Chapter 2. Marine litter

Marine litter,1 92% of which is plastic (Gall and Thompson, 2015[1]), is a pressing global issue. Plastic is now the most ubiquitous human-made substance on the planet (Worm, 2017[2]). The production and use of plastic materials – macro- and microplastics – come with several negative consequences for human health, the environment and climate, including contributing to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, water pollution and degradation of ecosystems (Geyer, Jambeck and Law, 2017[3]; Cornago, Börkey and Brown, 2021[4]; OECD, 2022[5]; OECD, 2021[6]). Some plastics resist degradation and can last for prolonged periods of time once leaked into the environment. This, in turn, can lead to contamination of freshwater systems, entanglement of, or ingestion by various forms of marine life and other serious consequences for society and the environment.

Plastic is mainly produced from fossil fuels, and GHGs are emitted at each stage of its life cycle – from fossil fuel extraction and transport to plastic refining, manufacture and waste management to plastic leakage in oceans, waterways and landscapes. Globally, the plastics life cycle generated about 1 800 Mt of carbon dioxide equivalent (MtCO2eq) in 2019, of which 90% was emitted during the production and conversion of plastic, and 10% during end-of-life (OECD, 2022[7]). In the United States, petrochemical and black carbon production emitted an estimated 30 MtCO2eq of GHGs in 2020, or 38% of emissions from chemical industries (OECD, 2022[7]). Most of these emissions came from facilities in the petrochemical hub along the Texas and Louisiana Gulf Coast.

Global plastic production (and hence plastic consumption and waste) has increased exponentially since the “great acceleration” in the middle of the 20th century. By some estimates, production has gone from 2.1 Mt in 1950 to 381 Mt in 2015 (Geyer, Jambeck and Law, 2017[3]; OECD, 2022[7]). Others calculate an increase from 334 Mt in 2010 to 422 Mt in 2016 (Law et al., 2020[8]). More recently, global plastic consumption was estimated to be 460 Mt in 2019 (OECD, 2022[7]). Plastic consumption is projected to continue increasing throughout the coming decades as both population and per capita wealth grow (WEF, 2016[9]; Borrelle et al., 2020[10]; Lau et al., 2020[11]; OECD, 2022[7]) to as much as 1 231 Mt annually by 2060 (OECD, 2022[7]). From 1950 through 2015, the world cumulatively produced 7 800 Mt of plastics (Geyer, Jambeck and Law, 2017[3]). North America and Europe have accounted for most plastic consumption to date.

From global plastic production and use, the world generated an estimated 353 Mt of plastic waste in 2019 (OECD, 2022[7]), estimated at 12% of total waste (Kaza, 2018[12]). While the growth rate may change, the overall trend is expected to continue (Borrelle et al., 2020[10]). OECD (2022[7]) projects annual global plastic waste volumes will increase to 1.01 gigatonnes by 2060 (only 17% of which will be recycled, compared to 9% in 2019) and follow the same geographic trends as plastic use. In 2015, packaging accounted for 47% (141 Mt) in 2015, representing the majority of plastic consumption and the type of products with the shortest lifespan (Geyer, Jambeck and Law, 2017[3]). The demand for and use of plastic packaging is expected to continue to grow in the coming decades (OECD, 2022[7]).

The growth in plastic production and plastic waste has led to increasing volumes being mismanaged,2 leaking3 into the environment and ultimately becoming marine litter. OECD (2022[7]) projects that global volumes of mismanaged plastic waste will almost double from 79 Mt in 2019 to 153 Mt in 2060. This will occur largely in non-OECD countries, albeit at a slightly lower rate of growth based on assumptions of improvements in waste management. Without such improvements, the global volume of mismanaged plastic waste would grow to 269 Mt by 2060.4 OECD (2022[7]) projects the volume of plastic leaking into the environment will double from 22 Mt in 2019 to 44 Mt in 2060, originating largely from this global mismanaged plastic waste.

Several studies have estimated the volume of plastic entering aquatic ecosystems, and specifically the ocean, particularly since the study by Jambeck et al. (2015[13]). Table 2.1 summarises the range of estimates reflecting large uncertainties (NAS, 2022[14]), as well as differences in methodologies, definitions and assumptions (OECD, 2022[7]). In particular, the world’s rivers have been identified as both a sink and a pass through to oceans for the vast majority of marine litter (Meijer et al., 2021[15]). In 2019, based on recent modelling, 5% of plastic waste leaked into aquatic ecosystems travelled from the coast to ocean, another 50% sank to the bottom of rivers and lakebeds, and 44% was floating in rivers (and potentially transported to oceans) (OECD, 2022[7]).

While data on plastic resin production in the United States alone are not available, 70 Mt of plastic resin was produced throughout North America in 2019, constituting 19% of the global total (NAS, 2022[14]).5 Similar to the trend in North American production, plastic consumption in the United States has been increasing over time, doubling from 42 Mt to over 84 Mt from 1990-2019 (OECD, 2022[7]). Widespread use of certain types of single-use plastics such as bags, PET bottles and straws account for a small share of the total volume of plastics used but a large share of marine litter.

Estimates of plastic waste generation differ, but the trend is consistent: increasing waste generation. The United States was the top generator of plastic waste overall at an estimated 72.8 Mt in 2019, and 221 kilogrammes (kg) per capita (OECD, 2022[7]). Plastic waste generation is projected to almost double in the United States to 141.7 Mt in 2060, or to more than 350 kg per capita (OECD, 2022[7]). According to another estimate, the United States was the top generator of plastic waste in 2016, both overall at 42 Mt and 130 kg per capita (Law et al., 2020[8]). According to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the country generated some 32 Mt of plastic waste in 2018, from a baseline of 0 in 1960 (Figure 2.3).

Similar to other high-income countries, waste collection rates in the United States are over 95% (Kaza, 2018[12]). In 2018, the country landfilled approximately 50% of its municipal solid waste, recycled 24%, composted almost 9% and combusted (i.e. incinerated with energy recovery) 12% (US EPA, 2021[16]). Of the plastic in municipal solid waste, an estimated 76% was landfilled (comprising 18.5% of all landfilled materials, by mass), 9% was recycled and 15% was combusted with energy recovery (US EPA, 2021[16]). While both recycling and combustion capacity expanded in the 1980s and 1990s, these estimates have remained relatively consistent over the past 15 years (NAS, 2022[14]). According to modelled data from OECD (2022[7]), 4% of total plastic waste (comprised of municipal solid waste as well as waste from industry, including building and construction) was recycled in the United States in 2019. This was much lower than the EU rate of 14% for the same year or the rate of non-EU OECD members of 8% (Figure 2.1).

The United States is a source of plastic waste leakage into the environment due to mismanagement of waste both at home and by trading partners. By one estimate, the amount of mismanaged plastic waste grew by between 82-400% from 2010 to 2016 (Law et al., 2020[8]). Law et al. (2020[8]) estimate that none of the country’s solid waste is considered inadequately managed.6 However, the study estimated that 0.84 Mt of plastic waste entered the environment in 2016 through littering (a 2% litter rate). Another 0.14-0.41 Mt entered through illegal dumping,7 for a total of 0.98-1.25 Mt of domestic plastic leakage in 2016.8

Additionally, Law et al. (2020[8]) estimate the US contribution to plastic leakage taking into account its 1.99 Mt of plastic waste exports in 2016 and other leakage pathways. The study estimated that 0.15-0.99 Mt of US exports was inadequately managed and ultimately leaked into the environment. US plastic waste inputs to the coastal environment were among the highest in the world in 2016 with 0.51-1.45 Mt (Law et al., 2020[8]).9 In combination with its domestic leakage, the country’s total estimated volume of plastic leakage was 1.13-2.24 Mt in 2016 (Law et al., 2020[8]).

More recently, OECD (2022[7]) estimated that 0.95 Mt of plastic leaked into the environment within the United States in 2019. The total figure consisted of 0.14 Mt of macroplastics from littering (15%), 0.42 Mt of macroplastics from mismanagement (44%) and 0.39 Mt of microplastics (41%) (Figure 2.2). For microplastics, wastewater sludge and tyre abrasion are the two key sources of leakage into the environment. The OECD model estimates 0.24 Mt of plastics leaked into US rivers in 2019, of which 0.11 Mt was transported to the oceans. In 2019, based on US production, use, waste and leakage of plastics, an estimated 10.9 Mt of plastics has accumulated in US rivers and the United States contributed 3.4 Mt to oceans (OECD, 2022[7]). Regarding future trends, leakage of plastics to aquatic environments is projected to substantially decrease in the United States due mainly to waste management improvements and lower mismanaged waste (OECD, 2022[7]). However, microplastics leakage is projected to increase for several reasons. First, the sources of microplastics do not decrease as incomes rise (OECD, 2022[7]). Second, the leakages are not addressed by current waste management technology, wastewater treatment and other approaches such as design standards.

Global trade in plastic waste increased exponentially between 1993 and 2016 (723% and 817% for imports and exports, respectively) and has been a significant feature of US plastic waste flows (Brooks, Wang and Jambeck, 2018[17]). Generally, as recycling and disposal costs increased in the United States, waste managers began to look to other countries where costs were cheaper – typically lower-income countries with fewer environmental regulations (Uhm, 2021[18]). In 2016 alone, 123 countries exported about half of all global plastic waste intended for recycling (14.1 Mt). The People’s Republic of China (hereafter “China”) imported the majority of this waste (7.35 Mt). For the same year, Law et al. (2020[8]) found the United States exported 1.99 Mt of plastic waste to 89 trade partners. Of this amount, more than 88% was exported to countries where that more than 20% was estimated to be inadequately managed.

China introduced new requirements that amounted to a national ban on the import of non-industrial plastic waste, which came into effect in the first quarter of 2018. This ban, as well as amendments to the Basel Convention on trade in plastic waste that took effect in 2022, has left global trade in plastic waste highly uncertain (Shi, Zhang and Chen, 2021[19]). Already, global trade decreased from 14 Mt in 2015 to 7.5 Mt in 2019 (OECD, 2022[7]). Meanwhile, US exports decreased to 0.62 Mt in 2020 (Figure 2.3), mainly due to plastic waste import restrictions in China that began before the 2018 ban (Brown, Laubinger and Börkey, 2022[20]).

