Plastic Pollution

December 7, 2018 – Volume 28, Issue 43
Can the global mess be cleaned up? By Jane Fullerton Lemons


Plastic waste mars the shoreline near Athens (Cover: Getty Images/Milos Bicanski)
Plastic waste mars the shoreline near Athens, Greece, on June 26, 2018. The world has produced more than 1 metric ton of plastic for every person on Earth, and much of it is littering oceans and the landscape. Conservationists and others want to reduce plastic waste through recycling or decreased production of the material. (Cover: Getty Images/Milos Bicanski)

Plastic waste is clogging landfills, sullying cityscapes, fouling oceans with massive debris fields and killing sea creatures that ingest everything from discarded fishing equipment to disposable food containers. The problem has become so acute that plastic could outweigh ocean fish by 2050. The crisis threatens not only wildlife but also human health, as plastic breaks down into microscopic pieces that enter the global food chain. Environmentalists have long promoted recycling as a key strategy for curbing plastic pollution, and more recycling plants in the United States and Asia are planned. But China — once the world's leading recycler — announced last January that it would stop accepting plastic waste from other nations, creating uncertainty about where millions of tons of plastic detritus will go. As the threat grows, more municipalities are banning plastic shopping bags and drinking straws, and corporations are redesigning packaging to reduce waste. But conservationists say such steps will go only so far. The real solution, they say, is to stop producing so much plastic.

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In two oceans a world apart, a pilot whale's death and a sea turtle's agony garnered international attention and helped dramatize a growing threat to the global ecosystem: plastic waste, which scientists say is fouling the seas and overwhelming landfills.

Despite Thai rescuers' five-day effort in June, the whale died after eating 80 plastic bags, apparently mistaking them for squid and other food. In Costa Rica, marine researchers used pliers to remove a four-inch plastic straw from the turtle's nose as it writhed in pain, blood dripping from its nostril. A video of the turtle's ordeal went viral, viewed more than 33 million times.

“The straws,” said marine biologist Christine Figgener who filmed the scene, “are just the poster child for a much bigger problem.”1

According to the latest research, the world had produced 7.8 billion metric tons of plastic by 2015 — more than 1 metric ton for every person alive. If production trends continue, by 2050 Earth's oceans could contain more plastic, by weight, than fish.2

“We cannot continue with business as usual unless we want a planet that is literally covered in plastic,” said Roland Geyer, an assistant professor of environmental science at the University of California, Santa Barbara.3

The problem gained greater urgency in January when China stopped accepting other nations' plastic waste, upending the global recycling industry and forcing countries — including the United States — to seek other ways to dispose of their plastic trash. Researchers from the University of Georgia predict that by 2030 some 111 million metric tons of plastic waste will have been diverted from China due to the ban.4 So far, much of it has been routed to other developing countries, which lack the infrastructure to handle it, or to landfills.5

A dead sea turtle ensnared in plastic washed ashore in Ipojuca (Getty Images/Brazil Photo Press/LatinContent/Marcos Souza)
A dead sea turtle ensnared in plastic washed ashore in Ipojuca, Brazil, on Jan. 12, 2017. Plastic debris is harming turtles, whales and other sea creatures, which can ingest the material or become tangled in it. The danger to marine life has helped to focus attention on the global threat of plastic pollution. (Getty Images/Brazil Photo Press/LatinContent/Marcos Souza)

The waste problem has set off a scramble among governments, the plastics industry and companies that use its products to find ways to reduce reliance on plastic, especially “single-use” plastics that are thrown away after being used only once. Because none of the most commonly used plastics are biodegradable, they can take hundreds of years to decompose. Plastic debris in the oceans is harming marine life, while tiny pieces known as microplastics are contaminating the food chain and potentially affecting human health.

Among other steps, a growing number of municipalities are banning the use of plastic shopping bags and expanding recycling programs, while many restaurants and companies are no longer using plastic straws. In addition, corporations are pledging to redesign packaging to reduce waste, and investors are planning to build waste management facilities in the United States and developing nations.6

For John Hocevar, oceans campaign director for Greenpeace USA, a global environmental organization, the heightened activity “feels like a moment of awakening” when the international community can come together to solve a common problem, similar to what happened in the 1970s when international agreements were enacted to protect the Earth's protective ozone layer from dissipating.

“Unlike other environmental issues, [plastic pollution] is one where there isn't really a lot of difference of opinion,” says Steve Russell, vice president of the American Chemistry Council's plastics division. “Everybody thinks we need to do something about it. It's a matter of which of the many ideas for how to solve it rise to the top.”

But recycling and other strategies have so far failed to put a dent in the plastic waste problem. And many scientists and industry officials say potential solutions are neither easy nor straightforward because of plastics' importance to the economy and its advantages over other products.

Because most plastic takes hundreds of years to decompose, more than 90 percent of plastic still exists, according to 2017 estimates. The vast majority of that plastic — 79 percent — has ended up in landfills, on the landscape or in waterways and seas.7

The pie chart shows where plastic waste winds up, by percentage, for 2015.

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Of all the plastic ever produced, only 9 percent had been recycled by 2015, with the vast majority ending up in landfills or waterways or on the landscape.

Source: Roland Geyer et al., “Production, use, and fate of all plastics ever made,” American Association for the Advancement of Science, Science Advances, July 19, 2017,

Data for the graphic are as follows:

Destination Percentage of Plastic Waste Disposal
Landfill or natural environment 79%
Incineration 12%
Recycled 9%

Earth's oceans are littered with everything from soda bottles to flip-flops to abandoned fishing equipment. Debris has affected more than 800 marine and coastal species, which often ingest plastic, become tangled in it or get caught in old fishing nets, according to scientists. The plastic waste also can damage marine habitats.8

A 2015 study found that 8 million metric tons of plastic waste enter the oceans annually. That figure “is the equivalent to finding five grocery bags full of plastic on every foot of coastline in the 192 countries we examined,” said the study's lead author, Jenna Jambeck, an associate professor in the College of Engineering at the University of Georgia. That visualization, she said, “sort of blew my mind.”9

In the Pacific, 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic have gotten ensnared in an ocean current known as a gyre, creating the so-called Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Scientists say the “patch” is not a solid mass but a large area with high volumes of plastic, including many microparticles. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is one of at least five similar trash-filled zones in the oceans.10

The world map shows the five major debris collection areas in the world's oceans. Sources: “Garbage Patches Fact Sheet,” National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, undated,; Meilan Solly, “2,000-Foot-Long Plastic Catcher Released to Aid Cleanup of Great Pacific Garbage Patch,” Smithsonian, Sept. 11, 2018,; and Helen Briggs, “Plastic patch in Pacific Ocean growing rapidly, study shows,” BBC News, March 22, 2018,

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In the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian oceans, large garbage patches have formed where plastic and other debris get caught in one of five large ocean-current systems known as gyres. The biggest patch, between California and Hawaii, contains an estimated 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic and is known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. The location, shape and size of the patches are in constant flux due to changing currents and winds.

More than half of the plastic entering oceans originates from six Asian countries — China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam, Sri Lanka and Thailand, according to the 2015 study. The researchers concluded that unless waste management practices improve, the flow of plastics into the oceans could increase roughly tenfold.11

To reduce plastic waste, each of the major players is pushing different strategies:

  • The plastics industry emphasizes the need for additional waste management facilities to stop the flow of plastic pollution where much of it originates, particularly in South Asia.

  • Producers of consumer products that rely on plastic, particularly for bottles and other packaging, stress recycling.

  • Recycling companies, whose industry is in upheaval because of China's ban on imported plastic waste, advocate building additional domestic facilities and urge consumers to more carefully follow recycling rules.

  • Environmentalists say the best solution is to stop producing so much plastic.

Although recycling is a popular option, experts say it is no panacea because of consumer confusion over how the recycling process works and the expense and effort involved in breaking down plastic. Leftover food or other materials can contaminate otherwise recyclable plastics, according to the National Waste & Recycling Association, and some plastic is extremely difficult to recycle because of its chemical composition.12

As a result, 91 percent of recyclable plastic in the United States “is not actually recycled,” Jonathan Baillie, executive vice president and chief scientist of the National Geographic Society, told a Senate committee in September.13

In addition, alternatives to plastic products, including paper, steel, aluminum and glass, have their own environmental drawbacks: A 2016 analysis, conducted for the American Chemistry Council by an independent research company, found that the net environmental cost of plastic in consumer goods is 3.8 times less than alternative materials.

“Plastics have delivered many benefits for society,” according to the analysis. “Plastic packaged food lasts longer, reducing wastage. Use of plastic in pipes facilitates clean drinking water supplies, while plastic enables life-saving medical devices such as surgical equipment and drips. Due to its light weight, plastic use in vehicles has reduced carbon dioxide emissions.”14

Even banning the small plastic shopping bags that are clogging landfills carries an environmental cost, some observers warn. Compared with paper and cloth bags, the production of plastic bags requires little energy, saving both fossil fuels and trees, and their durability means people can reuse them for multiple tasks, such as lining trash cans.

“Pity the much-maligned plastic bag,” wrote environmental journalist Marc Gunther. “Studies say that plastic bags have a lighter environmental footprint than paper, and in some cases are preferable to reusable [cloth] bags.”15

Plastics' critics, however, note that the material's durability is a two-edged sword. Depending on the type of plastic and where it lands, it can take hundreds of years to break down into microplastics. Recent research has found those tiny particles have contaminated the food chain and may have ramifications for human health.16

“We're still just beginning to understand the scope of plastic pollution and the full range of impacts on the environment and on ourselves,” Hocevar says.

Other problems, critics say, stem from the sheer volume of plastic in existence. Mass production of plastic ramped up in the 1950s. Since then, the amount produced annually has increased from 2 million metric tons in 1950 to 381 million metric tons in 2015.17

In addition, approximately 42 percent of plastic is used for disposable packaging designed to be used only once.18

“This is a manifestation of a throw-away society,” says Mathy Stanislaus, a fellow at the World Resources Institute, an environmental research organization in Washington. Stanislaus advocates a circular economy in which sustainable principles are employed to create products, including plastics, that are used as long as possible to reduce waste.

At an international conference in October, nearly 300 organizations and governments signed onto an initiative to reduce plastic waste, in large part by repurposing existing plastic products. Companies responsible for 20 percent of the plastic packaging produced worldwide committed to the goal of reusing, recycling or composting all plastic by 2025.19

The effort “draws a line in the sand, with businesses, governments and others around the world uniting behind a clear vision for what we need to create: a circular economy for plastic,” said Ellen MacArthur, a renowned British sailor whose foundation is working to advance such an economy.20

Meanwhile, entrepreneurs are seeking ways to turn plastic waste into a binding agent for asphalt used in roadways, while researchers are studying how to convert plastic waste into energy and fuel, although experts say such technology would put only a small dent in the worldwide waste problem.

