Across the United States, sweeping measures have taken place to lower our plastic consumption to prevent the items from ending up the ocean. In addition to dirtying the planet, plastics are deadly for ocean life. Straws, bags, and bottles all kill marine life and pollute the aquatic ecosystem.
If we want to fully eradicate plastics in the ocean, we need to dedicate resources to stopping the pollution of plastics in the ocean in the places that are the worst offenders. We analyzed new academic research published in April 2021 on which countries emit the most and least plastics into the ocean.
As it turns out, 81% of all ocean plastic in the world emanates from countries in Asia. This is mostly from plastic trash in rivers that empty into the ocean. The Philippines alone accounts for 36.4% percent of the world’s plastic ocean trash and India makes up 12.9%. In fact, less than 1000 rivers, that are mostly in Asia, are the source of over 80% of plastic in the oceans. The United States contributes just 0.2% of the plastic trash in the oceans.
Before diving into the data from the staff here at ReuseThisBag.com, let’s spend a moment on the data and methodology. This analysis is based on new research published in April 2021 which analyzed which countries were responsible for the most plastic pollution in the oceans. The analysis found that countries with mismanaged plastic waste plus rivers that empty to oceans were the leading culprits of plastic pollution in the oceans. The combination of these two factors lead to whether a country will contribute plastic to the oceans or not.
First, let’s look at the contribution that each continent makes to ocean plastic pollution. The chart below breaks estimated ocean plastic emanating from each continent, by weight:
81% of all ocean plastic comes from the continent of Asia. In Asia, there are many rivers that empty into the ocean. Due to poor waste management, plastic gets in the rivers and then eventually flows into the ocean. North America and Europe make up just 4.5% and 0.6% of the ocean plastic respectively. So while it’s still important to reduce plastic use in these areas, the plastic here is more likely to end up in landfills rather than the ocean.
Which countries are the worst offenders of plastic trash in the ocean? The following chart shows the Top 50 countries that are the worst offenders of plastic trash:
The Philippines, an Asian island nation making up approximately 1% of the world’s population is responsible for a 36.4% of the world’s ocean plastic. 7 of the 10 rivers that funnel most plastic in the ocean are located in the Philippines. While more developed countries are likely to produce plastic per person, the trash is also more likely to end up in a landfill or be recycled or incinerated than in the Philippines. The top five countries producing the most ocean plastic are in Asia and together they make up 69.8% of the world’s plastic trash in oceans.
The United States contributes just 0.2% of the world’s ocean plastic despite making up over 3% of the world’s population. Before congratulating ourselves too much, however, it’s worth noting that the United States is the highest per capita creator of plastic waste. However, our plastic waste does not end up in the ocean because most of the country is landlocked and most of our plastic ends up in landfills.
Most of the countries that populate the above worst ocean plastics offenders list are developing nations with lower economic resources to put toward waste management. If you look at just more developed countries with the resources to prevent ocean pollution, which ones rank the worst? The chart below looks only at countries with the top 50 GDP per capita and ranks them by plastic ocean emissions:
Among more economically developed countries, Malaysia ranks as the top polluter of the oceans with plastics, followed by Turkey and then Trinidad and Tobago. Among countries with the resources to do better, the United States ranks number four as the fourth-worst ocean polluter of plastic. And while Japan and the United Kingdom make this list of worst polluters in economically developed countries, they still produce much less ocean plastic than the Philippines and could be a model for how island countries can keep plastic out of the ocean through waste management.
In the United States, we’ve gradually increased consciousness that we are polluting the oceans through our excessive use of plastic. As a result, things like plastic straws and plastic rings on cans have been reduced or eliminated in many communities. And while acting locally has kept ocean plastic waste in check in the United States, perhaps it’s time to both think and act globally.
5 Steps We Can Take to Lower Plastic in the Oceans
- Focus outward. Very little ocean plastic is the result of developed countries. While lowering our domestic consumption of plastic is great for the environment, any solution to the ocean plastics problem needs to address the developing countries that are responsible for the highest quantities of ocean plastic.
- Help developing countries establish waste management facilities on par with what is used in the United States. The reason plastic ends up in the rivers of these countries is that there is an absence of infrastructure for storing garbage so the plastics end up in the oceans.
- Stop exporting plastic items to countries that have a chance of mismanaging them. This especially includes shipping our recycling to developing countries.
- Focus on the major rivers. Just 10 rivers contribute 18% of the world’s plastic trash in the oceans. Around 1500 rivers make up 80% of all the world’s plastic trash. To make the highest impact on reducing plastic trash in the ocean, start with preventing trash from entering the major rivers.
- Contribute to non-profits. For the average citizen that cannot build an industrial waste management facility, donating to a non-profit aiming to clean our oceans is a great first place to start.