Immediately after China’s ban, the United States increased its exports to Southeast Asian countries relative to the previous quarter. Exports rose to Malaysia by 330%, to Thailand by 300%, to Viet Nam by 277% and to Indonesia by 191%. However, the total amount exported decreased by 37.4% (Mongelluzzo, 2018[21]; INTERPOL, 2020[22]; Brown, Laubinger and Börkey, 2022[20]). In 2018, other Asian countries (e.g. Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, Viet Nam, Chinese Taipei and India) introduced additional requirements on, and in some cases bans of, plastic waste imports due to waste surpluses and illegally exported wastes (e.g. hazardous waste mixed in with plastic scrap) (Upadhyaya, 28 August 2019[23]; INTERPOL, 2020[22]; Staub, 2021[24]). By 2020, the United States’ top six trade partners (Canada, Malaysia, Hong Kong, China, Mexico, Viet Nam and Indonesia) accounted for 75% of total US exports of plastic waste (Brooks, 2021[25]). In 2021, the United States was among the four largest OECD exporters and importers of plastic scrap and waste (OECD, 2022[26]). Despite the recent declining trend in trade volumes, significant leakage into the environment through exports of plastic waste likely continues.

A number of international agreements (see Annex 1) and national environmental laws form the institutional context for policy responses to US marine litter. They focus on preventing, controlling and cleaning up discharges of pollutants, hazardous substances and other contaminants to air and waters. Two national laws are most relevant. The 1976 Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) creates a solid and hazardous waste management system to prevent open dumping and requires engineered and regulated landfills for solid waste, among other responses. Meanwhile, the 1972 Clean Water Act (CWA) controls the discharge of pollutants into the country’s waters (NAS, 2022[14]).10

Under RCRA, states and municipalities have the primary responsibility for implementing and enforcing federal requirements applicable to the management of solid waste within their jurisdictions, including providing services to collect and sort recyclables. Through EPA, the federal government issues recycling guidelines, sets national standards for the environmentally sound management of solid waste, and provides funding and information for local programmes.

The CWA provides federal authority that may be useful to diminish marine litter pathways. It requires discharge permits (issued by either state governments or EPA) to set limits on pollutants – including trash and plastic waste – for water bodies identified as “impaired” (i.e. not meeting water quality standards) by those specific pollutants. It also directs state governments to identify required reductions in trash loadings (“Total Maximum Daily Loads”, or TMDLs) to trash-impaired water bodies consistent with water quality standards. Further, it directs states to introduce instruments to enforce these limits, for example, in enforceable discharge permits.

Measures may include a wide array of management practices, such as trash capture devices in storm drain catch basins, street cleaning to prevent litter from entering storm drains, or local bans on frequently littered items, such as plastic bags and cigarette butts. To date, due to a lack of data and other factors, only a relatively small number of states have listed any water bodies impaired by trash or plastic pollution. Even fewer have developed trash TMDLs. That said, the CWA can be a viable mechanism to help restrict marine litter pathways, albeit typically at the end of product life cycle, which means higher abatement costs. Federal provision of methodologies for assessing and measuring litter and setting water quality standards under the CWA could help close leakage pathways.

Building upon this regulatory framework, the government began to respond to macroplastic and marine sources of litter in 2006 with the Marine Debris Act. The law has since been reauthorised and updated three times, most recently in 2020 as the Save Our Seas 2.0 Act. It now forms the core of the government’s federal policy response to marine litter. The law requires interagency co-ordination in responding to the problem of marine debris, including creation of a Marine Debris Program at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), with enabling instruments focused on funding research and monitoring to better understand and define the problem; education and outreach to stakeholders to influence behaviour; and funding to subnational governments and partners to develop context-specific solutions.

The government expanded the policy response in 2015 to include microplastics. Specifically, the Microbead-Free Waters Act banned use of microbeads in targeted cosmetic products (NAS, 2022[14]). Finally, in 2020 the national government articulated a strategy to address marine litter. It focuses on four broad pillars of policy responses: i) building capacity for better waste and litter management systems; ii) incentivising the global recycling market; iii) promoting research and development for innovative solutions and technology; and iv) promoting marine litter removal, including litter capture systems.11

The United States has not yet developed a national action plan for marine plastic litter. In its submission to the G20 in September 2021, it confirmed that “it does not have a national action plan specific to marine plastic litter.” At the same time, it argued that federal laws provide “a comprehensive legal framework to address marine plastic litter” in addition to the US Marine Debris Act, Clean Water Act, and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act named in the 2020 Strategy. These laws are the Save Our Seas 2.0 Act, the Microbead-Free Waters Act, the Toxic Substances Control Act, and the Rivers and Harbors Appropriation Act (Ministry of Environment Japan, 2021[27]).

Other legislative efforts to date have included a resolution designating July 2022 as “Plastic Pollution Action Month” (S.Res.697) after a similar resolution was passed in 2021. The national legislature has also considered several relevant bills in the previous session, including the Plastic Pellet-Free Waters Act (related to Break Free from Plastic Pollution Act), Reducing Waste in National Parks Act and the Rewarding Efforts to Decrease Unrecycled Contaminants in Ecosystems (REDUCE) Act of 2021.

Numerous agencies within the federal government have mandates or programmes that relate to the issue of marine litter (US GAO, 2019[28]). Among others, these include EPA, National Academy of Sciences (NAS), NOAA, US Department of State, US Agency for International Development (USAID), US Fish and Wildlife Service and US Trade Representative. The value of interagency co-ordination has long been recognised, if not yet exhaustively achieved. The Marine Debris Act established the Interagency Marine Debris Coordinating Committee (IMDCC) to co-ordinate delivery of policies (including regulatory actions, monitoring, education and research). The committee’s role was strengthened by the most recent reauthorisation (Save Our Seas 2.0 Act).12 The IMDCC is chaired by NOAA and meets quarterly; two meetings are open to the public every year.

The US Coast Guard and NOAA have major roles for clean-up, removal and damage assessment for injury in coastal and marine environments (NAS, 2022[14]). Specifically, NOAA plays a leading role in plastic waste prevention, removal, clean-up and restoration through a range of environmental authorities, including the CWA and Ocean Dumping Act, which relates to ship-based disposal (NAS, 2022[14]). Its most comprehensive role on ocean plastic waste is under the Marine Debris Act, which specifies its role in clean-up, government co-ordination, grant making and research.

Environmental justice (EJ) considerations have been significantly mainstreamed throughout the federal government (see Chapter 1). Although EJ and equity considerations are rising on the US policy agenda, they have not yet been systematically considered in the context of marine litter. Federal agencies take a whole-of-government approach to identify vulnerable, underserved and/or overburdened communities and address their environmental and public health concerns more effectively. EPA’s newly established Office of Environmental Justice and External Civil Rights, Strategic Plan 2022-26 and additional funding for EJ provide expanded resources to address EJ as a core, cross-cutting priority.

For the Trash Free Waters Program, EJ is one consideration for targeting projects in particular locales. The NOAA Marine Debris Program promotes EJ and equity considerations in its various domestic grant programmes by encouraging applicants and awardees to support principles of justice, equity, diversity and inclusion when writing their proposals and performing their work. This may include collaborating with diverse entities and groups. It also highlights the importance of considering working with the most vulnerable or underserved communities, which are often low-income, those already overburdened by pollution, those who lack economic or social opportunity, and people facing disenfranchisement.

The understanding of EJ implications of marine litter and related policy responses is limited to date. Examples of impacts in communities with EJ concerns include the siting of petrol-chemical facilities, waste collection and treatment infrastructure, as well as related pollution burdens. Lack of adequate drinking water services can result in increased plastic water bottle use in communities and thus increase plastic waste. The impacts of marine litter on freshwater bodies and coastal environments negatively affect cultural practices, subsistence activities, and economic and recreational activities, such as fisheries and tourism, and decrease the amenity value of impacted areas.

As noted above, in part due to its federal model, waste governance in the United States has frequently been driven by subnational governments at the state, Tribal or municipal level. In these cases, the federal government provides financial assistance to states or sets national standards that states may administer (Percival et al., 2021[29]). To date, national policy has focused on provision of financial assistance to subnational governments (state and subnational), which have “outpaced federal action” (NAS, 2022[14]). While counts to date are not comprehensive, reviews of subnational policies suggest they have used a wider array of policy instruments than the national level to address marine litter and plastic pollution. Notably, these include regulatory bans and economic instruments for specific products (such as single-use plastic bags or plastic bottles) (Karasik, 2020[30]) (Diana et al., 2022[31]).

California, the most populous state and the one with the most plastic processors (NAS, 2022[14]), is an early adopter of US subnational government policy to plastic pollution (Karasik, 2020[30]) (Box 2.2). For example, California adopted a comprehensive state-wide Marine Litter Strategy in 2018 (co-developed with NOAA). It also set additional updates in 2022 (California Ocean Protection Council and NOAA Marine Debris Program 2018) (Wyer, 2021[32]), a model of state-federal partnership. Subsequently, the state government has developed a 2022-26 strategy to address microplastics, similar to the approach taken to address particulate matter pollution under the Clean Air Act.

A wide range of policy instruments is needed to address marine litter (OECD, 2022[7]) Building on the OECD Policy Roadmap for more circular plastic use (Figure 2.4), this review assesses the following categories of policy instruments from “basic” to more “advanced” to characterise the US policy approach to marine litter:

  1. 1. Defining problem, including monitoring

  2. 2. Closing leakage pathways

  3. 3. Creating incentives for recycling and enhancing sorting at source

  4. 4. Restraining demand and optimising design to make plastic value chains more circular and recycled plastics more price competitive.

Each of these categories define enabling policies (such as research and development, funding, communication, nudging and education measures, voluntary approaches and stakeholder alliances) and steering policies (such as legally binding regulatory interventions, mandatory standards and economic instruments). Finally, given the significant though declining trend in US plastic waste exports, a fifth category is included to address the fate of exported plastic waste in the categorisation of policy instruments in this Environmental Performance Review.

The federal government has sought to better understand the scope and scale of the marine litter and plastic pollution problem. In particular, it focused on the sources, causes and pathways of visible marine litter, i.e. macroplastic leakage. A multi-faceted study was commissioned to evaluate US contributions to global plastic waste and “the prevalence of marine debris and mismanaged plastic waste” in domestic navigable waterways and tributaries. This study was published by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine (NAS) in 2021.

In addition, NOAA’s Marine Debris Program sought to “identify, determine sources of, assess, prevent, reduce and remove marine debris and address the adverse impacts of marine debris on the economy of the United States, the marine environment and navigation safety”. As the lead in an interagency effort to define and respond to the problem of plastic pollution, the programme has supported voluntary citizen or community-based science13 (Box 2.3) over the years (e.g. provision of standardised shoreline monitoring protocols).