As marine biologists, environmentalists, the plastics industry and others seek solutions to plastic waste, here are some of the questions they are asking:

Will China's ban on imported waste materials make plastic pollution worse?

The global market for recyclable scrap materials plunged into chaos this year after China banned the import of 24 kinds of solid waste, including plastic used in consumer products, and enacted stringent rules limiting contamination on those items it would still accept.

The Chinese government said it took these steps as the latest in a series of efforts to protect China's environment and human health. The imported plastic has resulted in mountains of dirty trash and a shadowy homegrown recycling industry that operates with little environmental or health regulatory oversight.21

Until Jan. 1 when the ban took effect, China had been importing nearly half the world's recyclable plastic trash, which it turned into products to be sold. The ban also affects certain other recyclables, such as unsorted paper and cardboard.

In the ban's wake, plastic recyclables are piling up at landfills, as the United States and other countries scramble to find ways to dispose of them.

“You can screw up a lot of the global trade system just by stopping a few things — and the movement of trash is one of them,” said Daniel Hoornweg, associate professor of energy systems and nuclear science at the University of Ontario's Institute of Technology. “Plastic's heavily embedded in our society.”22

In 2016, the United States exported 1.43 million tons of plastic to China, valued at $494.5 million, according to the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, a trade association for recycling companies. Other top exporters are Japan, Germany, Mexico and the United Kingdom.23

For the exporting countries, “it was cheaper to throw [the trash] onto a boat and send it abroad than deal with it here,” said Amy L. Brooks, an environmental engineering graduate student at the University of Georgia who led the study examining the ban's impact.24

In the United States, the ban is being felt at landfills nationwide, according to David Biderman, executive director of the Solid Waste Association of North America, a research and advocacy group. “There is a significant disruption occurring to U.S. recycling programs,” he said. “The concern is if this is the new normal.”25

For example, the Prince William County landfill in Manassas, Va., has seen an increase in plastics and other items that the county can no longer export to China, says Scott MacDonald, the county's recycling program manager. The impact has been “significant,” he says.

But MacDonald says he does not blame China for wanting to clean up its environment. He faults the United States for not planning for a move that China began implementing when it launched its “Green Fence” program in 2013, aimed at improving the environment by enacting tougher contamination standards for recycling imports, such as no longer accepting plastics containing food waste.26

“We actually had a five-year warning that this was coming, and we did nothing in the United States,” MacDonald says. “We just let it happen.”

In the long run, he says, China's move will lead to necessary changes among the world's waste and recycling industries. “It's going to force the U.S. processors to clean up our materials, to do what we need to do to market the materials,” MacDonald says, explaining that American recycling companies will have to use more people to sort and clean recycling materials to meet China's contamination standards in order to make their waste marketable.

The U.S. plastics industry is working to increase its domestic recycling capabilities, says Scott DeFife, vice president of government affairs for the Plastics Industry Association, a trade association. “We are seeing the plastics industry … engage and invest in recovery solutions like never before,” he says.

Meanwhile, many exporting countries have been seeking other places to send their trash since the ban went into effect. U.S. exports of plastics to Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam increased significantly in the first three months of 2018 compared with the same period a year earlier, according to the Solid Waste Association.27

But all three countries fear becoming a plastics dumping ground and plan to restrict the amount of plastics they will accept. Thailand, for instance, will ban all imports of plastic scrap and waste beginning in 2021, when current import licenses will expire.28

Thailand has been struggling to cope with its own mounting plastic waste, and the imported waste was compounding the problem, said Rintawat Sombutsiri, director of industrial waste management for the Department of Industrial Works in Bangkok. As a result, much of the imported waste has ended up in landfills and the ocean.29

As in the United States, it took a viral video of plastic waste harming an animal to capture the public's attention — in this case the pilot whale found stranded in a Thai canal near the Malaysian border.30

Greenpeace's Hocevar says China's ban is providing an opportunity to find new solutions, such as redesigning packaging to reduce the amount of plastic used.

“Our hope is that this forces the United States, corporations and government together to rethink our approach to single-use packaging, and to ultimately start phasing out single-use plastic,” Hocevar says.

Industry officials and policymakers had put off finding new ways to deal with the growing volume of plastic waste, but that situation must change due to China's ban, says Stanislaus of the World Resources Institute.

Investing in the waste and recycling infrastructure needed in developing countries will be a key piece of that puzzle, he says, particularly in Southeast Asia. China's ban has forced these issues to the top of the agenda.

“The overwhelming view is that the China ban will ultimately be a positive thing,” he says.

Can increased recycling significantly reduce the plastic waste problem?

In the United States, only 9 percent of plastics were recycled in 2015, according to the most recent survey by the Environmental Protection Agency.31

A host of technical and economic challenges make recycling plastics difficult. When done properly, recycling can help keep plastic waste out of landfills and the environment, most observers agree, but environmentalists say it will never be enough. They contend manufacturers must stop producing so much plastic.

At the American Disposal Services recycling facility in Prince William County, Va., some 400 tons of recyclable waste — including plastic, metal and paper — travel along conveyor belts each day; about 70 percent of it will be recycled and 30 percent will end up in a landfill.

Plant manager John Foy oversees the “single-stream” recycling facility, which means all potentially recyclable materials — cardboard and newspaper, aluminum and steel cans, as well as certain types of plastic — are mixed together.

Recycling is labor-intensive because it requires sorting items that can be recycled from those that cannot. At American Disposal, as the conveyor belts move the items, workers remove plastic bags and other material that cannot be recycled at the facility. Plastic bags, such as those collected at grocery stores, are recyclable, but are handled by other facilities. Plastics that can be recycled at Foy's plant will be shredded, cleaned and reduced to a pellet, which can be sold and used to make a variety of products, such as plastic bottles, lawn furniture, playground equipment and toys.32

An employee of MP Industries in Gardanne (AFP/Getty Images/Gerard Julien)
An employee of MP Industries in Gardanne, France, uses recycled plastic to build a trash can on Nov. 23, 2018. Companies are seeking ways to reuse plastic waste, such as converting it to energy. Experts caution, however, that recycling is only a partial solution to the immense problem of plastic waste. (AFP/Getty Images/Gerard Julien)

The resulting plastic pellets — which look and feel like lentil beans — are a commodity, meaning their sale is subject to the same market forces and price fluctuations as any other commodity: When supply exceeds demand, prices drop.33

“It's all market driven, in terms of what can be recycled,” says Nancy Hessler-Sprull, American Disposal's marketing manager. China's ban on plastic imports has affected market conditions significantly, causing prices for recycling commodities to drop.

Chaz Miller, a former official with the National Waste & Recycling Association, predicted that to replace the lost markets in Asia for plastic waste, investors will build more U.S. recycling facilities. Two are already planned in Alabama and South Carolina, which will produce pellets for export to Chinese manufacturers.

Unlike plastic waste, the pellets are not subject to the ban. In essence, Miller said, the Chinese government wants other countries to “do the ‘dirty’ work of processing your recyclables in your country and send the end product to manufacturers in our country.”34

Despite the disruption caused by the ban, plastics manufacturers and the companies who use their products, say recycling remains a key component to addressing plastic pollution.

“Proper recovery and management of materials is the best solution for fighting plastic pollution,” says Kim Holmes, vice president of sustainability for the Plastics Industry Association.

Recycling plastic can be difficult, however, because the various types have different chemical compositions and should remain separate to be recyclable. Plastics consist of seven types. Those that recycle most easily and have the best resale value, according to Foy, are those labeled No. 1, which are made from polyethylene terephthalate, or PET, and those labeled No. 2, made from high-density polyethylene, or HDPE. Examples of these plastic types include soda and water bottles, laundry detergent bottles and milk jugs.35

Besides contamination from food remnants, other materials can make plastic unrecyclable, said Timothy Gutowski, a professor of mechanical engineering at MIT. Plastic “usually contains lubricants, colorants, fillers, antioxidants and other additives that make it impossible to return the plastic to its original quality,” he said.36

In addition, there are no uniform criteria about what can be recycled, so each recycling company has different guidelines about what it will accept.

Recycling facilities regularly see people trying to recycle the wrong items. At American Disposal, Foy says, workers have to stop the conveyer belts several times a day to extract improper items that have become tangled in the machinery, such as plastic bags. They have also seen everything from garden hoses to animal carcasses tossed into recycling bins.

But even the best recycling practices are not enough to offset the scope of global plastic pollution, argues Greenpeace's Hocevar, who insists that industry must reduce the amount of plastics it produces. “We can't recycle our way out of this problem,” he says, noting the single-digit rates for plastic recycling in the United States. “We know that when we produce this stuff, most of it isn't going to be recycled.”

The line graph shows cumulative global plastic production in metric tons from 1950 to 2015.

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The cumulative amount of plastic — each year's total added to the amount from all previous years — soared from 2 million metric tons in 1950 to almost 8 billion metric tons in 2015. Depending on its composition and location, plastic can take hundreds of years to decompose.

Source: Hannah Ritchie and Max Roser, “Plastic Pollution,” Our World in Data, September 2018,

Data for the graphic are as follows:

Year Amount of Global Plastic Production, in Metric Tons
1950 2,000,000
1951 4,000,000
1952 6,000,000
1953 9,000,000
1954 12,000,000
1955 16,000,000
1956 21,000,000
1957 26,000,000
1958 32,000,000
1959 39,000,000
1960 47,000,000
1961 56,000,000
1962 67,000,000
1963 80,000,000
1964 95,000,000
1965 112,000,000
1966 132,000,000
1967 155,000,000
1968 182,000,000
1969 214,000,000
1970 249,000,000
1971 287,000,000
1972 331,000,000
1973 382,000,000
1974 434,000,000
1975 480,000,000
1976 534,000,000
1977 593,000,000
1978 657,000,000
1979 728,000,000
1980 798,000,000
1981 870,000,000
1982 943,000,000
1983 1,023,000,000
1984 1,109,000,000
1985 1,199,000,000
1986 1,295,000,000
1987 1,399,000,000
1988 1,509,000,000
1989 1,623,000,000
1990 1,743,000,000
1991 1,867,000,000
1992 1,999,000,000
1993 2,136,000,000
1994 2,287,000,000
1995 2,443,000,000
1996 2,611,000,000
1997 2,791,000,000
1998 2,979,000,000
1999 3,181,000,000
2000 3,394,000,000
2001 3,612,000,000
2002 3,843,000,000
2003 4,084,000,000
2004 4,340,000,000
2005 4,603,000,000
2006 4,883,000,000
2007 5,178,000,000
2008 5,459,000,000
2009 5,747,000,000
2010 6,060,000,000
2011 6,385,000,000
2012 6,723,000,000
2013 7,075,000,000
2014 7,442,000,000
2015 7,823,000,000

Matt Wilkins, a biologist and researcher at Vanderbilt University, said recycling misses the point: “Recycling plastic is to saving the Earth what hammering a nail is to halting a falling skyscraper.”

