How Does Separating Plastic Waste in the USA and Europe Affect Asia and the World’s Ocean Pollution Crisis?

The Problem

The world produces over 310 million tons of plastic annually, 50% of which is for single-use purposes. This includes over 50 billion plastic bottles and 500 billion plastic bags. Plastic is uniquely durable, and research suggests that 91% of plastic is never recycled. Consequently, most plastic products ever produced become polluting waste that ends up in the environment. For instance, 8 million tons of plastic get dumped into the ocean annually, equivalent to one large garbage truck of plastic waste every minute. This adds to the over 150 million tons of plastic already in the ocean, 80% of which comes from the world’s poorest countries. Near waterways, vast, wind-driven currents pull waste from coastal waters into and around the world’s oceans, killing many birds, fish, and other animals that ingest the ocean’s plastic. Concerningly, at current dumping rates, there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean by weight by 2050.

Until recently, when people in Europe and North America put out garbage, handlers sorted, bundled, and shipped the garbage overseas for cost-effective recycling. For decades, much of this garbage, including recycled metal, cardboard and plastic, was sold to China. By 2012, China received approximately half of all plastic waste that left the USA and one-third of the European Union’s plastic waste exports. However, many of the imported materials could not be recycled and ended up in landfills, the environment, or directly harming human health. As ocean pollution worsened and environmental concerns increased, China announced that it would stop importing garbage in 2018, leaving over seven million tons of garbage, about 70% of the world’s plastic waste, to be recycled elsewhere.

Figure 1.

In response, the USA and Europe, began sending their garbage to Southeast Asian countries. However, Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines have sent back containers of supposedly recyclable plastic to North America and Europe, claiming that the plastic was contaminated with other waste, including diapers and electronics. This article examines whether or not separating garbage in the USA and Europe would help reduce the ocean waste that accumulates near Asian countries. It does so by integrating the environmental and economic point of views and by grounding the regional differences of plastics waste and recycling in the available data.

The Answer

Separating garbage in the USA and Europe would help oceans in Asia, however, it would only do so much, as Asia primarily needs improved waste collection and reduced consumption in its own region. For instance, in many South and Southeast Asian countries, between 80-90% of plastic waste is inadequately disposed of and at risk of entering rivers and oceans. According to Professor Jenna R. Jambeck, this figure stands at virtually 0% in the USA and Europe. This reflects the geographic clustering of mismanaged waste, the effectiveness of local waste management systems, and the role of rivers. First, the East Asia and Pacific region accounts for 60% of the world’s ocean plastics pollution, with China accounting for around 28%, followed by Indonesia at 10%, the Philippines and Vietnam at around 6%, and Thailand at 3%. Other regions contribute significantly less, with South Asia accounting for 11%, followed by all other regions which contribute less than 9% each. It is important to note that, even if North America and Europe completely eliminated plastic use, this would reduce global mismanaged plastic waste by less than 4.6%.

Figure 2

Figure 2 only lists countries that account for at least one percent of global mismanaged plastic waste in 2010.

Discrepancies arise due to differences in the effectiveness of local waste management systems at preventing ocean pollution. Countries in North America and Europe produce large quantities of plastic waste, particularly on a per capita basis. However, effective waste management prevents most garbage from entering the ocean.

Moreover, the global distribution of mismanaged plastic waste in 2025 is projected to remain relatively unchanged from 2010 figures. While the East Asia and Pacific region maintains around 60%, South Asia’s share is expected to increase by 1.1%, largely driven by India, and Sub-Saharan Africa’s by 1.7%, with all other regions decreasing slightly. Overall, this largely implies a shift in mismanaged plastic waste originating from the Americas, Europe and North Africa towards its origin in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.

Figure 3.

Besides beach littering, aquaculture, shipping and fishing activities, rivers are the main factor responsible for carrying plastic from inland populations into the sea. For instance, oceanographer Laurent Lebreton estimates that between 1.15 and 2.41 million tonnes of plastic waste currently enters the ocean every year from rivers. In particular, the twenty most polluting rivers account for 67% of global annual river inputs of plastic and the most plastic-polluting rivers are overwhelmingly located in Asia. For instance, the Yangtze River, by far the most plastic-polluting river worldwide, accounted for approximately 333,000 tons of plastic in 2015, equivalent to over 4% of annual ocean plastics pollution.

Figure 4.

Figure 4 lists the estimated input of plastic to the oceans from the most polluting rivers worldwide, listed with the name of the river, the countries through which it passes, and ordered from largest to smallest global share.

Cumulated by region, 86% of the global river input to the ocean originated in Asia, followed by 7.8% in Africa, 4.8% in South America, and less than 1% in each remaining region. In fact, Central and North America, Europe, and the Australia-Pacific Region collectively account for just over 1% of the world total.

The Solution

Asia is facing an ocean pollution crisis; five countries, China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam, and Thailand, produce over half of the ocean’s plastic waste. Their economies are growing rapidly; however, waste management is lacking, leaving many of the world’s poor with no adequate disposal options. Consequently, thousands of tons of plastic waste are dumped on riverbanks, in rivers and in coastal waters every year in East and Southeast Asia, and large parts of this flow into the ocean, as well as onto other countries’ coasts. Globally, current trends would triple world plastics production by 2050, as the world population heads toward 10 billion people. 

To address the ocean crisis, improving waste collection and reducing waste generation are essential. However, doing this in the USA and Europe, which together account for less than 4.6% of mismanaged plastic waste, is not enough. Similarly, removing ocean plastic is insufficient without reducing the flow of garbage entering the ocean and improving recycling capabilities in poorer communities. Importantly, reducing the amount of waste is more effective than separating garbage because most garbage cannot be recycled and incorrect recycling is often worse than no recycling at all. Specifically, reducing single-use plastics production by banning single-use bags and packaging, as Rwanda and the European Union have done, and mainstreaming sustainable alternatives is essential to reduce pollution, to reduce the demand for plastic production in the first place and to induce broader effects that encourage companies to innovate, rethink their production and source sustainable materials. Further, bottle-deposit programs and Plastic Banks would allow people to return recyclables and garbage in exchange for cash or in-kind benefits, such as school tuition or cellphone charging thereby alleviating pollution and poverty simultaneously. In any case, the epicenter of action would have to be in the region most affecting and affected by the ocean crisis, Asia, and not the USA and Europe, which already tend to have the most advanced waste management systems in place.

The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in this article belong solely to the author, and do not reflect the views of Conversationally Speaking Magazine.

Joel Christoph

Joel Christoph is a Summer Research Fellow at the Future of Humanity Institute and a dual degree master’s candidate in Global Politics and Economics at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in Washington, D.C. and Tsinghua University in Beijing. He holds a bachelor’s degree in economics and his interests include governance, international political economy and technology competition.

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