The central component of this programme is the Marine Debris Monitoring and Assessment Project (Ribic et al., 2010[34]). This project helps local partners conduct standardised shoreline surveys and create a national inventory of marine debris (larger than 2.5 cm). As part of the shoreline monitoring, trained volunteers co-ordinated monthly regional surveys to assess the net accumulation of indicator items on shorelines across the contiguous United States, Alaska, Hawaii, Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands (US EPA, 2020[35]). The project also educates the public on the scope of the problem and increases the information and capability of subnational governments to act, such as by identifying clean-up and mitigation priorities (NOAA Marine Debris Program, 2020[36]). To date, there have been 9 055 surveys at 443 sites that span 21 US states and territories and 9 countries (NAS, 2022[14]).

The most recent five-year strategy (2021-25) for the Marine Debris Program includes a new goal of monitoring and detection through the use of the next generation of remote sensing technologies to better detect marine debris and gather data on the types, abundance and location of marine debris (NOAA Marine Debris Program, 2020[36]). This strategy reflects recommendations from a review of the MDMAP by Hardesty et al. (2017[38]) for a national baseline survey to monitor change (and policy effectiveness), in addition to community-based science using the protocols (NAS, 2022[14]). As a result, the programme is designing a national survey to measure marine litter on US shorelines.14 Annual allocated budgets for the Marine Debris Program vary from year to year; it received USD 9 million in fiscal year 2021 and USD 5.6 million in fiscal year 2022. Additionally, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) is expected to significantly increase the allocation, some portion of which would increase monitoring and detection efforts

Finally, the Trash Free Waters Program established in 2013 at EPA has similar goals to the Marine Debris Program. It also provides standards and grants to subnational partners to better understand the sources, causes and pathways of leakage.15 The voluntary programme includes at least two national-level staff, as well as work supported through regional offices. This work included some 200 subnational projects throughout the country with a budget of approximately USD 24 million in fiscal year 2022.

Compared to macroplastics, microplastics are relatively less understood and targeted by policy (OECD, 2021[6]) (Diana et al., 2022[31]). Efforts have focused on developing analytical methods, understanding the lifecycle of microplastics, ecological assessments and human health assessments (US EPA, 2017[39]). An IMDCC study assessed pollution from plastic microfibres (sources, prevalence and causes). This included recommendations for a standardised methodology to measure microfibre pollution and for policy responses to reduce it. EPA is preparing this study, while the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is reviewing the extent of microplastics in food. The federal government has also supported efforts to assess microplastic pollution and define the problem at the subnational level, for example through the EPA-supported Chesapeake Bay Program.

The Marine Debris Act has funded research and monitoring of marine sources of plastic pollution since 2006. This includes specifying establishment of a voluntary reporting programme for commercial vessel operators and recreational boaters to report incidents of damage to vessels and disruption of navigation caused by marine debris. More recently, these efforts have focused on marine sources. The Save Our Seas Act 2.0 funds an analysis of the scale of fishing gear losses by domestic and foreign fisheries, an evaluation of the ecological, human health and maritime safety impacts of derelict fishing gear, recommendations on management measures and an assessment of their costs, and an assessment of the impact of fishing gear loss attributable to foreign countries.

National government investments in understanding and defining the problem of marine litter were significant from 2006 to 2022. Research increased through grants and partnerships with subnational governments and stakeholders, as well as standardised protocols for use in reporting. The Marine Debris Program for monitoring litter has expanded and used citizen science tools such as the Marine Debris Tracker. Meanwhile, the Trash Free Waters Program developed the Escaped Trash Assessment Protocol (ETAP). It considers site conditions, material types and item types to help users identify what is getting into nearby waterways. Armed with this information, users can then develop tailored interventions to address the particular trash stream in a given locale. ETAP will soon be incorporated into the Marine Debris Tracker app so it can store and analyse data from ETAP users around the country.

The Marine Debris Program has also developed a citizen science Beach Microplastics Protocol to help engage the concerned public in the issue of plastic pollution. In addition, the programme is leading an effort to model the total weight of solid waste materials getting into domestic waterways. This will include separating out (to the degree data allow) material types, item types and geographic distributions of such waste materials in waterways.

The Trash Free Waters Program has also developed technical reports on priority microplastics research needs. It is co-developing with NOAA a Report (to Congress) on Microfiber Pollution pursuant to the Save Our Seas 2.0 Act. In addition, it will release a summary paper of learning on tyre particle wear in the environment. The federalised model of developing nationally standardised monitoring protocols and inventories, supported by financial assistance to subnational governments and partners, has increased understanding and definition of the problem for policy makers and stakeholders.

In addition, the Marine Debris Program implements the MDMAP to engage partners in the United States and internationally to survey and record the amount and types of marine debris/litter on shorelines. The MDMAP provides a survey protocol and other tools to measure macro-sized marine debris and an online database to enter and display data. It also functions as a network of partnering organisations and citizen science volunteers for monitoring litter. The community-based and grants for local research and monitoring supported through the Marine Debris Program have raised awareness of the issue; enhanced understanding of the extent of the problem as related risks; and helped identify clean-up and mitigation priorities (NAS, 2022[14]).

National government investments to date in monitoring could inform a national and comprehensive monitoring system for plastics (including production, use, waste and leakage). However, such a system does not exist in the United States (NAS, 2022[14]). For example, the three largest marine litter datasets in the country – the inventory from MDMAP, and community-based science through the Marine Debris Tracker and/or from the International Coastal Clean-up – are not well integrated. Moreover, there is no national monitoring system or “system of systems” to help define the problem, establish a baseline and track effectiveness of policy responses (NAS, 2022[14]).

A single national monitoring system may not be feasible. However, an integrated monitoring system based on standard protocols drawing on multiple, complementary systems would enhance understanding of the challenge and inform targeted responses. Such a system would be enhanced by investing in emerging technologies such as remote sensing to enhance spatial and temporal coverage of plastic waste (NAS, 2022[14]).

With the IIJA and the Inflation Reduction Act significant additional public funding may be available to expand efforts into a co-ordinated monitoring system and establish a national baseline shoreline survey of litter. Additionally, this funding may increase the diffusion of citizen science tools and support the research agenda identified to define the microplastics problem, among others. Recognising the potential reporting limitations, research could also focus on transparency and reporting from actors in the production and use stages where data and information are still lacking, for example, data on plastic resin production in the United States.

The United States has both high per capita waste generation and collection rates. Most plastic leakage within US national jurisdiction is macroplastics that are mismanaged or littered. Closing these leakage pathways involves effective plastic waste collection and disposal, and prevention of littering.

The federal government response to close pathways of plastic leakage has focused on providing grants and information. For example, EPA’s Trash Free Waters Program provides grants to subnational partners to support waste collection and disposal, as does NOAA’s Marine Debris Program. Given the prevalence of macroplastics litter in US leakage sources, these programmes have focused on grants and education campaigns to change behaviours that lead to litter.

The Save our Seas Act 2.0 increased these efforts, including grant programmes to help subnational authorities improve waste management systems, and support “anti-litter initiatives” and local clean-up initiatives. For example, the Marine Debris Program has funded more than 160 litter removal projects since 2006, including installation of litter capture devices, which have removed more than 30 000 metric tons of litter. The national government also initiated a “Plastic Innovation Challenge” in 2019 that provides funding for research and development from the US Department of Energy, towards five goals by 2030. One of these goals is to develop collection technologies to prevent plastics from entering waterways or facilitate its removal. Essentially, this aims to help close leakage pathways at the end of the life cycle of plastic products and pollutants (Box 2.4).

In 2021, Congress passed the IIJA (see Chapter 1), which provides funding for grant programmes, and research support for drinking water and wastewater infrastructure projects, among others. The law provides USD 11.7 billion for State Revolving Funds to co-finance water infrastructure, including for wastewater treatment, implemented by EPA.

At the national level, the policy instruments to close leakage pathways have focused on provision of financial assistance and information to subnational governments and stakeholders – enabling instruments with relatively low levels of compulsion. Only at the subnational level (e.g. state or city) have policies been introduced to steer behaviour to close leakage pathways through, for example, banning frequently littered items. Subnational regulatory bans of plastic items have increased significantly in the United States over the past 15 years, most commonly via:

  • legislation that bans single-use plastic bags: plastic bag alternatives may still be permitted through the use of reusable, thicker plastic bags or paper bags. For example, California was the first state to impose a state-wide ban on single-use plastic bags in 2014, followed by Hawaii, New York and five more states on the east and west coasts (NCSL, 2019[41]).

  • legislation that imposes a fee on consumers for a single-use plastic bag when carrying out items purchased from a retailer, attempting to nudge or deter consumers from using single-use plastic bags by charging them a small fee (Homonoff, 2018[42]). The 2009 Washington, DC, law, for example, requires all businesses that sell food or alcohol to charge USD 0.05 for plastic or paper bags (NCSL, 2019[41]).

  • legislation that combines a ban and fee on single-use plastic bags so that single-use plastic bags are not distributed in retail stores and a fee is charged for an alternative type of bag, typically a paper bag (e.g. in California, New York and Oregon) (Bell and Todoran, 2022[43]).

In sum, at least 471 local bag ordinances have been adopted in 28 states introducing 95 bills in 2019 with the aim to totally ban plastic bags and to improve bag recycling (Laws, 2019[44]).16

Regulation of plastic bags by states has been mixed. In all, 25 states do not have any local plastic bag legislation, 18 states have a combined ban and fee local legislation (16 contiguous states, Alaska and Hawaii), 4 states have bans only contained in local legislation (North Carolina, Ohio, South Carolina and Utah), and 3 states (Florida, Illinois and Minnesota) and the District of Columbia have fee-only local legislation.

States vary widely in the number of municipalities that have adopted plastic bag legislation: 13 states and Washington, DC, have between 1 and 10 pieces of local legislation, 6 states have 11-20 pieces of local legislation (Alaska, Connecticut, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island and South Carolina), 3 states have 21-42 pieces of local laws and regulations (Maine, New Jersey and Washington), and 2 states have more than 100 local laws and regulations (California and Massachusetts) (Bell and Todoran, 2022[43]).