Wilkins said consumers should not be held responsible for creating the plastics problem or fixing it via a complicated recycling system. “Encouraging individuals to recycle more will never solve the problem of a massive production of single-use plastic that should have been avoided in the first place,” he said.37

For Hessler-Sprull, who sees what comes through her company's recycling facility every day, the answer is to reduce, reuse and recycle plastic products — in that order. “Recycling,” she says, “is the last resort.”

Is taxing plastic goods an effective way to reduce plastic pollution?

In 2016, the Chicago City Council imposed a 7-cent tax on all disposable bags — both paper and plastic. Since the tax went into effect on Feb. 1, 2017, the number of consumers using disposable bags has dropped 27.7 percent.38

Numerous other cities, including Washington, D.C., and Brownsville, Texas, have passed similar taxes, while places like Memphis, Tenn., are considering it. Some shoppers support the concept. “If it helps to save the environment, I'm good with it,” Sheila Swann of Chicago said. But others say a tax is the wrong approach. “They're about to tax us to death,” said Gail Berretta of Memphis. “Try adding it up. When you have a large family and seven cents a bag, that's a lot.”39

Industry groups oppose taxes on plastic bags. The Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries contends the fees restrict the marketplace for what it views as a valuable material with viable markets, while other groups say the differing approaches create problems.40

“A patchwork of bag laws is never good for the consumer and never good for businesses,” said Matt Seaholm, executive director of the American Progressive Bag Alliance, a plastics industry group that works to oppose bag taxes and bans.41

Meanwhile, some states such as Arizona have responded to local efforts to enact plastic bag taxes or bans by passing “pre-emption” laws to prevent cities from doing just that — becoming a flashpoint between conservative statehouses and more liberal localities.

Arizona state Sen. Warren Petersen, a Republican, said the pre-emption laws are intended to protect individual rights. “It's not the government's job to tell you whether or not you should use a plastic bag,” he said. “Are we going to micromanage every decision of every consumer?”42

But defenders say taxing plastic bags works. When researchers from New York University and the University of Chicago looked at Chicago's tax, they found the proportion of people using reusable bags more than doubled. Those results, they concluded, “provide strong evidence that a small bag tax can have a large and persistent impact on consumer behavior.”43

The findings correlated with 2013 research on Montgomery County, Md.: A 5-cent tax on disposable paper and plastic bags led to a 40 percent decline in disposable bag use and a 30 percent increase in reusable bag use within two months.44

Workers sort through plastic (SAGE Publications Inc./Jane Fullerton Lemons)
Workers sort through plastic, paper and other waste at the American Disposal Services facility in Prince William County, Va. The plant can recycle about 70 percent of the waste brought there. Globally, about 79 percent of plastic waste ends up in landfills or waterways or on the ground. (SAGE Publications Inc./Jane Fullerton Lemons)

Other countries are also grappling with plastic bag usage. In 1993, Denmark became the first country to tax plastic packaging, including plastic shopping bags. Additional countries that tax plastic bags include Botswana, Germany, Israel and the United Kingdom.45

When Ireland enacted a plastic bag tax in 2002, it resulted in a 94 percent drop in plastic bag use within weeks. The U.K.'s bag tax resulted in an 85 percent decline in use within six months.46

In October, the British government announced it will levy a tax beginning in 2022 on single-use plastic packaging that contains less than 30 percent recycled material. The move is part of a long-term plan to eliminate plastic waste by 2042.47

Polling conducted in August for a British communications company found that 52 percent favored a tax on all plastic packaging of food products. The same poll found 33 percent of American consumers supporting such a tax.48

As that poll underscored, taxes are generally less popular in the United States, whether for plastic bags or bottles, than in Europe. In 2009, efforts to pass a 5-cent tax on single-use plastic bags and a 5-cent deposit on beverage containers failed in Congress. Ten states — California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, New York, Oregon and Vermont — and Guam have a deposit-refund system for beverage containers, including plastic.49

In Norway, which uses a bottle deposit system, 97 percent of all plastic drink bottles are recycled. Plastic bottle producers are subject to an environmental tax, but the more the companies recycle, the lower their tax. If producers collectively recycle more than 95 percent, they do not have to pay the tax — a goal that has been met every year since 2011.50

Germany has an almost identical system, leading to recycling rates that also top 90 percent. In both countries, consumers return bottles to participating stores to have their deposit returned, and both systems rely on incentives that make it economically worthwhile for companies to collect the bottles for recycling.51

Ultimately, these countries want to change the way consumers think about what they are buying. “We want to get to the point where people realize they are buying the product but just borrowing the packaging,” said Kjell Olav Maldum, chief executive of Infinitum, the organization that runs Norway's deposit return system.52

But not everyone is convinced a tax provides enough incentive to make a difference.

“Taxing or placing a fee on plastic items such as grocery bags is a halfway solution at best,” said Alex Truelove, zero waste campaign director at the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, a liberal advocacy organization. While it might keep some people from using plastic bags, “many consumers have no qualms about paying a nominal fee for what they consider convenience.”53

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Early Plastics

While products made from wood, metal or glass date back centuries, plastics trace their beginnings to the middle of the 19th century, when a British chemist was trying to develop a synthetic substitute for shellac.

Alexander Parkes, a metallurgist and inventor, obtained 66 patents on processes and products, many related to plastic development. One of those, in 1856, was for what he called Parkesine, considered the first manmade plastic, a form of thermoplastic, and a predecessor of celluloid, which was used to make movie and photography film.

Parkes realized the potential of his discovery, exhibiting household goods he had molded from Parkesine — knife handles, combs, plaques and medallions — at the 1862 International Exhibition in London. But Parkes was a better inventor than businessman. While his products were not a commercial success, they opened the door to a new era.54

In 1896, American inventor John Wesley Hyatt discovered how to efficiently manufacture an improved version of Parkesine that could be easily molded and shaped.

Hyatt had been seeking an alternative to using ivory to make billiard balls. The widespread use of ivory was leading to the slaughter of elephants for their tusks. Hyatt developed a way to produce light, strong material that could be crafted to look and feel like ivory, tortoiseshell and other natural materials. It also was widely used to make celluloid.

“Parkes had foreseen the use of Parkesine film as a replacement for glass photographic negatives as early as 1856,” said Sue Mossmann of the Science Museum in London. “Even he would have been amazed by the development of celluloid film and the birth of the Hollywood film industry.”55

Although Hyatt's invention ultimately proved ineffective in the manufacturing of billiard balls, celluloid's versatility ushered in a revolution in the production of consumer goods.

In 1907, again while experimenting to find a substitute for shellac, Leo Baekeland created the world's first entirely synthetic plastic, which he called Bakelite, an invention that quickly led to the modern plastics industry.

Baekeland, a Belgian chemist who had immigrated to America, was already a wealthy and successful inventor, having sold his Velox printing paper invention to photography pioneer George Eastman, who founded the Eastman Kodak Co., maker of cameras and photography products. Although Baekeland had been seeking a replacement for shellac, it soon became clear his invention had applications well beyond that.

Baekeland patented his product in 1909, and it was used in industrial and consumer manufacturing to produce everything from telephone handsets and costume jewelry to lightbulb sockets, automobile engine parts and washing machine components.

When Baekeland founded the Bakelite Corp, the company chose the symbol for infinity as its logo, with a prescient tagline that read: “The Material of a Thousand Uses.”56

World War II Era

The years following the introduction of Bakelite were filled with advances in the science of plastics.

Bakelite's success encouraged large chemical companies such as DuPont and Dow to invest in the development of more plastics. They established in-house research teams that worked to invent products and find a use for them, unlike Parkes, Hyatt and Baekeland, who had been looking for solutions to specific problems.57

And the companies focused on thermoplastics. Bakelite is a thermoset — a synthetic material that strengthens during reheating. But thermoplastics become soft when heated and hard when cooled, so they can be remolded during the process, making them particularly versatile.

In the 1920s, German chemist Hermann Staudinger proved the existence of what are known as polymers, laying the groundwork for the modern plastics industry. He received the 1953 Nobel Prize in chemistry for his work.58

The manufacturing of another type of plastic called polystyrene began in 1930. Although first discovered in 1839 by German apothecary Eduard Simon, it took Staudinger's work to realize the full potential of the discovery.

In the 1930s, DuPont chemist Wallace Carothers invented neoprene, the first commercially successful synthetic rubber, and an elastic polymer called nylon. The two inventions would help the Allies win World War II and cement DuPont's position as a leading chemical company. Nylon went into production in 1939, resulting in a popular display of stockings at the New York World's Fair, but it was rationed for war purposes, such as making parachute canopies.

Six years earlier, British scientists Eric Fawcett and Reginald Gibson had created polyethylene. During the war, its existence remained secret because it was used to insulate radar cables on airplanes. It is currently the most widely used plastic, for products ranging from food wrap and shopping bags to detergent bottles and automobile fuel tanks.59

During World War II, plastic use exploded and production quadrupled as the military employed the material in place of scarce natural resources. Plastic helped make mortar fuses, aircraft components, bazooka barrels, helmet liners and numerous other products.

“Perhaps the most dramatic military use of a plastic was acrylic — clear acrylic plastic was used for cockpits and gunner noses in bombers and fighter planes,” said historian Jeffrey Meikle, author of American Plastic: A Cultural History. “The material captured the popular imagination. People thought they would have plastic-domed cars after the war.”60

Postwar Demand

When peace came in 1945, plastics manufacturers turned their attention to consumer products.

During the war, high-quality plastics had been earmarked for military purposes, leaving less expensive alternatives for the public. That had given plastic something of a bad reputation for making cheap products that broke easily. So the industry set out to counter that image with an aggressive marketing campaign.

DuPont had surpluses of polyethylene and turned to plastics companies for help developing peacetime uses for its product. The company gave samples to Earl Tupper, who was operating a small plastics company. He tinkered with the plastic, ultimately patenting the plastic bowl with a “burping” lid in 1949 — and Tupperware was born.61

Production of high-density polyethylene continued in the postwar years, but warehouses filled with surplus materials. The hula-hoop craze that swept the nation during the late 1950s required such huge amounts of plastic that demand for the toys consumed the unused product.

Plastics became a ubiquitous part of the culture. In August 1955, Life magazine published an article with the title, “Throwaway Living.” The accompanying photo showed a family tossing disposable dishes, cups and cutlery into the air.

