Aquarium Conservation Partnership) outreach campaigns on single-use plastics: “In Our Hands” (2017)f and (2) “First Step” on straws (2018)


Trash Shouldn't Splashg

Space Apps Challenge, e.g., 2021 Challenge–Leveraging AI/ML for Plastic Marine Debris

Flow diagram of available plastic waste interventions from plastic production to recapture of plastics in the ocean. SOURCE: Modified from Jambeck et al. (2018).
Flow diagram of available plastic waste interventions from plastic production to recapture of plastics in the ocean.

SOURCE: Modified from Jambeck et al. (2018).

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