Overall, 26 states have plastic bag legislation (Figure 2.5), with an overwhelming majority of states in the Northeast (89%) and West (69%) having adopted such laws.17 Eight of the 9 states in the Northeast and 9 of 13 states in the West have either a local ban, a fee or a combination of the two types. States in the South and Midwest have not adopted similar regulatory measures to date; 11 of 16 states in the South and 8 of 12 states in the Midwest have no local plastic bag legislation at all (Bell and Todoran, 2022[43]). Conversely, some state governments have reacted to this trend by enacting “pre-emption laws” that prohibit local governments under their jurisdiction from regulating plastic bags (Bell and Todoran, 2022[43]). In many cases, bans on single-use plastic bags have been an entry point to additional bans on other frequently littered plastic items (Box 2.5).

A small number of local governments has applied provisions of the CWA to protect water bodies. The law was introduced long before marine debris was defined as a problem requiring a national policy response, but in Section 303(d) it does provide a mechanism to address plastic leakage at various entry points to waterways. For example, it requires state governments to monitor and identify to EPA its water bodies that are “impaired” based on water quality standards for specific pollutants. Based on these standards and an EPA listing of the water body as impaired, the law specifies the establishment of TMDLs for the pollutants causing the impairment. These address pollutant loadings from both point sources and from non-point sources. Once a TMDL is set, point sources are regulated by National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permits, including municipal separate storm sewer systems, while non-point sources are regulated by local governments.

In the context of the CWA, marine litter can be defined as a pollutant (e.g. “trash”) with a water quality standard. When the standard is exceeded, the water body can be listed as “impaired” and a “trash TMDL” would be developed to address the impairment. In practice, the water quality criteria for trash have largely been qualitative (e.g. “surface waters shall be free of substances that float as debris…”) rather than quantitative and easily measured. As of 2021, only ten state governments19 and the District of Columbia had listed some of their water bodies as “impaired” due to litter (US EPA OIG, 2021[45]). For example, following a designation as “impaired”, a “trash TMDL” was developed in the Anacostia River in Washington, DC, in 2010 and the Baltimore Harbour in Maryland in 2015. Multiple trash TMDLs were developed in the Los Angeles region in California from 2001 to 2012, where TMDL implementation led to installation of litter capture devices for point sources (e.g. storm drains) and local regulations requiring a minimum frequency of assessment and collection to address non-point sources of trash. As of 2021, only three state governments plus the District of Columbia have set “trash TMDLs”.

In reviewing these cases, EPA’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) recognised the continued challenges of state governments in applying the CWA to close leakage pathways. This was especially the case for addressing non-point sources of leakage to targeted water bodies and waterways. OIG (2021[45]) concluded that EPA should focus on information and assistance to help states better use the Act and develop more trash TMDLs where applicable, particularly in providing methodologies for assessing and measuring litter and setting water quality standards under the law. Specifically, the OIG recommended the agency assess the challenges of local governments in using the CWA to close leakage pathways and publish the results, and on this basis, develop strategies to support these governments. Beyond setting TMDLs, local governments may enhance capture directly through the process of permitting municipal separate sewer systems (e.g. requiring capture devices), with EPA providing information to support these efforts.

In 2015, the national government banned one pathway for microplastic leakage – plastic microbeads20 in cosmetic products21– with the Microbead-Free Waters Act. The national ban supersedes subnational laws, prohibiting the manufacture, introduction or delivery for introduction into interstate commerce of rinse-off cosmetics that contain intentionally added solid plastic microbeads. Enforcing compliance with the law has been a challenge, relying for example on voluntary registration for cosmetics to identify applicable products in the marketplace. Here, the United States has been consistent with global trends for national policies to restrict microplastic leakage in Europe and North America: frequent bans on plastic microbeads in cosmetic products (Karasik, 2020[30]). Bans are widely seen as necessary because all uses of the product result in leakage. Consequently, education for behaviour changes is not possible, and closing leakage pathways through waste management is also challenging (Karasik, 2020[30]).

Many regulated products are part of international supply chains with interconnected markets. As a result, industries have taken voluntary actions in anticipation of regulation, and the ready availability of inexpensive alternatives. Some researchers have suggested that with the trend in major markets, the world is “on track to eliminate microbeads from rinse-off products [by 2028]” (Dauvergne, 2018[46]). In 2022, following this trend, the European Union proposed legislation to ban plastic microbeads in a broad range of consumer products (e.g. cosmetic products, fertilising products, plant protection products, etc.). It proposed relatively few exemptions (e.g. medicinal products, food additives, etc.). However, it suggested a phased approach to support the transition to alternatives (e.g. degradable microbeads). Transitions could range, for example, from four years for cosmetic products to eight years for plant protection products. The EU ban is also combined with an information instrument requiring product labelling during the transition.22

The government has also supported a research agenda to better understand the sources, transport and fate of microplastics in the US environment (US EPA, 2021[47]), as well as assessing pollution from plastic microfibres. However, the problem and approach to addressing some of the likely largest sources of microplastic leakage remain to be defined. The United States is not unique in this respect. As of 2020, no national government had developed policy instruments to address leakage from tyre abrasion (Karasik, 2020[30]) (OECD, 2021[6]).

With the 2006 Marine Debris Act, the national government’s first policy response to plastic pollution was mainly focused on closing pathways of leakage for marine sources. For example, it focused on enhancing monitoring and enforcement of compliance with MARPOL Annex V, which prohibits discharge of ship-generated litter at sea. It was revised in 2011 to specify prohibition of plastic discharges (“including but not limited to synthetic ropes, synthetic fishing nets, plastic garbage bags and incinerator ashes from plastic products…”) (Karasik, 2020[30]).

The federal government has also used enabling instruments, such as directing NOAA to develop non-regulatory measures (including outreach and education to stakeholders) and incentives to reduce the volume of abandoned, lost or discarded fishing gear. In addition, a pilot programme provides incentives, such as grants, to fishers who incidentally capture marine debris at sea to dispose of it properly on land. According to recent models, the percentage of total plastic leakage into the environment from within US jurisdiction originating from marine sources is negligible.

Recent models suggest that most plastic leakage (59%) within the United States is from mismanaged or littered macroplastics with the remaining 41% from microplastics. The federal government’s efforts to close these leakage pathways have focused largely on enabling instruments to provide increased financial assistance or information to local governments and states. These include grants from the Trash Free Waters Program for increased waste collection or disposal; anticipated funding from IIJA for increased wastewater treatment; and grants from the Marine Debris Program for litter capture devices and clean-up (including research funding for innovation in these devices). The exception has been the Microbead-Free Waters Act, which bans the intentional addition of plastic microbeads into cosmetic products to help close a pathway for microplastic leakage.

Alternatively, subnational governments at the state and city level have introduced a relatively large number of bans on frequently littered macroplastic items. Most commonly, they target single-use plastic bags, but they also address other types of single-use plastics. Subnational governments have led on the use of “stronger” (with higher levels of compulsion) instruments to prevent litter. This has led to a wide and growing range of different approaches across states. At the same time, some state governments have pre-empted local governments from banning single-use plastic bags.

Some states have used the CWA to set limits on litter that can be discharged from point sources (e.g. storm sewer outfalls) and non-point sources. This, in turn, has driven more regulation to ban frequently littered items, or to mandate post-leakage capture and/or clean-up. These cases suggest the CWA can be a viable national framework for regulating macroplastic leakage pathways, albeit at the end of the life cycle (focused on sources to water bodies or waterways). One challenge in using this framework has been to set the water quality standard (e.g. the allowable amount of litter in a water body) appropriately.

There remains much greater scope for investment in post-leakage capture at municipal storm sewer and overflow outfalls (as well as optimised screening at wastewater treatment plants). Additionally, national funding could follow on local approaches to increase support for street cleaning and reducing illegal dumping, with a focus on lower income and underserved communities. These policies are feasible within existing law and authority. However, they do not include prevention strategies (e.g. banning frequently littered items), which are likely more cost effective.

The federal and/or subnational governments may pursue “stronger” instruments to prevent litter. For example, it could introduce a national ban on some of the most frequently littered items, among other regulatory or economic instruments, following on subnational policy examples. The European Union included such an instrument in 2019 among a package aiming to address single-use plastics.23 It required member states to pass regulatory bans on specified oxo-degradable plastic products.

After reduction and reuse, recycling is a key means for resource productivity in a circular economy. A wide range of policies aims to increase plastic recycling, including by improving markets for recycled plastics (OECD, 2018[48]). There are a range of policies available to enhance recycling and sorting at the source. Extended producer responsibility (EPR) makes producers responsible for their products in the post-consumer stage of the life cycle (OECD, 2016[49]). EPR for the packaging sector is widely used across the OECD as a means to improve recycling of plastics. Other policies include landfill and incineration taxes to make recycling more cost competitive, or set-rate targets through taxes on primary plastics combined with subsidies on secondary plastics. In addition, as recycling becomes more feasible and profitable, financial incentives could be increased for sorting at source (e.g. deposit-refund schemes, “pay-as-you-throw” schemes to make households pay per bag of mixed waste) (OECD, 2022[7]).

Recycling systems in the United States are heterogeneous, but the federal government has identified a number of consistent challenges (Box 2.7). Two main challenges are the contamination of recyclables and the lack of cost competitiveness with virgin plastic (US GAO, 2021[50]). The contamination rate for material collected in kerbside recycling was estimated at 17% by weight in 2020, resulting in a loss of approximately USD 166 million to process solid waste at recycling facilities before disposal in landfills (SWANA, 2021[51]). Virgin plastic prices remain low compared to recycled material (partially due to subsidies for fossil fuels used as feedstock for virgin production). Landfill disposal costs are often low, meaning low-cost disposal that does not incentivise material recovery (NAS, 2022[14]).

EPA provides information and education to subnational governments on recycling. Examples include standardisation of the measurement of recycling rates, among others. It also collects and shares information on how recycling programmes are staffed and funded, as well as successful recycling programmes (e.g. recycling programme toolkits). In addition, it develops software tools and provides guidelines to government agencies to support procurement of products with the highest recycled content (US GAO, 2021[50]).

In 2020, EPA set a national recycling goal of 50% for municipal solid waste by 2030 from the baseline of 24% in 2018. In 2021, it published a National Recycling Strategy (US EPA, 2021[52]) with five goals: i) to improve markets for recycling commodities; ii) increase collection and improve materials management infrastructure; iii) reduce contamination in the recycled materials stream; iv) enhance policies and programmes to support circularity; and v) standardise measurement and increase data collection24 (US EPA, 2021[52]). This strategy is intended to be the first in a series targeting various materials, one of which would be plastics.