“The objects flying through the air would take 40 hours to clean,” the article read, “except that no housewife need bother. They are all meant to be thrown away after use.”62

In 1957, chemical company Monsanto sponsored a “House of the Future” attraction at Disneyland in California where the walls, ceilings, chairs and tables were made of plastic.63

Recycling Accelerates

As a throwaway culture took hold in the 1960s, scientists carrying out plankton studies began to notice the plastic pollution in the oceans, and in the 1970s recycling gradually spread. However, not until the 1980s did the problem of plastic pollution stir action by Congress and some communities.

Americans had previously found ways to reuse things — flour sacks for fabric during the Great Depression, scrap metal for World War II efforts — but recycling's focus changed after the widespread adoption of plastic products and the growth of pollution.

“What happened in the 1960s and '70s wasn't that recycling was invented, but that the reasons for it changed,” according to a recycling primer in Time magazine. “Rather than recycle in order to get the most out of the materials, Americans began to recycle in order to deal with the massive amounts of waste produced during the second half of the 20th century.”64

In 1970, a Chicago container company held a design contest to raise awareness about the environment. Gary Anderson, a 23-year-old California college student, won the contest with his design of three arrows in a circular pattern — the now ubiquitous symbol for recycling.65

Oregon in 1971 passed the first statewide beverage container deposit law, which covered plastic and glass bottles and metal cans. Nearly a decade later, Woodbury, N.J., became the first city to mandate curbside recycling.

Companies had begun switching from glass bottles, which were returnable for a deposit, to high-density polyethylene bottles. In 1978, the Coca-Cola Co. introduced a 2-liter bottle made from polyethylene terephthalate. It became popular because of its plastic properties — unbreakable, lightweight, resealable and recyclable.66

Plastic bags were introduced in the United States in 1979. By 1982, grocery stores began replacing paper bags with plastic. Because they were cheaper for stores to stock than the paper alternative, plastic bags were offered in 75 percent of supermarkets by the end of 1985.67

During this era, ad campaigns promoting recycling framed waste disposal as a problem for consumers rather than the companies that made the items needing to be recycled. Keep America Beautiful, a coalition of public and corporate interests that included plastic producers and consumer brands, ran an iconic 1971 commercial, known as the “Crying Indian” ad. It featured a Native American canoeist setting out on a pristine river who encountered growing piles of litter and pollution as he drew closer to developed areas. The tagline: “People start pollution. People can stop it.”68

Environmentalists, meanwhile, were raising the alarm about marine plastic pollution. In those days, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, “wastes were frequently dumped in coastal and ocean waters based on the assumption that marine waters had an unlimited capacity to mix and disperse wastes.” And ships simply dumped their garbage overboard.69

In 1972, Congress approved the Ocean Dumping Act regulating the dumping of waste in U.S. waters, but it did not focus on plastic. Congress in 1987 banned all dumping of plastic in U.S. territorial waters, when it passed the Marine Plastic Pollution Research and Control Act.

In 1988, the international community amended the 1973 International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships to prohibit dumping garbage from ships. The agreement falls under the auspices of the International Maritime Organization, the U.N. agency with responsibility for the prevention of marine pollution by ships.70

California sailor and oceanographer Charles J. Moore — on the way home in 1997 after a sailing race between Los Angeles and Hawaii — caught sight of trash floating in the North Pacific Gyre. Gyres are large systems of circulating ocean currents created by winds and tides where debris collects. The Pacific and Atlantic have two gyres each and the Indian Ocean one — and all five have giant floating garbage patches.

Moore wrote essays about what he had seen, bringing international attention to what is now called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

“As I gazed from the deck at the surface of what ought to have been a pristine ocean, I was confronted, as far as the eye could see, with the sight of plastic,” Moore wrote for Natural History magazine in 2003. “It seemed unbelievable, but I never found a clear spot.”71

Since then, Moore has written a book about his experience, posted videos and founded Algalita Marine Research and Education to fight plastic pollution. His work has coincided with a rising level of attention and activity about the problems.

Efforts to ban or tax plastic bags — by charging customers for their use — have gained momentum. In 2009, the United Nations called for a global ban. “Single-use plastic bags which choke marine life should be banned or phased out rapidly everywhere,” Achim Steiner, executive director of the U.N. Environment Programme, said at the time. “There is simply zero justification for manufacturing them anymore, anywhere.”72

Beginning in 2009, U.S. jurisdictions have banned plastic bags or imposed fees on them, and more recently, on plastic straws.

And in 2015, Congress passed the Microbead-Free Waters Act, which banned plastic microbeads from cosmetics and personal care products.73

The $418 billion plastics industry, meanwhile, remains a key part of the U.S. economy. It directly employs 965,000 people, with another 1.76 million jobs dependent on the industry, according to the Plastics Industry Association. Despite concern about plastic pollution, “growth has continued for the U.S. plastics industry, and demand for plastics has remained remarkably resilient,” said the association's most recent global trends report.74

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Current Situation

Ocean Cleanup

A massive, 2,000-foot-long, unmanned boom is collecting plastic waste in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the result of a five-year, $35 million effort to find a way to remove plastic debris from the world's oceans.

The brainchild of Dutch inventor Boyan Slat, the free-floating U-shaped boom, with a 10-foot underwater skirt attached below, is being financed by a nonprofit organization called Ocean Cleanup.75

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which is in the North Pacific about 1,400 miles off the California coast, is “increasing exponentially,” according to a recent survey.76

An experimental boom operates in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. (The Ocean Cleanup)
An experimental boom operates in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in September 2018. The new system, the brainchild of Dutch inventor Boyan Slat, is part of a five-year, $35 million effort to reduce plastic pollution in the oceans by 90 percent by 2040. Some scientists worry, however, that the apparatus could harm fish or other marine life. (The Ocean Cleanup)

The giant boom is propelled by wind and water, essentially acting like “a giant Pac-Man” as it gobbles up plastic debris in front of it, according to the project's website. Ships periodically collect the trash, taking the plastic waste to shore where it can be recycled into products that can be sold to help fund the cleanup.

If the system works as planned, Slat and his team envision a fleet of about 60 such devices, which they project could remove half the plastic from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch within five years. The goal is to reduce the amount of plastic in the oceans by at least 90 percent by 2040.

But several scientists say the apparatus could harm or trap fish or other marine animals and question whether it is the best approach. “There's worry that you can't remove the plastic without removing marine life at the same time,” said George Leonard, chief scientist at the Ocean Conservancy, an environmental advocacy group.

Slat acknowledged that the process is not the “full solution” to plastic pollution. But, he said, “we have to clean it up at some point in time and, actually, I would say the sooner the better.”77

Meanwhile, Circulate Capital, a New York investment firm, announced in November that it has raised more than $100 million in funding to build recycling and waste management plants across southern Asia, an area which accounts for much of the plastic waste in the oceans. The firm hopes its initial funding will show that recycling investments can be profitable, according to Rob Kaplan, the firm's founder. Working with the Ocean Conservancy, the company has gathered financial commitments from PepsiCo, Dow Chemical and other corporations.

“Analysis shows that if we can build waste management and recycling systems in Indonesia, China, the Philippines, Vietnam and Thailand, we can reduce leakage by 45 percent,” Kaplan said. “But here's the catch: The cost of such an effort could be in the billions of dollars.”78

Creating Energy

Researchers are seeking ways to transform unrecyclable plastic waste into energy or fuel. Because plastics are produced from oil and natural gas, researchers want to recover that lost energy rather than putting it into a landfill.

“Next to natural gas and crude oil, the nonrecycled plastics that we're throwing away are the third-biggest provider of fuel,” said Craig Cookson, senior director of recycling and energy recovery for the American Chemistry Council. “So why are they going to landfill, but we're still digging up oil? Let's think about innovation to dig our way out of these problems.”79

Currently, 86 facilities operating in 25 states, mainly in the Northeast, recover energy by incinerating municipal solid waste, including unrecycled plastics, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Although no new facilities have opened since 1995, some have expanded to handle additional waste and create more energy. The plants can produce 2,720 megawatts of power annually by processing more than 28 million tons of waste.80

But those plants are operating at capacity, so more facilities are needed. In addition, it costs less to send plastic waste to a landfill than to a waste-to-energy plant, according to experts.

“The biggest impediment for us is cheap landfilling, particularly in the middle part of the country,” said Michael Van Brunt, senior director of sustainability at waste energy management company Covanta. And opponents say the plants contribute to air pollution, compete with recycling efforts and can lock communities into paying for expensive facilities.81

Research also is underway into other ways of extracting the underlying energy or fuel from plastic waste, including gasification and pyrolysis. Both are thermal processes that use high temperatures to break down waste, but they differ from traditional waste-to-energy plants, which burn the waste, said Muxina Konarova, a research fellow at the Australian Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology.

“The heat released from incineration might be used to produce steam to drive a turbine and generate electricity, but this is only a byproduct,” Konarova said. “Gasification and pyrolysis can produce electricity or fuels, and provide more flexible ways of storing energy than incineration.”82

Regulating Plastic

Numerous governments and companies around the world are banning or refusing to use plastic straws and bags. In October, the European Union's parliament went a step further, voting to ban certain single-use plastic products, such as straws, cutlery and balloon sticks.83

Americans use an estimated 500 million straws every day, and research indicates as many as 8.3 billion plastic straws pollute the world's beaches. People with medical conditions often need them, but most people do not require straws to consume beverages.

Straws make up only 0.025 percent of the plastic that flows into the oceans each year, but environmentalists see reducing straw usage as an achievable first step toward reducing overall plastic pollution. In July, Seattle became the first city to ban straws, allowing only compostable or recyclable straws upon request, and also banned plastic utensils.84

In September, California became the first state to enact a partial ban on plastic straws. Starting Jan. 1, 2019, full-service, dine-in restaurants cannot hand them out unless customers request them.85

Corporations also are acting:

  • Starbucks plans to phase out plastic straws by 2020.

  • The Walt Disney Co. will eliminate single-use plastic straws and plastic stirrers from its theme parks by mid-2019.

  • Food service companies Sodexo, Aramark and Bon Appétit Management will phase out plastics including straws, stirrers, Styrofoam and bags between 2019 and 2025.86

Other major companies, ranging from Marriott Hotels to American Airlines and Red Lobster, also have announced plans to eliminate plastic straws. Even Buckingham Palace announced it would stop using plastic straws and bottles.87

Meanwhile, cities and countries worldwide, including China, are targeting single-use plastic bags. Rwanda and Kenya, for example, have enacted bans on plastic bags, while India — one of the biggest plastic polluters — is pledging to cut down on its plastic usage.88

In the United States, state legislatures considered at least 73 bills dealing with plastic bag usage during their 2017-18 sessions. Most proposed bans or fees for bag use, or improving recycling programs.89

In addition, the nation's largest grocery store chain, the Kroger Co., announced in August that it will eliminate plastic shopping bags from its more than 2,800 company-owned supermarkets by 2025. It distributes 6 billion single-use bags per year.

“The plastic shopping bag's days are numbered,” Kroger Chairman and CEO Rodney McMullen wrote in an op-ed announcing the move. “Our customers have told us it makes no sense to have so much plastic only to be used once before being discarded. And they're exactly right.”90

Because the traditional plastic targeted by these regulations is made from petroleum-based raw materials, some environmentalists recommend switching to bioplastics, which are made partly from plants or other organic components and decompose more rapidly than oil-based plastics. That would reduce fossil fuel use, while producing less long-lasting waste.

But a University of Pittsburgh study concluded that turning organic material into bioplastics creates other types of pollution, because it requires fertilizers and pesticides to grow the necessary crops, it diverts land from food production and contributes more to ozone depletion than traditional plastics.91

In October, President Trump signed the Save Our Seas Act, reauthorizing the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Marine Debris Program and providing it with $10 million a year through 2022 for research and programming.92

In September, the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works held a hearing on ocean pollution. Preventing plastics from becoming marine debris will require a host of actions involving everyone — from individual consumers to government officials to product manufacturers, said Kara Lavender Law, research professor of oceanography at the Sea Education Association in Woods Hole, Mass.

“There is no silver bullet, or one-size-fits-all solution,” she told lawmakers.93

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Seeking Solutions

In “a business-as-usual scenario,” the plastic waste problem could be much worse by 2050, warned a report by the World Economic Forum and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation:

  • Plastics production would nearly quadruple from 311 metric tons in 2014 to 1,124 metric tons.

  • The amount of plastic waste flowing into the oceans would quadruple to the equivalent of dumping the contents of four garbage trucks into the ocean every minute.

  • The plastics industry would consume 20 percent of the world's total oil production, compared with 6 percent in 2014.

Players involved in all aspects of confronting plastic pollution say they are working to find solutions so none of those predictions comes true.94

“Clearly, there is a gap between the future we want and the future we're going to have if we don't intervene in some way,” says Russell of the American Chemistry Council.

The key to that, he says, is collecting more waste materials, then recycling or repurposing those materials so that “we view waste as a resource and start treating it that way.”

Hocevar of Greenpeace says bleak predictions can be counterproductive. “Let's take this moment where we've realized how serious the impact of our plastic addition is,” he says, “and let's take action as quickly as possible to turn that around.”

Reducing the production of single-use plastics would have the most immediate impact, he says, but he supports companies' efforts to recycle and reuse plastics.

That is what Coca-Cola said it would do with its “World Without Waste” program, pledging to collect and recycle the equivalent of every bottle or can it sells globally by 2030, while encouraging other companies to follow suit.

“Regardless of where it comes from, we want every package to have more than one life,” said James Quincey, Coke's president and chief executive officer.95

Stanislaus of the World Resources Institute says circularity is the future model for the economy. But when it comes to plastics, numerous barriers must be overcome, including consumer demand for convenience and the need to build waste management plants. That will require public-private partnerships that bring all the parties together.

“I don't think it's an ‘if’ but a ‘how’ do you get there,” Stanislaus says. “We're in a linear world, so how do you bend the line toward circularity? We have an opportunity that we've never had before to look at any kind of system — in this case, waste management — and say, ‘How do we really optimize this?’”

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Is taxing plastic production the best way to control plastic waste?


John Hocevar
Oceans Campaign Director, Greenpeace USA. Written for CQ Researcher, December 2018

It's time to phase out single-use plastic, and taxing its use is a start.

Reducing production is the best way to address plastic pollution. We have put so much plastic into our environment that it is in our drinking water, our seafood and even our sea salt. Millions of people have seen pictures of sea turtles, whales and albatrosses choked to death by ingesting plastic bags, straws, bottle caps and other disposable plastics.

We cannot recycle our way out of this crisis. Less than 10 percent of the plastic we have produced has been recycled, and recycling rates are declining in the United States. Much of the plastic that is put in recycling bins ends up in landfills, incinerators or our neighborhoods and waterways.

Meanwhile, the amount of plastic in our ocean is projected to double in the next 12 years. Even if we were able to dramatically increase recycling rates, it would not sufficiently stem the flow of plastic into the ocean.

There is value in increasing recycled content and improving waste management infrastructure. But nearly everyone would agree that the surest way to keep plastic out of the environment is to simply stop producing so much of it. This is especially true of single-use plastic, material that essentially lasts forever. Simply put, we have to stop making stuff that we use once and throw away.

Fortunately, most people understand that plastic has become a problem we must urgently address. Cities, states and countries have begun adopting legislation to reduce straws, bags and other single-use plastics. Most recently, the European Union voted to ban some of the most problematic throwaway products.

With public pressure continuing to mount, we expect U.S. legislators to take up this matter in the near future. Taxing plastic production would spur investment in design innovation for new delivery mechanisms for products that rely more on reuse and refill options than single use. Taxes and fees are not as straightforward as bans, but in the case of plastic bags they have proven to be effective in changing consumer behavior and reducing plastic use. Similar approaches could be applied to other types of throwaway plastic items.

Twelve years from now, I hope we can look back and say that we proved the projections wrong, and that we acted decisively once we became aware of the damage our reliance on plastic was causing.


Steve Russell
Vice President, Plastics Division, American Chemistry Council. Written for CQ Researcher, December 2018

Ending plastic waste is an urgent global challenge that requires an integrated approach — from better product design to improved collection and treatment of post-use materials. We all want a clean environment. And plastics makers are collaborating with governments and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) around the world to develop solutions that work.

Taxing plastic production is disconnected from, and counterproductive to, the solutions we need. Widely cited research concludes that most ocean plastics come from parts of the world with rapidly emerging economies and poor or nonexistent waste management. Without systems to collect, sort and treat garbage, plastics and other materials are dumped or make their way into rivers and oceans.

Research from McKinsey & Co. concludes that the fastest way to stop the flow of plastics into the environment is to invest in integrated waste collection and recycling systems in parts of the world that lack them. It evaluated and rejected taxes as being too far removed from the causes of pollution, and too narrowly applied to deliver the needed systems.

But there are solutions. Plastics makers are partnering with retailers, governments and NGOs to invest in new technologies, develop innovative designs and deploy new business models. And in North America and the European Union, we've committed to recycling all plastic packaging by 2040.

The most effective solutions revolve around preventing plastics from entering oceans, not punitive efforts to penalize materials that inspire innovation and help solve environmental challenges.

Plastics are widely used because they're strong, light and affordable, and because they use approximately four times less material than alternatives to get the same jobs done. Plastics help reduce vehicle weight, which improves fuel mileage. They insulate homes and buildings, saving heating and cooling costs and carbon emissions. And plastics help reduce food waste, the No. 1 item headed to landfills, dramatically reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Taxing plastic production could actually incentivize use of less efficient materials that have a greater environmental footprint. Lifecycle studies show that alternatives create more waste, use more energy and result in more carbon emissions.

In short, plastics play a critical role in helping us meet global sustainability goals. Taxing plastic production would jeopardize all of these benefits, while doing nothing to reduce the amount of plastics flowing into our ocean.

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1800s–1910sDiscoveries pave the way for the plastics industry.
1856British chemist Alexander Parkes patents Parkesine, considered the first manmade plastic.
1869American John Wesley Hyatt invents the process for making celluloid.
1907Chemist Leo Baekeland, a Belgian immigrant, creates Bakelite, the first synthetic plastic, ushering in the modern plastics era.
1920s–1950sInventors create plastic products.
1920German chemist Hermann Staudinger proves the existence of polymers, laying the groundwork for the plastics industry.
1930Manufacturing of polystyrene, a versatile plastic, begins.
1933British scientists Eric Fawcett and Reginald Gibson create polyethylene, used by the Allies during World War II and currently the most common plastic.
1939Nylon, an elastic polymer invented by DuPont chemist Wallace Carothers, goes on sale.
1949Earl Tupper patents Tupperware plastic bowls with sealing lids, leading to a new market for plastic.
1960s–1970sManufacturers introduce plastic bags and bottles.
1965Swedish engineer Sten Gustaf Thulin patents plastic shopping bags.
1971Oregon becomes the first state to pass a beverage container deposit law for plastic and glass bottles and metal cans.
1972Marine Protection, Research and Sanctuaries Act regulates the dumping of waste in U.S. waters.
1978Coca-Cola introduces plastic bottles.
1979Plastic bags are introduced in the United States.
1980s–1990sLaws ban ocean dumping as plastic pollution increases.
1980Woodbury, N.J., becomes the first U.S. city to institute curbside recycling.
1987Marine Plastic Pollution Research and Control Act prohibits the dumping of plastic in U.S. waters.
1988An international treaty bars ships from dumping garbage in the sea.
1993Denmark enacts a tax on plastic packaging, including plastic bags.
1997Oceanographer Charles Moore discovers what becomes known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
2000s–PresentAs awareness of plastic pollution grows, governments begin banning and taxing plastic bags.
2002Ireland taxes plastic shopping bags, reducing usage by more than 90 percent within weeks.
2007San Francisco is the first U.S. city to ban plastic bags.
2009The United Nations calls for a global ban on plastic bags…. Washington, D.C., becomes the first U.S. city to impose a tax on plastic bags with a 5-cent fee.
2014California becomes the first state to ban plastic bags.
2015The Microbead-Free Waters Act bans tiny plastics known as microbeads that are used in cosmetics and personal care products…. A viral video of a sea turtle with a straw stuck in its nose spurs governments and companies to begin banning plastic straws.
2018Numerous governments and companies ban plastic straws, and the European Union votes to bar single-use plastic products…. A giant floating structure begins cleaning the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (September)…. Nearly 300 organizations and governments pledge to reduce plastic pollution. (October)

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Short Features

“Plastic has become a problem throughout the food chain.”

They are the tiniest particles of plastic, 5 millimeters or less in size. They are found in the ocean and the air as well as the food and water people consume. And for scientists worried about their impact on human health, they remain a riddle. 1

Microplastics come from a variety of sources, including plastic debris in oceans, waterways and landfills that degrade over time into ever smaller pieces. Eventually, they can break down into nanoparticles, so small they are invisible to the naked eye, and can include microfibers from synthetic textiles. Because microplastics is an emerging field of study, much remains unknown about how the material affects people, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) National Ocean Service. 2

“We still are just beginning to learn the impacts of the widespread use of plastic on human health, but early indications are certainly troubling,” says John Hocevar, oceans campaign director for Greenpeace USA. “In the environment, plastic has become a problem throughout the food chain.”

Research has documented microplastics in numerous products that humans consume, including tap water, bottled water, fish, shellfish, honey, sugar, salt — and even in every sample of German beer tested in one study. 3

As a result, humans could be ingesting microplastics whenever they eat, drink or breathe.

Recently, university researchers made headlines when they discovered plastic particles in the stool samples of all eight people they were following in a small pilot study. The subjects were from Finland, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Poland, Russia, the United Kingdom and Austria.