The strategy focuses on financial assistance and information from the federal government to help increase profitability and domestic markets for recycling. In 2021, the federal government advanced this approach25 with the IIJA. It provides potentially the largest single national investment in solid waste infrastructure with an appropriation of USD 350 million in new local grant programmes. There are two parts: i) USD 275 million for grants to improve recycling programmes; and (ii) USD 75 million for education and outreach on reducing, reusing and recycling materials. EPA will administer these grants, providing significant resources to implement the National Recycling Strategy.

The United States ranks among the world’s leaders in innovation for plastics circularity (plastics prevention and recycling) as measured by the number of patented inventions in 2010-14 (OECD, 2022[5]).26 The 2019 Plastics Innovation Challenge launched by the US Department of Energy (DOE) includes funding for research to develop technologies to upcycle waste chemical streams into higher value products, encouraging recycling (US DOE, 2021[40]). In addition to funding research into new approaches to using recycled plastics for higher value products, the Challenge supports research to develop new, recyclable plastics. DOE also released the Plastics Innovation Challenge Draft Roadmap in 2021, which sets the 2030 vision, strategic goals and quantitative objectives for the Challenge (US DOE, 2022[53]).

Subnational governments have introduced more steering instruments for greater circularity. Four state governments, for example, recently passed EPR laws for plastic packaging (NAS, 2022[14]). Meanwhile, another nine proposed or deliberated on similar laws in 2023.27 Subnational governments throughout the country have introduced 129 EPR laws across 32 states and the District of Columbia since 2000, covering 16 products.

With the passage of EPR legislation, there is growing experience and precedent with this policy approach. In 2022, for example, California’s state government enacted a law to address plastic pollution: California’s Plastic Pollution Prevention and Packaging Producer Responsibility Act (SB 54). It includes instruments for EPR of plastic packaging, requiring all producers of single-use packaging to join a producer responsibility organisation (PRO) and make the investment necessary to achieve a 65% recycling28 rate by 2032 (Box 2.8). To enforce this responsibility for producers, the government may revoke approval of the PRO for non-compliance. Local governments are also increasing efforts to provide information that would enhance recycling markets. For example, Maryland is launching a recycling markets development initiative to develop and publish recommendations for improving markets and launching a public awareness campaign to attract investment.

Recycling varies vastly across the United States, which partly explains why it is inherently complex and fragmented. The national government’s authority is specified in RCRA to set standards and provide funding and information to support subnational government programmes. The national recycling rate of MSW is 24% and the plastic recycling rate estimated to be 9%. Local programmes face common challenges of contaminated recyclables, low collection and limited kerbside access (59% of US households), overall low profitability for recyclers (cost competitiveness with virgin plastic) and limited information to support local decision making (US GAO, 2021[50]).

Following the reduction of international markets for plastic waste, the federal government has taken several significant actions in recent years to address these challenges. It initiated EPA-led stakeholder consultations, set the national recycling target for MSW of 50% by 2030 and launched the National Recycling Strategy to achieve it.29 EPA has increased funding and information provided to subnational governments and recycling programmes. The government significantly increased this investment with USD 350 million allocated in the IIJA to improve recycling programmes, as well as research funding through the DOE’s Plastics Innovation Challenge.

The federal government’s use of these enabling instruments can be expected to increase plastic recycling (though the 2030 recycling rate target is not specific to plastic). However, achieving the goal will likely require steering instruments that provide greater financial incentives for recycling. EPR laws to require producers to take greater responsibility for managing the product’s end-of-life (e.g. financing recycling, increased fees or taxes for disposal in landfills30) and sorting at source (e.g. pay-as-you-throw rules for households that charge fees by weight of landfilled waste, or “deposit-refund schemes”) (OECD, 2022[7]). A recent evaluation in a sample of countries found a clear relationship between the strength (steering) of waste policy instruments and the plastic waste management performance (Soós, Whiteman and Gavgas, 2022[54]).

The government’s National Recycling Strategy recognises the need for these types of policy instruments for circularity. It aims to “enhance policies and programs to support circularity”, citing EPR policies, “advanced recovery fees” and “landfill bans”, among others (US EPA, 2021[52]). However, the strategy envisages provision of information to support subnational or local governments to use such instruments, rather than new national laws or regulations.

There is a lack of national policy instruments for EPR, and initiatives to reduce use of virgin plastics and encourage better product designs to facilitate circularity. Consequently, there remains a risk of increasing fragmentation of producer requirements from proliferation of packaging EPR initiatives at state level. This may increase the cost of doing business for producers. Thus, the federal government could support some form of harmonisation and co-ordination to prevent this fragmentation.

The most direct path to reduce plastic waste in the environment is to produce less (Law et al., 2020[8]). Since this approach is likely the most cost-effective mitigation strategy, waste reduction should begin with the design of material, product and packaging that addresses end-of-life management, including an explicit cost for recovery and treatment (Law et al., 2020[8]). The OECD Policy Roadmap describes instruments to reduce virgin plastic use by restraining demand and optimising design for circularity as the most advanced stage. These instruments include removing fossil fuel subsidies, taxing single-use plastics, imposing recycled content standards for products and modulating EPR fees to reduce virgin plastic content, among others (OECD, 2022[7]).

Even if policy instruments would be needed at the subnational level targets for the reduction of single-use plastics, recycled content or other objective could be set at the federal level to identify a direction and a level of ambition. Similarly, guidance on product design could be provided from the federal level.

The federal government has used enabling instruments to restrain demand and improve product design. This has emerged largely via studies and information that EPA is mandated to provide by the Save our Seas Act 2.0. These studies identify the most efficient and effective economic incentives to increase the recycled content used by manufacturers in the production of plastic goods and packaging. They also identify funding to subnational or local governments and partners for education and outreach, and in some cases for design of reusable food ware. Additionally, the FDA provides information to help food packaging manufacturers evaluate and include recycled plastic content in packaging.

DOE (2021[40]) identifies several challenges to develop national standards for recycled content in products such as single-use plastics. These include deconstructing plastic waste into useable chemicals, upcycling plastic wastes into higher value products and creating plastics that are recyclable by design. Another challenge has been measurement of plastic materials generated through the chemical recycling process and subsequent certification of recycled content in products (e.g. Mass Balance accounting31) (Beers et al., 2022[55]). There is a patchwork of content standards at the subnational level,32 some of which may exclude plastic material from chemical recycling (Beers et al., 2022[55]). This has led the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) to study Mass Balance accounting methodologies to certify plastic content. Additionally, the Federal Trade Commission regulates firms’ claims about recycled content (US GAO, 2021[50]).

Finally, federal policies have focused on funding research (“moonshot investments”) for innovation to enhance plastic and product design. These aim to increase circularity – especially to increase energy savings through reduced production of virgin plastic – through the Plastics Innovation Challenge (Box 2.4). With this funding, the United States envisions becoming a global leader in “economic plastic and bioplastic design”, among other goals (US DOE, 2021[40]). In terms of design, the California state government’s SB 54 law provides an example; it requires all single-use packaging to be recyclable or compostable by 2032.

US plastic waste exports decreased from 1.99 Mt in 2016 to 0.62 Mt in 2020 (Figure 2.3). The country’s top six trade partners (75% of exports) are Canada, Malaysia, Hong Kong, China, Mexico, Viet Nam and Indonesia (Brooks, 2021[25]). At the same time, the Save Our Seas Act 2.0 identifies a number of positions and programmes to support other governments to address plastic pollution. This includes engagement in global and regional initiatives, and a wide range of aid programmes. For example, in addition to its “Clean Cities, Blue Ocean” aid programme, USAID launched the Save Our Seas Initiative in 2022.33 To that end, it provided USD 62.5 million in aid to support 14 country, regional and global programmes to help reduce plastic pollution. These focused on monitoring and data for problem definition, increased solid waste management infrastructure, behaviour change for increased recycling and reduced demand, and inclusive solid waste management value chains, among others.34 Although there is some overlap (e.g. Indonesia, Viet Nam), this aid is not targeted to the waste management systems of recipients of US plastic waste.

In 2021, new international controls on the transboundary movement of plastic waste and scrap became effective. These modified Appendices 3 and 4 of the OECD Decision controlling the transboundary movements of hazardous plastic waste (i.e. those covered by the new OECD entry AC300, which corresponds to new Basel entry A3210). OECD member countries have adopted different controls for transboundary movements of non-hazardous plastic waste. They committed to inform the OECD Secretariat of their decisions on requirements for trade to enhance transparency.35

The targets, monitoring and enforcement provisions in policies in the US marine litter and plastics landscape are summarised in Figure 2.6. A review of US policies and identification of specific instruments, categorised according to the OECD Policy Roadmap, illustrates that the vast majority are focused on macroplastic leakage from mismanaged waste or from litter. Moreover, almost all are enabling instruments with lower levels of compulsion (Figure 2.7). This illustrates again the model of federalism used to provide financial assistance and information to subnational or local governments, and in some instances to set standards. More steering instruments (regulation, economic incentives) are introduced at subnational or local levels.

As a notable gap in policy responses, microplastics pollution is not consistently addressed across the plastics lifecycle. Approaches that are most relevant and should be considered for microplastics pollution include the following: i) source-directed approaches such as the sustainable design and manufacturing of textiles, tyres as the most prevalent sources of microplastic pollution; ii) use-oriented approaches targeting the use life cycle stage, aiming to reduce preventable releases; iii) end-of-life approaches such as improved waste management practices to prevent waste leaking into the environment and potentially contributing to microplastics generation; and (iv) end-of-pipe approaches such as improved wastewater, stormwater and road runoff management and treatment to retain the emitted microplastics before these reach water bodies (OECD, 2021[6]).

Subnational governments might take the lead on addressing microplastics pollution within the federalism framework. However, the federal government can strengthen knowledge, provide guidance, issue standards or set targets as described in detail by OECD (OECD, 2021[6]). These approaches include identification of microplastics release hotspots, eco-design standards of fibres and textiles, and improvements in wastewater treatment to retain microfibres.

With respect to EJ, the United States has applied the EJ lens generally, but not specifically, to each stage of the macro- and microplastic life cycle. Effective tracking and monitoring, and public reporting on progress towards EJ commitments, requires a number of tools, such as data visualisation and mapping. It also needs clear commitments within core regulatory areas. For instance, inclusion of cumulative impacts in workstreams such as permitting and rulemaking and establishment of meaningful outcome measures can track the long-term effectiveness of EJ efforts to change conditions on the ground.