“The results were astonishing,” said Philipp Schwabl, a gastroenterologist at the Medical University of Vienna and the study's lead author. 4

But not to researchers who study plastics. “I'd say microplastics in poop are not surprising,” said Chelsea Rochman, an ecologist at the University of Toronto who studies how microplastics affect fish. “For me, it shows we are eating our waste — mismanagement has come back to us on our dinner plates. And yes, we need to study how it may affect humans.” 5

Numerous research projects looking into the link between microplastics and human health are underway, including a study by Robert Hale, a professor of marine science at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science in Gloucester Point, Va., who has studied plastics since the 1990s. Research is examining potential effects from the bacteria that can adhere to microplastics or the chemicals from which they are made. 6

“Back when I started,” said Hale, “people thought that plastics on the beach just sat there, and if they broke into pieces we didn't have to worry about them anymore. We thought plastics were simple. But now we realize they are not.” 7

NOAA's Marine Debris Program is supporting several research projects exploring the pervasiveness of microplastics in the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River, as well as the impact on seafood in American Samoa, black sea bass in North Carolina and oysters in the Long Island Sound. 8

Researchers have studied two subcategories of microplastics: microbeads and microfibers. Microbeads are tiny bits of plastic that since 1972 have been added to hundreds of consumer products, such as toothpaste, soap and body scrub, as an abrasive. But after researchers found high concentrations in the Great Lakes, Congress outlawed them in the Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015. 9

Microfibers enter the water supply when synthetic clothing made of plastic-based fibers — such as acrylic, nylon and polyester, which account for about 60 percent of clothing worldwide — are cleaned in washing machines. 10

As a result, according to some estimates, microfibers could constitute up to 85 percent of the plastic pollution found on the world's shorelines. 11

That possibility prompted the British medical journal The Lancet to call for increased research into microplastics and for action to reduce the amount released into the environment.

However, The Lancet editors said, “even with concerted global effort, the amount of microplastics in the environment will continue to grow, and the question remains — what impact will this have on human health? The concerning answer is that no-one knows.” 12

— Jane Fullerton Lemons

[1] Ruairi Robertson, “Are Microplastics in Food a Threat to Your Health?” Healthline, May 9, 2018,

[2] “What are microplastics?” National Ocean Service,

[3] Stephanie L. Wright and Frank J. Kelly, “Plastic and Human Health: A Micro Issue?” Environmental Science & Technology, May 22, 2017,

[4] Douglas Quenqua, “Microplastics Find Their Way Into Your Gut, a Pilot Study Finds,” The New York Times, Oct. 22, 2018,

[5] Laura Parker, “In a first, microplastics found in human poop,” National Geographic, Oct. 22, 2018,

[6] Mark Tutton, “It's not just the oceans: Microplastic pollution is all around us,” CNN, April 22, 2018,

[7] David Malmquist, “Researcher studies effects of microplastics on the ocean,”, June 11, 2018,

[8] “Research,” Marine Debris Program, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration,

[9] Sophie Bushwick, “What Are Microbeads And Why Are They Illegal?” Popular Science, Dec. 23, 2015,; “The Microbead-Free Waters Act: FAQs,” Food and Drug Administration,

[10] Brian Resnick, “More than ever, our clothes are made of plastic. Just washing them can pollute the oceans,” Vox, Sept. 19, 2018,

[11] Courtney Humphries, “Freshwater's Macro Microplastic Problem,” NOVA, May 11, 2017,

[12] “Microplastics and human health — an urgent problem,” The Lancet, Oct. 1, 2017,

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“It's a no-brainer,” says the founder of a Scottish company.

Toby McCartney's inspiration came during an assembly at his eldest daughter's school in 2015. She was 6 years old and had been assigned a project about oceans.

“Other students presented their projects,” says McCartney of Welbeck, Scotland. “One was on fish, another on dolphins, and [my daughter's] was on plastic. According to her research, by the time she was going to be my age there would be more plastic in the ocean than fish.”

In that moment, McCartney knew he had to do something about plastic waste.

A potential solution came to him during a trip to southern India. McCartney watched “pickers” in landfills gather potentially useful waste and sell it for recycling. Some recyclers were burning the plastic and using it to fill potholes.

A man and woman collect plastic debris in Guwahati (Getty Images/NurPhoto/David Talukdar)
A man and woman collect plastic debris in Guwahati, India, on Oct. 29, 2018. The Asian nation by 2016 had built more than 21,000 miles of road with recycled plastic. (Getty Images/NurPhoto/David Talukdar)

McCartney, who ran a neuro-linguistic training, coaching and hypnotherapy lifestyle business and describes himself as an entrepreneur, began researching similar ideas.

After several hundred trials, McCartney and two partners had developed a process of turning plastic waste into a bitumen-like agent in asphalt. They founded MacRebur Ltd. in 2016 to produce and market it. Bitumen is an expensive plastic-based binding agent made from oil that makes asphalt sturdy enough for roadways.

MacRebur's agent, which is made from plastic pellets, does not replace bitumen entirely but is mixed in with asphalt and bitumen, cutting down on the amount of bitumen needed.

This new type of asphalt not only is stronger and more durable than conventional asphalt, according to the company, but also cheaper to produce. Moreover, it reduces plastic waste. 13 About 4 million plastic bags, or 700,000 plastic bottles, are needed to produce 1 ton of the asphalt binder, McCartney says.

In 2016, MacRebur, based in Scotland, won billionaire entrepreneur Richard Branson's annual Virgin Media Business VOOM competition in the startup category. 14 The company's value skyrocketed and is projected to reach 1.9 million pounds (about $2.4 million) next year, according to McCartney. MacRebur has since gotten business in Saudi Arabia, Portugal, Spain and New Zealand as well as Nebraska, New York City and San Diego.

After the company completed a successful trial with the University of California and California Commercial Asphalt, McCartney says he hopes more construction and asphalt companies will take this product on. 15

“It's a no-brainer,” McCartney says.

Companies in Holland, Taiwan, Ghana and elsewhere also are trying to use plastic waste in roads but with techniques that are different than MacRebur's. Meanwhile, India in November 2015 made it mandatory for all road developers in the country to use plastic waste, combined with bituminous mixes, for road construction. By 2016, the country had more than 21,000 miles of plastic road. “The plastic tar roads have not developed any potholes, rutting, raveling or edge flaw, even though these roads are more than four years of age,” according to an early performance report by India's Central Pollution Control Board. 16

No independent testing on MacRebur's technology has been done, but skeptics of using plastic waste in roadways in India say it carries potential environmental risks. The plastic waste, for example, can contain toxic materials that will start leaching as the asphalt ages and breaks down, particularly in poorly built roads.

“Putting the plastics in roads does not make plastics disappear. They are merely hiding,” said Nityanand Jayaraman, an environmental writer and researcher in India, about the common method used there. “Over time, as the road weathers, the plastic too breaks down into micro particles of plastic and [enters] the environment.” 17

McCartney says the environmental risk with producing and using MacRebur's binding agents is no different from those associated with traditional bitumen, and the company has conducted many leakage and toxicity tests.

Kim Holmes, vice president of sustainability for the Plastics Industry Association, says her group is looking into the safety and feasibility of the various plastic road-building techniques in use worldwide. “Environmental risks will be considered as part of our research and wide-scale adoption in the United States will depend on the outcome of testing,” she says.

Researchers, meanwhile, are exploring turning plastic waste into energy and fuel. A group working in Newcastle, in the United Kingdom, conducted a study last year in which they were able to produce energy by heating plastic bags and bottles to the point of decomposition. 18

The study was particularly successful in recovering ethylene, which is used to produce a variety of plastic products, such as bottles and piping. A researcher with the study, Anh Phan, a chemical engineering lecturer at Newcastle University, says the technology's prospects are exciting.

“Next steps are to get funding and to scale up the process,” says Phan.

— Natalia Gurevich

[13] Product homepage, MacRebur,

[14] Natalie Clarkson, “How Winning VOOM Has Impacted MacRebur,” Virgin, July 6, 2016,

[15] Jade Grifin, “On the road to solving our plastic problem,” University of California, San Diego, Oct. 25, 2018,

[16] “Enviro Monday: Plastic roads could help shrink the ever increasing plastic problem,” Alberton Record, April 30, 2018,; Sribala Subramanian, “Plastic roads: India's radical plan to bury its garbage beneath the streets,” The Guardian, June 30, 2016,

[17] Nityanand Jayaraman, “Heard about miracle ‘plastic roads’? Here's why it's not a solution to our plastic problem,” The News Minute, Dec. 20, 2015,

[18] Anh Phan, “How we can turn plastic waste into green energy,” The Conversation, Oct. 1, 2018,

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Freinkel, Susan , Plastic: A Toxic Love Story , Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011. A science journalist chronicles the history of plastic and its environmental impact by focusing on eight objects: a comb, chair, Frisbee, disposable lighter, grocery bag, soda bottle, credit card and an IV bag.

Humes, Edward , Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair with Trash , Avery, 2012. A Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist follows the path of 102 tons of trash, the amount created by each American in a lifetime.

McDonough, William, and Michael Braungart , The Upcycle: Beyond Sustainability — Designing for Abundance , North Point Press, 2013. In this follow-up to their earlier book, Cradle to Cradle, an American architect (McDonough) and a German chemist (Braungart) propose ways to design better products and business practices to improve the environment.

Minter, Adam , Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade , Bloomsbury Press, 2013. A journalist documents the $500 billion global waste industry and how it is transforming the economy and environment.

Terry, Beth , Plastic-Free: How I Kicked the Plastic Habit and How You Can Too , Skyhorse Publishing, 2015. A California accountant worried about plastic pollution provides a primer on how people can reduce their plastic footprint.


“A Chinese ban on rubbish imports is shaking up the global junk trade,” The Economist, Sept. 29, 2018, A London-based magazine examines the impact of China's move to stop accepting plastic waste from other nations.

“Planet or Plastic?” National Geographic, June 2018, A magazine has begun a multiyear effort to raise awareness of plastic pollution. Its series began with an in-depth look at the role and impact of single-use plastics.

Lim, Xiaozhi , “Designing the Death of a Plastic,” The New York Times, Aug. 6, 2018, To reduce pollution, scientists are seeking to make plastics that are both durable and degradable.

Viswanathan, Radhika , “Why Starbucks, Disney, and the EU are all shunning plastic straws,” Vox, Oct. 24, 2018, An online magazine examines plastic pollution and explains how the anti-straw movement gained momentum.

Reports and Studies

“The New Plastics Economy: Rethinking The Future Of Plastics,” World Economic Forum, Ellen MacArthur Foundation and McKinsey & Co., Jan. 19, 2016, Key players promoting a circular economy describe how to apply sustainable principles to create plastics and other products that are used as long as possible to reduce waste.

Geyer, Roland, Jenna R. Jambeck and Kara Lavender Law , “Production, use, and fate of all plastics ever made,” Science Advances, July 19, 2017, Three marine researchers present the first global analysis of all plastic ever produced and what happened to it.

Jambeck, Jenna R. , et al., “Plastic waste inputs from land into the ocean,” Science, Feb. 13, 2015, Eight researchers quantify how much plastic waste flows into the oceans worldwide and specify which countries are the sources.

Ritchie, Hannah, and Max Roser , “Plastic Pollution,”, September 2018, A geoscientist (Ritchie) and an economist (Roser) provide a data-driven look at global plastic production, with a focus on the sources and impact of pollution.

Rocha-Santos, Teresa A.P. , ed., “Micro and nano-plastics,” Current Opinion in Environmental Science & Health, February 2018, Ten studies examine the prevalence of plastic particles in all facets of the environment and their potential consequences for human health.

Videos and Documentaries

Blue Planet II, BBC, 2017, A follow-up to the original series hosted by naturalist David Attenborough focuses on the world's oceans.

Plastic China, 2016, A documentary by director Jiu-liang Wang traces the impact of imported plastic waste on China through the experiences of families who depend on the recycling economy.

The Plastic Problem, PBS NewsHour, 2018, A four-part series examines the environmental threat to humans and animals from plastic pollution.

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The Next Step


“China expands ban on waste imports,”, Nov. 19, 2018, China has broadened its list of banned plastic and solid waste imports from 24 to 32 categories, set to take effect at the end of December.

Parker, Laura , “China's ban on trash imports shifts waste crisis to Southeast Asia,” National Geographic, Nov. 16, 2018, Malaysia says it has become the dumping ground for the world's plastic waste since China stopped accepting the material last January.

Tatham, Ellen , “China may ban microbeads in cosmetics,” Chemical Watch, Nov. 19, 2018, As part of a larger effort to reduce marine litter and single-use plastics, China's Ministry of Ecology and Environment announced its intention to limit the use of microbeads (tiny pieces of plastic) in cosmetics.

Marine Life

Ástvaldsson Jóhann, Páll , “Plastic Pollution in Ocean Endangers Omnivorous Birds,” Iceland Review, Oct. 29, 2018, Plastic pollution is endangering not only ocean creatures but certain bird species, and could lead to their extinction, says a doctor of marine biology.

Cheung, Rachel , “Four ways plastics are killing marine life, and reaching the oceans' furthest depths,” South China Morning Post, June 1, 2018, Sharks, seals and whales are mistaking plastic material for food and ingesting trash, according to researchers.

Parker, Laura , “Sperm whale found dead with 13 pounds of plastic in its stomach,” National Geographic, Nov. 21, 2018, A dead whale that washed onto the beach in eastern Indonesia had 115 drinking cups, 25 plastic bags, plastic bottles, two flip-flops and other assorted plastic items in its stomach.


“Moving forward with microplastics research,”, Nov. 14, 2018, Scientists need to better understand why several zooplankton species are ingesting microplastics and the potential effects on a vast marine life food chain, say researchers at the Plymouth Marine Laboratory in England.

Reints, Renae , “Microplastics Have Been Found in Human Stool for the First Time, Study Says,” Fortune, Oct. 23, 2018, Austrian researchers say they have confirmed that microplastics from the environment are ending up in the human gut.

Thompson, Andrea , “Solving Microplastic Pollution Means Reducing, Recycling — and Fundamental Rethinking,” Scientific American, Nov. 12, 2018, The microplastics threat is expected to worsen as plastic production keeps growing.

Plastic Straws

Fleishman, Glenn , “California Bans Plastic Straws in Restaurants, But Exempts Fast Food,” Fortune, Sept. 20, 2018, California in September became the first state to ban plastic straws at dine-in restaurants, but they will still be available on request and at fast-food establishments.

Italie, Leanne , “Against plastic straws? Try a luxury straw from Tiffany, if you can afford it,” The Associated Press, Chicago Sun-Times, Nov. 17, 2018, For the environmentally conscientious, a variety of alternative straws are available, including ones made of paper, bamboo, glass, pasta or wheat — or even luxury metal versions from Tiffany & Co.

Josephs, Leslie , “Delta plans to ditch plastic straws, stirrers on board next year,” CNBC, Oct. 24, 2018, Delta, the second-largest airline in the United States, has announced that bamboo and birch wood straws and stirrers will replace all plastic versions on their flights starting in mid-2019.

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American Chemistry Council
700 2nd St., N.E., Washington, DC 20002
Trade organization for U.S. chemical companies that includes leading plastic manufacturers.

Ellen MacArthur Foundation
42 Medina Road, Cowes, Isle of Wight, PO31 7BX, United Kingdom
+44 (0) 1983 296463
Foundation that works with businesses, universities, governments and other organizations toward a circular economy in which plastic and other products are reused.

702 H St., N.W., Suite 300, Washington, DC 20001
Environmental advocacy group that works on worldwide issues, including those affecting the oceans.

Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries
1250 H St., N.W., Suite 400, Washington, DC 20005
Trade association representing companies that process, broker and consume scrap commodities in the United States and more than 40 other countries.

National Ocean Service
1305 East-West Highway, Silver Spring, MD 20910
Office within the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that is responsible for preserving and enhancing the nation's coastal resources and ecosystems.

Ocean Conservancy
1300 19th St., N.W., Washington, DC 20036
Environmental advocacy organization that focuses on ocean policy and wildlife protection.

Plastics Industry Association
1425 K St., N.W., Suite 500, Washington, DC 20005
Trade association representing the U.S. plastic manufacturing industry.

Solid Waste Association of North America
1100 Wayne Ave., Suite 650, Silver Spring, MD 20910
Trade association for the waste management industry, with chapters throughout the United States and Canada.

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[1] Alex Horton, “No one could save a pilot whale that swallowed 17 pounds of plastic bags off Thailand,” The Washington Post, June 3, 2018,; “Sea Turtle with Straw up its Nostril,” YouTube, Aug 10, 2015,; and Sophia Rosenbaum, “Ending the Age of Plastic,” Time, Oct. 10, 2018,

[2] Roland Geyer, Jenna R. Jambeck and Kara Lavender Law, “Production, use, and fate of all plastics ever made,” Science Advances, July 19, 2017,; “The New Plastics Economy: Rethinking The Future Of Plastics,” World Economic Forum, Ellen MacArthur Foundation and McKinsey & Company, Jan. 19, 2016, Also see Robert Kiener, “Plastic Pollution,” CQ Global Researcher, July 2010, pp. 158–84.

[3] Julie Cohen, “A Plastic Planet,” The UCSB Current, July 19, 2017,

[4] Amy L. Brooks, Shunli Wang and Jenna R. Jambeck, “The Chinese import ban and its impact on global plastic waste trade,” Science Advances, June 20, 2018,

[5] Livia Albeck-Ripka, “Your Recycling Gets Recycled, Right? Maybe, or Maybe Not,” The New York Times, May 29, 2018,; Geyer, Jambeck and Law, op. cit.

[6] Seth Borenstein, “Science Says: Amount of Straws, Plastic Pollution Is Huge,” U.S. News & World Report, April 20, 2018,

[7] Geyer, Jambeck and Law, op. cit.; Kara Lavender Law, Written Testimony Before the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, Sept. 26, 2018,

[8] “Marine Debris: Understanding, Preventing and Mitigating the Significant Adverse Impacts on Marine and Coastal Biodiversity,” CBD Technical Series No. 83, Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity, 2016,; Natasha Daly, “For Animals, Plastic Is Turning the Ocean Into a Minefield,” National Geographic, June 2018,

[9] Jenna R. Jambeck et al., “Plastic waste inputs from land into the ocean,” Science, Feb. 13, 2015,; John Schwartz, “Study Finds Rising Levels of Plastics in Oceans,” The New York Times, Feb. 12, 2015,

[10] Meilan Solly, “2,000-Foot-Long Plastic Catcher Released to Aid Cleanup of Great Pacific Garbage Patch,” Smithsonian, Sept. 11, 2018,

[11] Jambeck et al., op. cit.

[12] “The Road to Clean Recycling,” National Waste & Recycling Association,

[13] Jonathan Baillie, Written Testimony Before the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, Sept. 26, 2018,

[14] Rick Lord, “Plastics and Sustainability: A Valuation of Environmental Benefits, Costs and Opportunities for Continuous Improvement,” American Chemistry Council and Trucost, July 2016,

[15] Marc Gunther, “In Defense of the Plastic Bag,” GreenBiz, Dec. 22, 2011,

[16] Douglas Quenqua, “Microplastics Find Their Way Into Your Gut, a Pilot Study Finds,” The New York Times, Oct. 22, 2018,

[17] Hannah Ritchie and Max Roser, “Plastic Pollution,” Our World in Data, September 2018,

[18] Jambeck et al., op. cit.

[19] Jared Paben, “Brands sign pledge at oceans conference,” Plastics Recycling Update, Oct. 31, 2018,

[20] “‘A line in the sand’ — Ellen MacArthur Foundation launches Global Commitment to eliminate plastic pollution at source,” Ellen MacArthur Foundation, Oct. 29, 2018,

[21] David Bodamer, “China Notifies WTO of Intent to Ban 24 Types of Solid Waste Imports,” Waste 360, July 19, 2017,; Adam Minter, “How Beijing — and the Rest of China — Recycles Plastic,” Scientific American, Nov. 8, 2013,

[22] Shoshana Wodinsky, “China's plastic waste ban will leave 111 million tons of trash with nowhere to go,” The Verge, June 20, 2018,

[23] “United States Scrap Trade with China,” Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries,; Amy L. Brooks, Shunli Wang and Jenna R. Jambeck, “The Chinese import ban and its impact on global plastic waste trade,” Science Advances, June 20, 2018,

[24] Wodinsky, op. cit.

[25] Albeck-Ripka, op. cit.

[26] Bodamer, op. cit.

[27] “Update on China Waste Import Restrictions and Impacts on State and Local Recycling Programs,” Solid Waste Association of North America, June 12, 2018,

[28] Katie Pyzyk, “Thailand to permanently ban plastic imports by 2021,” Waste Dive, Oct. 16, 2018,

[29] “Complete ban on plastic waste imports from 2021,” Royal Thai Embassy, Oct. 25, 2018,

[30] Horton, op. cit.