The evidence for policy effectiveness at the national level is sparse. At the local level, it is mostly scattered geographically and focused on plastic bag legislation (Diana et al., 2022[56]) (Muposhi, Mpinganjira and Wait, 2022[57]), though often more methodologically rigorous than at the national level.

Where assessments using causal inference methods are lacking, targets, monitoring and enforcement are metrics that can be assessed and evaluated that may be illustrative of potential effectiveness for policies. Targets are qualitative or quantitative goals or objectives that a policy sets out to achieve, typically within a specific time period. Monitoring indicates through real-time data whether a policy is on track to reach its target. If the target is unlikely to be met, a different policy mechanism would be needed to meet the policy target. Enforcement ensures that non-compliance has negative consequences, encouraging adherence to the policy target and the path to reach it. As is often the case, a baseline is required to estimate the impact of a policy. To date, the only federal policy that targets marine litter or plastic pollution evaluated for its performance is the Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015 (Truslow, 2017[58]). Relatively few have set targets as a basis for measuring effectiveness (Figure 2.6). Given these gaps, the GAO (US GAO, 2021[50]) recommended EPA assess the effectiveness of different options, and this study was subsequently included in the national strategy (US EPA, 2021[52]).

Japan exhibits a high volume of per capita plastic waste generation and a low volume of plastic pollution. In 2018, Japan generated 8.08 Mt of plastic waste (PWMI, 2019). In 2010, Japan was estimated to be the world’s third largest generator of plastic waste on a per capita basis36 (19.6 million kg/day, following China at 31.7 million kg/day and the United States at 37.7 million kg/day) (Jambeck et al., 2015[13]). By 2019, plastic waste generation for Japan was 69 kg/person, or less than one-third of the US rate (OECD, 2022[7]). Indeed, the country’s relatively significant volume of plastic waste is estimated to be largely managed. A 2020 analysis estimated plastic leakage to the ocean as a wide range of 210-4 776 tons per year (Nihei et al., 2020[59]). Transport of this plastic has been mapped, focusing on the characteristics of large river basins (e.g. population density) that contribute to leakage (Nihei et al., 2020[59]).

Japan has one of the world’s highest recycling rates (PWMI, 2019[60]). In 2017, some 23% of plastic waste generated in Japan was processed through material recycling, 57% through thermal recovery or incineration and 4% through chemical recycling (Morita and Hayashi, 2018[61]) (PWMI, 2019[60]). Additionally, in 2018, 4.19 Mt of industrial plastic waste was generated. Of this amount, 86.2% was recycled or thermal-recovered, 9.3% disposed at landfills and 4.5% incinerated without power generation or heat use (PWMI, 2019[60]). Also, Japan generated 3.89 Mt of municipal plastic waste. Of this amount, 81.8% was recycled or thermal-recovered, 12.1% incinerated without power generation or heat use and 6.1% went to landfill (PWMI, 2019[60]). While incineration with energy recovery is considered a “use”, this generates significant amounts of CO2.

In 2009, the government enacted the Marine Debris Act, building upon the 1970 Act on Waste Disposal and Public Cleansing (Act No. 137). The new Act requires the national and local government to “take necessary measures to prevent the illegal dumping of waste” or discarded articles, among other instruments. By 2018, marine litter was still considered to be a problem. This led to amendments to the Act, and a series of national strategies that have formed the basis for current policy (Ariana et al., 2021[62]):

  1. 1. The 4th Fundamental Plan for Establishing a Sound Material-Cycle Society in 2018 emphasises needs for a life cycle approach for different material use and associated environmental impacts including plastic pollution.

  2. 2. The Resource Circulation Strategy for Plastics (2019) sets national targets for reducing, reusing and recycling (3Rs) plastics, while promoting investment in technology innovation for alternatives, such as bioplastics (with stated aspirations for economic growth and employment).

  3. 3. The National Action Plan for Marine Plastic Litter (2019) describes government actions in specific areas such as waste management, and research and innovation.

  4. 4. The Marine Initiative toward Realisation of the Osaka Blue Ocean Vision (2019) commits to support low-income countries to strengthen waste management infrastructure, via the Marine Initiative.

Japan has set national targets for marine littering and plastics in several government communications. The government hosted and endorsed the G20 Osaka Blue Ocean Vision, with a goal to “reduce additional pollution by marine plastic litter to zero by 2050 through a comprehensive life cycle approach that includes reducing the discharge of mismanaged plastic litter by improved waste management and innovative solutions while recognising the important role of plastics for society”. In addition to this goal, the 2019 Resource Circulation Strategy for Plastics set a series of targets. These identified a 25% total reduction of single-use plastics by 2030; reusable/recyclable product design by 2025; 50% of containers and packaging reused/recycled by 2030; effective use of 100% of plastics (reuse/recycling) by 2035; double the use of recycled content in products by 2030; and introduce approximately 2 Mt of bio-based plastics by 2030. Finally, the 2022 Plastic Resource Circulation Act aims to address the entire life cycle of plastic materials and to increase circularity.

The Marine Debris Act of 2009 required periodic study of the circumstances and causes of marine debris. From 2014, the government supported beach surveys, cruises for visual surveys to count floating macroplastics, towing nets to count microplastics and also bottom trawls to count litter on the seafloor. These surveys confirmed that a significant portion of marine litter in Japan likely leaked from outside of the country’s jurisdiction, highlighting the transboundary nature of the problem. The 2018 amendment to the Marine Debris Act included a focus on understanding the role of policy instruments in addressing microplastic leakage. Meanwhile, the 2019 Resource Circulation Strategy for Plastics features monitoring the amount of plastic waste as a key component. Guidelines published in 2019 for “Harmonising Ocean Surface Microplastic Monitoring Methods” include evidence for “hot spots”, predicted amounts and ecological impacts. The Ministry of Environment (MoE) is supporting monitoring with new technologies for surveys (e.g. drones, and artificial intelligence to process beach images), and is developing a database of ocean surface microplastics to be launched in 2023-24.

Waste disposal by municipalities and regional governments in Japan started after introduction of the Waste Cleaning Act in 1900 (Liu and Rong, 2013[63]) (Ministry of Environment Japan, 2014[64]). Since 1970, the Waste Management and Public Cleansing Act provides the basic framework for national government provision of financial assistance to support local waste management (Liu and Rong, 2013[63]). In 1991, the Promotion of Resource Recycling and Reuse Law and a new Waste Management and Public Cleansing Act were introduced to regulate waste disposal and recycling (Liu and Rong, 2013[63]). The former is aimed at promoting recycling at various life cycle stages, including manufacturing, distribution and consumption. In 1991, elements of waste discharge control and promotion of recycling were integrated into the new Act (Liu and Rong, 2013[63]).

The Containers and Packaging Recycling Act of 1995, amended in 2006, required businesses related to manufacturing and use of containers and packages to assume the financial cost of recycling. They did so through fees to a public interest incorporated foundation: the Japan Containers and Packaging Recycling Association (JPCRA). In effect, this was the beginning of EPR for waste management (Liu and Rong, 2013[63]).37 The JPCRA takes over recycling operations on behalf of businesses related to plastic containers and wrappers in retail, manufacturing and shipping; businesses are required to pay recycling fees to the association.

Consumers are required to follow waste sorting procedures set by local governments (Liu and Rong, 2013[63]). The municipalities then collect and store the waste. They also collect waste from small businesses, which are exempted from recycling obligations. The JCPRA then contracts recycling companies to collect waste containers and wrappers from designated storage and subsequently manage the waste (Liu and Rong, 2013[63]). In addition to this long-standing investment in solid waste management, the 2019 Resource Circulation Strategy for Plastics called for the industry to reduce use of plastic microbeads in “scrub products” by 2020.

The national government has promoted household sorting of waste as part of waste management since the 1970 Waste Management and Public Cleansing Act. This was reaffirmed through the 2006 amendments to the Containers and Packaging Recycling Act. In 2017, the 2019 Resource Circulation Strategy for Plastics prioritised incentivising of recycling as an economic growth industry for the country. This built upon the tradition of sorting at source and providing financial assistance to local governments for construction of recycling facilities.

In 2022, the government passed the Plastic Resource Circulation Act. This aims to create incentives for recycling by establishing organisational EPR – i.e. manufacturers and retailers must develop a plan to collect and recycle their used products. Upon governmental approval of their plan, producers can recycle without the required service permission under the Waste Management and Public Cleansing Act. Similarly, the Act sets criteria for waste generators to reduce and recycle plastic waste. It also provides for the government to require actions of large waste generators (250 tonnes or more per year) who are not compliant.

Household waste prevention is promoted through the mottainai spirit, which translates as a simple lifestyle avoiding waste – the leitmotiv of the 3Rs information campaign (OECD, 2010[65]). MoE has taken measures to reduce packaging waste, such as granting awards and promoting charges for plastic bags. By 2009, 80% of prefectures and 40% of municipalities had already implemented schemes to reduce the use of plastic shopping bags. More than half of the municipalities charge households fees for municipal waste collection, and more than 80% charge companies for waste services.

In 2019, to restrain demand, Japan amended the Containers and Packaging Recycling Act to introduce a fee on single-use plastic bags. At the same time, the Resource Circulation Strategy for Plastics provided financial assistance to support development of bioplastic alternatives. It also set goals for the circularity of plastic value chains: all plastic packaging must be either reusable or recyclable by 2025; 60% of plastic containers and packaging must be reused or recycled by 2030; and all plastic waste must be reused or recycled by 2035.

The 2022 Plastic Resource Circulation Act requires development of guidelines for manufacturers to design products to be recyclable or reusable and the establishment of a mechanism to certify that products meet the guidelines. As an incentive to manufacturers, the government will give preference to certified products in its procurement (“green procurement”). In terms of demand for single-use plastics, the 2022 Act sets criteria for retailers and service providers to reduce single-use plastics. It also provides for the government to require actions of suppliers of large amounts of single-use plastics (5 tonnes or more per year) who are not compliant.

Japan’s high overall recycling rate and relatively high plastic waste recycling rate have been attributed to a range of factors in the government’s policy approach. These include co-ordination by a central agency with clear roles; pay-as-you-throw systems to incentivise sorting at the source; incorporation of the 3Rs paradigm into law (and more broadly into practice); and EPR and high public awareness, among others (Kuan, Low and Chieng, 2021[66]). With the loss of plastic waste export markets in China in 2017, the Japanese government developed strategies to incentivise recycling and circular plastic value chains as a growth industry and with goals to recycle or reuse all plastic waste by 2035. To that end, it introduced a new law in 2022 that provided for a national EPR requirement for firms, development of product design guidelines and a certification process, investment in bioplastic alternatives and requirements for reduced use of single-use plastics, among other areas.

Indonesia records an estimated 6.8 Mt of plastic waste annually. It is estimated as the world’s second largest contributor of plastic waste leakage to the oceans (Jambeck et al., 2015[13]). Of the global estimate of 3.22 Mt of mismanaged waste leaking into the ocean in 2010, the study estimated Indonesia was responsible for 0.48-1.29 Mt (or 15-40%). This pollution resulted from illegal dumping, production of plastic debris in coastal areas, and fishing and industrial activities (Li, Tse and Fok, 2016[67]).

Since that assessment, studies between 2015 and 2019 attempted to estimate the country’s weight of plastic leakage. They suggested annual figures ranging from 0.27-1.29 Mt (Sari et al., 2020), which potentially represented up to 10.1% of plastic marine litter globally (Lestari and Trihadiningrum, 2019[68]). For example, a 2018 study found that plastic waste leakage from Indonesia into the ocean reached between 0.27-0.59 Mt per year (Indonesian Institute of Sciences, 2019). Within these totals for plastic leakage, approximately 10 billion plastic bags (equivalent to ~85 000 tonnes of plastics) leaked directly into the country’s local environment every year (Ministry of Environment and Forestry Indonesia, 2020[69]). Rivers were the most affected; the Brantas, Solo, Serayu and Progo rivers rank among the 20 most plastic-polluted rivers in the world (Lebreton et al., 2017[70]).

Though not explicitly aiming to address marine litter, the 2008 Solid Waste Management Act (NO 18/2008) provides the foundation for much of the government’s approach to the problem. It focused on local government (municipal) management of solid waste, and prohibited operation of open dump sites, setting a goal of ending all open dump sites by 2013.38 In 2012, Government Regulation (No. 81) provided a strategy for solid waste management. It included enforcement, emphasising the 3Rs of waste as a paradigm for the national policy approach.

Presidential Decrees (No. 97/2017 and No. 83/2018, respectively) form the basis of the government’s current policy approach to marine litter. Focused on per capita solid waste generation and overall waste management, the 2017 Decree set a target of 30% waste reduction and 70% of waste handled by 2025 (Ministry of Environment and Forestry Indonesia, 2020[69]). In Presidential Regulation No. 83/2018, the government introduced a National Plan of Action to Combat Marine Litter from 2018 to 2025. It created a National Co-ordination Team for Marine Debris Handling across 18 ministries with a planned budget of USD 1 billion (KKP, 2018[71]) (Sari et al., 2021[72]), similar to the IMDCC created in the United States by the Marine Debris Act. The plan sets a goal of reducing the volume of plastic waste leaking into oceans by 70% by 2025 (linked to 2017 goals for increased waste collection, and following the UNEP #CleanSeas campaign). The strategy comprises 58 actions focused on education and awareness, strengthening solid waste management (including clean-ups, such as trash capture in rivers), funding waste collection and management, and research (e.g. biodegradable plastic from cassava/seaweed, etc.) (Zen et al., 2019[73]) (TKN PSL, 2021[74]).

Research on plastic leakage amounts and sources has increased in recent years. However, a gap remains in the overall policy approach due to lack of central co-ordination. This, in turn, leads to different methods, data formats, units of measurement, etc. (Vriend et al., 2021[75]). The national plan includes a research component, with data collection and monitoring a key element. Meanwhile, the government is exploring development of a national marine litter monitoring system. The Ministry of Environment and Forestry (MoEF) leads monitoring work such as beach surveys throughout the country.

Indonesian solid waste management is governed locally (Hasan, 2021[76]), with the national government setting standards for local authorities. Local governments have established policies in accordance with the conditions and problems of waste in each region and have started to limit use of single plastic (Ministry of Environment and Forestry Indonesia, 2020[69]). Throughout the country, solid waste management faces significant financing constraints, low levels of sorting and collecting, and dwindling landfill space. For example, 61% of plastic waste was not collected in 2022. Funding for solid waste management infrastructure through local government allocations was roughly USD 5-6 per capita annually. This is far below international benchmarks of USD 15-20 per capita annually (Kaza, 2018[12]). Past estimates suggested that only 60% of urban residents had access to waste collection services, and only 55% of urban solid waste was handled at a transfer station or processing facility (World Bank, 2019[77]). Given the country’s urbanisation rate, development of the solid waste management infrastructure has struggled to keep up with increasing waste generation (Ministry of Environment and Forestry Indonesia, 2020[69]).

A central focus of Indonesia’s policy approach to date has been on strengthening waste management infrastructure to close leakage pathways. The Solid Waste Management Act of 2008 aimed to end all open dump waste disposal by 2013, but this target was missed. Subsequently, the 2017 Presidential Decree (No. 97/2017) set a target of 70% waste handling by 2025. The 2012 Regulation articulated a responsibility for individuals to reduce, recycle and reuse waste; the 2018 Plan continues Indonesia’s model of decentralisation for solid waste management since 1998. The national government prioritised increasing funding for solid waste management infrastructure (World Bank, 2019[77]).

Despite the introduction of new solid waste management policies, experts have indicated that enforcement needs to be significantly strengthened (Kaza, 2018[12]). There is little enforcement of solid waste laws and standards from city-level violations to individual polluters (Kaza, 2018[12]).

The main government tool to increase recycling of household and similar waste is the waste bank system, defined by MoFF Decree No. 13/2012. The system allows for households to be compensated a pre-set amount for separating and returning selected valuable waste types through local reception stations. In effect, these waste banks are neighbourhood-based facilities where residents can sell recyclables as a deposit towards personal savings or other benefits (World Bank, 2021[78]). The national government aimed to increase financial assistance to local waste banks to help increase recycling rates. Since the first waste bank was established in Bantul, Yogyakarta, in 2008, the number across the country grew to 7 488 by 2017. Participation grew to more than 200 000 waste bank customers by 2018. Overall, the contribution of waste banks to national waste reduction in Indonesia was 1.7% in 2017 and 2.4% in 2018 (Ministry of Environment and Forestry Indonesia, 2020[69]).

Informal waste collection continues to have a significant role in Indonesia’s recycling collection practices. Recent estimates suggest that waste banks in Indonesia handle only some 1-2% of the country’s recyclable waste. This is a relatively smaller amount compared to the 10-15% of recyclable waste handled by the informal sector (Ministry of Environment of Denmark, 2018[79]).

In 2019, the national government, via Ministerial Decree No. 75/2019, set a “roadmap” for EPR in Indonesia. The decree sets goals for producers to limit waste generation by design, product take-back requirements, reuse and/or recycling, and information provision to guide and facilitate producers (Ministry of Environment and Forestry Indonesia, 2020[69]). It provides advance warning of a ban on frequently littered items such as plastic straws, single-use bags and packaging beginning in 2030.

The focus of the government’s policy approach (see Annex 2.D) has been on closing leakage pathways for mismanaged macroplastic waste. To that end, it provides financial assistance and information to local governments and programmes for solid waste management, aiming to achieve increased collection (Annan, 2021). Relatively few instruments have been introduced to lower demand and optimise design or to make plastic value chains more circular and recycled plastics more price competitive. Since the introduction of the national plan in 2018, the government has estimated a 15.3% reduction in plastic waste leakage into the oceans (TKN PSL, 2021[74]). Preliminary estimates for 2022 suggest a 28.5% reduction from the 2018 baseline.

In all three countries, subnational governments are leading on waste management and collection. In all three cases as well, subnational governments are at the forefront in implementing steering (as opposed to enabling) policies. Indicating the potential for the proliferation of these advances at the national level, Japan seems more consistently to go beyond enabling policies at the national level. It is setting standards for steering policies at the subnational level, elevating its response to the problem of marine plastic litter.

The United States appears to have the most advanced approach to mainstreaming EJ in federal policy making. However, the EJ lens has only been applied generally to the issue of marine litter and plastics. A more holistic, life cycle assessment of EJ issues, considerations and approaches needs to be initiated. This would enable communities overburdened with marine litter and plastics to be identified. Initiatives such as Justice40 point in the right direction but need to be adapted and tailored to context and for the challenges posed by marine litter and plastics.

Two of the three governments have set national targets for marine litter through national action plans (Indonesia in 2018 and Japan in 2019, as well as Japan’s 2019 Resource Circulation Strategy for Plastics). The United States does not have a national action plan for marine litter. However, the government has articulated a National Recycling Strategy with a national recycling target (which does not include targets for plastics), as well as targets for a national innovation plan (Table 2.2). These different targets illustrate the orientation of goals in the governments, to which national policy approaches contribute.

All three national governments have emphasised research and monitoring to understand the causes and extent of marine litter through a range of different surveys, technologies and methods. This includes exploring a national marine litter monitoring system in Indonesia, and the recommendation for the United States to develop a co-ordinated monitoring system (NAS, 2022[14]).

Beyond shared efforts to define the problem, the governments can be characterised as taking different policy approaches. For example, a count of their respective policy instruments, loosely categorised to related stages of the OECD Policy Roadmap (Table 2.3), illustrates each government’s progression towards a circular economy. Indonesia has focused on closing leakage pathways for mismanaged plastic waste by providing financial assistance and information to local governments and programmes for solid waste management, aiming to increase collection. Most of its instruments are in this stage of the roadmap, together with enabling instruments to increase recycling, such as funding for waste banks. The national government has introduced relatively few instruments to restrain demand for plastic or to optimise product design to make plastic value chains more circular. However, it has set an EPR roadmap, and is considering banning frequently littered items such as plastic straws, single-use bags and packaging.

Similarly, the US government has largely introduced instruments to close leakage pathways for macroplastics. It has done this via funding and information to local governments and partners for anti-litter programmes and increased waste collection. Financial assistance through grants from EPA’s Trash Free Waters Program will soon be amplified by significant investments in the IIJA for wastewater treatment. The government has also increased funding and information to local governments and recycling programmes with a USD 350 million boost from the IIJA to improve recycling. Fewer and weaker (in terms of the level of compulsion) instruments have been introduced to restrain demand and optimise design for circularity. Research is underway to help develop a national recycled content standard, as well as a Plastics Innovation Challenge that may support alternatives to plastic.