[31] “Advancing Sustainable Materials Management: 2015 Fact Sheet,” Environmental Protection Agency, July 2018,

[32] “What Plastics Can Become,”,

[33] Brian Palmer, “Recycling of plastic lags because recovery is hard and new production is cheap,” The Washington Post, Feb. 4, 2013,

[34] Chaz Miller, “Keep Calm and Recycle On: The Sky Isn't Falling,” Waste 360, July 17, 2018,

[35] “How Do I Recycle?: Common Recyclables,” Environmental Protection Agency,

[36] Palmer, op. cit.; Renee Cho, “What Happens to All That Plastic?” Earth Institute, Columbia University, Jan. 31, 2012,

[37] Matt Wilkins, “More Recycling Won't Solve Plastic Pollution,” Scientific American, July 6, 2018,

[38] Tatiana Homonoff et al., “Skipping The Bag: Assessing the impact of Chicago's tax on disposable bags,” ideas42, September 2018,

[39] Lauren Zumbach, “Paper or plastic? Chicago bag tax is encouraging shoppers to say ‘neither’,” Chicago Tribune, Aug. 7, 2017,; Luke Jones, “Shoppers give two cents about proposed 7 cent plastic bag tax,” WREG, March 20, 2018,; and “State Plastic And Paper Bag Legislation,” National Conference of State Legislatures, May 17, 2018,

[40] “ISRI Position on Bans and Fees for Recyclable Paper and Plastic Bags,” Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries,

[41] Scott Rodd, “Banning the Bans: State and Local Officials Clash Over Plastic Bags,” Pew Stateline, Jan. 29, 2018,

[42] “Plastic bag preemption conflicts between state and local governments,” Ballotpedia,; Rodd, ibid.

[43] Homonoff et al., op. cit.

[44] Tatiana A. Homonoff, “Can Small Incentives Have Large Effects? The Impact of Taxes versus Bonuses on Disposable Bag Use,” Working Papers 1483, Princeton University, Department of Economics, Industrial Relations Section, 2013,

[45] Karen Gunn, “Danes Use Far Fewer Plastic Bags Than Americans — Here's How,” National Geographic, May 21, 2018,; Dirk Xanthos and Tony R. Walker, “International policies to reduce plastic marine pollution from single-use plastics (plastic bags and microbeads): A review,” ScienceDirect, Feb. 21, 2017,

[46] Joe Curtin, “Ireland can lead charge in war against plastic,” Irish Times, Jan. 31, 2018,; Rebecca Smithers, “England's plastic bag usage drops 85% since 5p charge introduced,” The Guardian, July 29, 2016,

[47] Rachel Arthur, “UK to introduce plastic packaging tax,” BeverageDaily, Oct. 30, 2018,; Peter Walker and Sandra Laville, “Theresa May defends green plan as critics say it is too slow and vague,” The Guardian, Jan. 11, 2018,

[48] Jenny Eagle, “More than half of UK consumers and a third in the US in favor of plastic packaging tax,” DairyReporter, Sept. 4, 2018,

[49] Katherine Boyle, “New bottle deposit, bag tax bills touted for combating pollution,” The New York Times, April 23, 2009,; “State Beverage Container Deposit Laws,” National Conference of State Legislatures, March 14, 2018,

[50] Matthew Taylor, “Can Norway help us solve the plastic crisis, one bottle at a time?” The Guardian, July 12, 2018,

[51] Brigitte Osterath, “Plastic bottle recycling champion: Norway or Germany?” Deutsche Welle, Aug. 3, 2018,

[52] Taylor, op. cit.

[53] Alex Truelove, “Why banning certain plastics is the best solution to our plastic problem,” Medium, May 16, 2018,

[54] “History of Plastics,” Plastics Industry Association,; Sue Mossman, “Alexander Parkes — Materials Man And Polymath,” Science Museum blog, Dec. 29, 2013,; and “Alexander Parkes 1813-1890,” Science Museum Group Collection,

[55] “History of Plastics,” ibid.; “Case Study for Invention: The Benefits of Plastic Innovation,” Science History Institute,; and Mossman, op. cit.

[56] Mary Bellis, “The Story of Bakelite, the First Synthetic Plastic,” ThoughtCo., April 5, 2017,

[57] “Case Study for Invention: The Benefits of Plastic Innovation,” op. cit.

[58] “Hermann Staudinger,” Science History Institute,

[59] “Wallace Hume Carothers,” Science History Institute,; “Nylon: A Revolution in Textiles,” Science History Institute,; and “History of the World: the first piece of polythene,” BBC, Sept. 29, 2010,

[60] “Interview with Historian Jeffrey Meikle,” Tupperware, PBS American Experience, Feb. 9, 2004,

[61] “Earl Silas Tupper,” American Experience, PBS, 2004,; Randy Alfred, “July 28, 1907: Tupperware's First Burp,” Wired, July 28, 2009,

[62] Ben Cosgrove, “‘Throwaway Living’: When Tossing Out Everything Was All the Rage,” Time, May 15, 2014,

[63] Tony Long, “June 12, 1957: Future Is Now In Monsanto's House,” Wired, June 12, 2009,

[64] Kat Eschner, “How the 1970s Created Recycling As We Know It,” Smithsonian, Nov. 15, 2017,; Olivia B. Waxman, “The History of Recycling in America Is More Complicated Than You May Think,” Time, Nov. 16, 2016,

[65] Mark Wilson, “How A Student Designed The Recycling Logo, And Got A Measly $2,500,” Fast Company, July 6, 2012,

[66] “Yesterday to Today,” Coca-Cola Co. blog, Jan. 1, 2012,

[67] Sarah Laskow, “How the Plastic Bag Became So Popular,” The Atlantic, Oct. 10, 2014,

[68] Waxman, op. cit.

[69] “Learn about Ocean Dumping,” Environmental Protection Agency,

[70] “International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL),” International Maritime Organization,

[71] Laura Parker, “Floating Trash Collector Set to Tackle Pacific Garbage Patch,” National Geographic, Sept. 7, 2018,; Charles Moore, “Trashed: Across the Pacific Ocean, plastics, plastics, everywhere,” Natural History, November 2003,

[72] Grace Chung, “U.N. environment chief urges global ban on plastic bags,” McClatchy Newspapers, June 8, 2009,

[73] “The Microbead-Free Waters Act: FAQs,” U.S. Food and Drug Administration,

[74] “Size and Impact: What Plastics Contributes to the Economy,” Plastics Industry Association,; “Global Trends,” Plastics Industry Association, Oct. 31, 2018,; “Plastics Report Shows Strong Demand, Growth for Plastics Industry,” Plastics Industry Association, Oct. 31, 2018,

[75] Christina Caron, “Giant Trap Is Deployed to Catch Plastic Littering the Pacific Ocean,” The New York Times, Sept. 9, 2018,; “System 101,” Ocean Cleanup,; and Solly, op. cit.

[76] Chris Mooney, “Plastic within the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is ‘increasing exponentially,’ scientists find,” The Washington Post, March 22, 2018,

[77] “The World's First Ocean Cleanup System Launched From San Francisco,” Ocean Cleanup, Sept. 8, 2018,; Caron, op. cit.

[78] Circulate Capital, Twitter post, Nov. 2, 2018,; “Circulate Capital Expects $90M in Funding to Combat Ocean Plastic,” Waste 360, Oct. 26, 2018,; Rob Kaplan, “Why the sudden interest in ocean plastic?” GreenBiz, Oct. 17, 2018,

[79] Cristina Commendatore and Mallory Szczepanski, “Rethinking the Way We Manage, Repurpose Waste,” Waste 360, Oct. 5, 2018,

[80] “Energy Recovery from the Combustion of Municipal Solid Waste (MSW),” Environmental Protection Agency,

[81] Alexander H. Tullo, “Should plastics be a source of energy?” Chemical & Engineering News, Sept. 24, 2018,

[82] “Study shows plastic waste can be converted into energy and fuels,”, June 11, 2018,; Muxina Konarova, “If we can't recycle it, why not turn our waste plastic into fuel?” The Conversation, May 14, 2018,

[83] Emily Sullivan, “European Union Approves Ban On Some Single-Use Plastics, Reduction On Others,” NPR, Oct. 26, 2018,

[84] Sarah Gibbens, “A Brief History of How Plastic Straws Took Over the World,” National Geographic, July 6, 2018,; Sarah Wu, “Q&A: Seattle's plastic straw ban now in effect; here's what you need to know,” The Seattle Times, July 3, 2018,

[85] Luis Gomez, “Want a plastic straw with your drink? In California, you gotta ask for it,” Los Angeles Times, Sept. 21, 2018,

[86] Bonnie Rochman, “Straws are out, lids are in: Starbucks announces environmental milestone,” Starbucks Newsroom, July 9, 2018,; Mark Penning, “Disney Expands Environmental Commitment By Reducing Plastic Waste,” Disney Parks blog, July 26, 2018,; and “Sodexo Announces Plastics Reduction Policy Balancing Inclusion and Environmental Impact,” press release, Sodexo, Oct. 16, 2018,

[87] Alix Langone, “All the Major Companies That Are Banning Plastic Straws,” Money, July 18, 2018,; Sarah Knapton, “The Queen declares war on plastic after David Attenborough documentary,” The Telegraph, Feb. 11, 2018,

[88] Brynna Strand and Charlie Ann Kerr, “10 Cities and Countries Confronting Plastic Bag Pollution Head-On,” Earth Day Network,; Swati Gupta, “India's Modi calls for crackdown on plastic pollution on World Environment Day,” CNN, June 5, 2018,; and Xanthos and Walker, op. cit.

[89] “State Plastic and Paper Bag Legislation,” op. cit.

[90] Michael Browne, “Kroger to eliminate plastic bags by 2025,” Supermarket News, Aug. 23, 2018,; Rodney McMullen, “Opinion: Kroger, America's largest supermarket chain, bids farewell to the plastic shopping bag,” The Cincinnati Enquirer, Aug. 23, 2018,

[91] Renee Cho, “The Truth About Bioplastics,” Earth Institute, Columbia University, Dec. 13, 2017,; Sarah Gibbens, “What you need to know about plant-based plastics,” National Geographic, Nov. 15, 2018,

[92] “Trump signs Save our Seas Act into law,” The Associated Press, Oct. 13, 2018,

[93] Law, Written Testimony Before the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, op. cit.

[94] “The New Plastics Economy: Rethinking The Future Of Plastics,” op. cit.; Sarah Kaplan, “By 2050, there will be more plastic than fish in the world's oceans, study says,” The Washington Post, Jan. 20, 2016,

[95] James Quincey, “Why a World Without Waste is Possible,” Medium, Jan. 19, 2018,

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About the Author

Jane Fullerton Lemons

Jane Fullerton Lemons is a freelance writer in Northern Virginia with more than 25 years of journalism experience. A former Washington bureau chief for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, she has covered the White House and Congress. She holds a master's degree in creative nonfiction from Goucher College in Towson, Md.

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Document APA Citation
Lemons, J. (2018, December 7). Plastic pollution. CQ researcher, 28, 1017-1040. Retrieved from
Document ID: cqresrre2018120700
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