Japan mixes steering and enabling instruments to incentivise the recycling industry as a growth opportunity (particularly with reduced markets for plastic waste exports), together with the development of bioplastic alternatives.

Beyond research, problem definition and financial assistance to subnational governments that lead waste management policy, the national government has introduced strong regulatory measures to increase incentives, restrain demand and optimise design for circularity. For example, a national EPR law has begun to set national standards for recycled content and introduced incentives to reduce production and use of single-use plastics. The United States and Indonesia could consider further these examples of a national government helping to set steering and not just enabling policies.


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Following the general trend in international policy responses to marine sources of plastic pollution (Karasik, 2020[30]), the 1988 international maritime regulations (MARPOL Annex V) prohibited disposal of plastic waste from vessels and at-sea platforms into the ocean (Vince and Hardesty, 2018). The United States is a signatory to MARPOL Annex V (an optional, non-mandatory annex of MARPOL). It has been incorporated into US law via the Act to Prevent Pollution from Ships (33 USC § 1901 and 33 CFR Part 151) (NAS, 2022[14]).

Since 2010, international action has grown significantly and expanded to land-based sources, largely with non-binding agreements. For example, the 2011 Honolulu Strategy provided a greater focus on both land-based sources of marine litter and maritime sources. This was also true of agreements of the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA). For example, UNEA passed resolutions in 2014 targeting microplastics. By 2019, it included a focus on plastic packaging (Karasik, 2020[30]). The UNEA 2017 resolution (UNEP, 2017), for example, urges “all countries and other stakeholders to make responsible use of plastic while endeavouring to reduce unnecessary plastic use, and to promote research and application of environmentally sound alternatives”.

Binding agreements include the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal. This regulates the international trade of plastic waste, requiring it to be clean, sorted and destined for recycling in order to be freely traded. Mixed, contaminated or hazardous plastic waste requires prior written consent of the importing country (Simon et al., 2021). In all, 187 countries and the European Commission are Parties to the Convention, though notably not the United States. Since 2021, transboundary movements of most plastic scrap and waste to Parties are allowed only with the prior written consent of the importing country and any transit countries.

Hazardous plastic waste is also controlled under the OECD Council Decision on Transboundary Movements of Waste destined for Recovery Operations [OECD-LEGAL-0266]. Defined under OECD listing AC300 as plastic waste, including mixtures of such waste, containing or contaminated with Annex 1 constituents, to an extent that it exhibits an Annex 2 characteristic. The United States has one agreement in the OECD Council Decision that addresses trade in non-hazardous plastic waste with OECD member countries.

Given the volume of US plastic waste exports, international policies regulating plastic waste trade are an essential element of the policy framework affecting the country’s global contribution to marine litter. US exports and imports of non-hazardous waste, including non-hazardous plastic waste, are not subject to export and import requirements under the country’s RCRA, the US waste management law and its implementing regulations. However, US exports and imports of non-hazardous plastic waste are subject to applicable laws and regulations in the country or countries that control the waste, as well as any applicable international agreement, such as the Basel Convention. Similarly, US shipments of waste regulated as hazardous waste (including hazardous plastic waste) under RCRA are subject to RCRA hazardous waste export and import requirements, applicable foreign laws and regulations, as well as any applicable international agreement, again such as the Basel Convention.

Finally, scholars have highlighted the relevance of the Stockholm Convention aiming to reduce and/or eliminate emissions and discharges of persistent organic pollutants (POPs). This includes measures to reduce or manage the risks posed by plastic products containing POPs throughout their life cycle, such as the waste phase (Raubenheimer and McIlgorm, 2018). However, the application of the Convention to plastics is limited to sources containing listed POPs. An estimated 26% of global volume of plastics produced is for packaging applications (World Economic Forum, Ellen MacArthur Foundation and McKinsey & Company, 2016) and packaging is unlikely to contain flame retardants. Packaging intended for contact with food is often strictly regulated and is also unlikely to contain chemicals listed under the Stockholm Convention.

Overview of US federal policy approach to address marine litter (2006-22): Charting progress on the policy roadmap


← 1. In the United States, marine litter or debris is defined as any persistent, manufactured or processed solid material that is directly or indirectly, intentionally or unintentionally, discarded, disposed of, or abandoned into the marine, coastal or Great Lakes environment (NOAA, 2008; (NAS, 2022[14])).

← 2. OECD (2022a) defines mismanaged waste as “waste that is not captured by any state-of-the-art waste collection or treatment facilities. It includes waste that is burned in open pits, dumped into seas or open waters, or disposed of in unsanitary landfills and dumpsites”.

← 3. OECD (2022a) defines plastic leakage as “plastics that enter terrestrial and aquatic environments”.

← 4. See Section 4.3 in OECD (2022a).

← 5. Based on data from the American Chemistry Council (2021), NAS (2022) estimated that the plastic resin produced in North America for thermoplastics in 2020 was largely comprised of high density polyethylene (HDPE) commonly used for milk bottles and detergent bottles (25%); linear low-density polyethylene (LLDPE) commonly used for single-use plastic bags, reusable bags, trays and containers, food packaging film, etc. (25%); polypropylene (PP) commonly used for food packaging, candy and snack wrappers, etc. (19%); and polyvinyl chloride (PVC) commonly used for window frames, pipes, floor and wall coverings, etc. (17%).

← 6. Solid waste that is not collected and/or properly contained because of lack of waste management infrastructure (Law et al., 2020[8]).

← 7. Extrapolating from three case studies: San Jose, California; Sacramento, California; and Columbus, Ohio.

← 8. These figures are of a similar order to (Jambeck et al., 2015[13]) estimates for the volume of plastic waste entering the ocean from US coastal populations (0.28 Mt in 2010), and to (Borrelle et al., 2020[10]) estimates of 0.20-0.24 Mt entering aquatic ecosystems in 2016.

← 9. The authors estimate that the United States’ contribution to the coastal environment of between 0.51 and 1.45 Mt plastic waste represents between 2.33% and 2.98% of the total amount of plastic waste generated in the United States in 2016.

← 10. Additionally, relevant laws to control the discharge of pollutants or hazardous substances from certain facilities into the environment include the Clean Air Act, and the Ocean Dumping Act and the Toxic Substances Control Act, both of which are administered by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA; (NAS, 2022[14]).

← 11. The United States Federal Strategy for Addressing the Global Issue of Marine Litter 2020, based on authority from the Marine Debris Act and its amendments, the Clean Water Act and RCRA, (17 December 2022).

← 12. Members include NOAA, US EPA, US Coast Guard, US Navy, US Department of State, US Department of the Interior, US Agency for International Development, Marine Mammal Commission, the National Science Foundation, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, US Department of Justice and the US Department of Energy (

← 13. For example, the Marine Debris Program helped support the development of the “Marine Debris Tracker” app (

← 14. NAS (2022) recommends that such a national survey be conducted every five years according to standardised protocols, designed by a committee of experts convened by NOAA in consultation with the IMDCC.

← 15. The three overarching goals of the Trash Free Waters Program are prevention, removal and research (Trash Free Waters | US EPA).

← 16. See the Duke Environmental Law and Policy Clinic’s “interactive bag policy map” hosted by Don’t Waste Durham: Plastic Waste Prevention Policy — Don’t Waste Durham (

← 17. With states classified according to four regions: Midwest, Northeast, South and West by (Bell and Todoran, 2022[43]).

← 18. For example, food vendors are exempt if no reasonable alternative is available, or significant hardship caused; industry is exempt if compliance would cause hardship (e.g. no acceptable alternatives or they are not available because of market supply constraints).

← 19. Alaska, California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Nebraska, New York and Pennsylvania.

← 20. Plastic microbeads are defined as solid plastic particles less than 5 millimetres in size, intended to be used to exfoliate or clean.

← 21. Cosmetic products are defined as articles (other than soap) intended for cleansing, beautifying, promoting attractiveness or altering appearance.

← 22.

← 23. EU Directive 2019/904.

← 24. For example, EPA will measure and track the percentage of contamination in recycled materials, the percentage of materials received by recycling facilities that are ultimately recycled and the commodity value of recycled materials.

← 25. See FY 2022-2026 EPA Strategic Plan.

← 26. Another study by the European Patent Office on innovation in plastic recycling and alternative plastics technologies, in more recent and with more global coverage, confirmed the consistent leading positions of the United States and Japan (European Patent Office, 2021). The United States and Japan accounted for about 30% and 18% of patenting activity respectively in these sectors worldwide between 2010 and 2019.

← 27. California, Colorado, Maine and Oregon.

← 28. For purposes of meeting this rate, the law defines recycling as maintaining materials in the circular economy and excludes from this incineration, combustion, energy generation, fuel production or other “plastics-to-fuel” technologies (pyrolysis and gasification) and prohibits PRO fees from investing in these excluded technologies.

← 29. In reviewing a draft of the National Recycling Strategy, US GAO (2021) concluded it does not identify the resources needed or explain how EPA will implement the strategy.

← 30. Landfill fees (“tipping fees”) vary considerably throughout the United States (US GAO, 2021).

← 31. In chemical recycling, chemically recycled carbon atoms and organic molecules become identical to virgin feedstocks and are thus not traceable or measurable. The Mass Balance (MB) accounting tool has been proposed, and is already being applied in some cases, to track, trace and certify circular polymers. While MB certification standards have an extensive history in other commodity sectors, they have only recently been considered in the polymers sector. This is partly due to recent technology advances and incentives to expand the scale of chemical recycling (Beers et al., 2022[55]).

← 32. The state governments of California (AB 793, plastic beverage containers, 2020), New Jersey (SB 2515 for containers and packaging, 2020), Oregon (HB 2065, 2021), and Washington (SB 5219, packaging, 2021) are examples of local instruments introduced or enacted to require recycled plastic content in targeted products (Beers et al., 2022[55]).

← 33. USAID Announces Save Our Seas Initiative | Press Release | US Agency for International Development

← 34. Building-Blocks-Document_May172022.pdf (

← 35.

← 36. (Jambeck et al., 2015[13]) did not rank Japan among the world’s 20 largest contributors of mismanaged plastic waste (less than 0.04 to 0.11 Mt leaking into the ocean).

← 37. In relation to the Act, Voluntary Design Guidelines for Designated PET Bottles were developed with relevant industry associations. This gave Japan a high recycling rate of PET bottles,

← 38. This goal was not achieved as of 2018, when the Ministry of Environment and Forestry recorded 167 open-dump waste disposal facilities still in operation (SIPSN, 2018).

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