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Plastic Packaging Is Getting a Bum Rap

More than two-thirds of U.S. plastic wasn’t used for packaging.


When it comes to plastic waste problems, people typically focus on single-use plastic packaging like bags and bottles, but a new study from the University of Michigan says that packaging is getting a bum rap.

According to the researchers, the study is the first big-picture look at plastics use across the entire U.S. economy.

In 2017, more than two-thirds of U.S. plastic wasn’t used for packaging. It was used in everything from electronics and furniture to construction materials and vehicles. 

The study also found that only 8% of end-of-use plastics were recycled in 2017. However, sorting and reprocessing inefficiencies likely mean that even less recycled material was used to make new products.

About 76% of plastics were buried in landfills, and 2% wound up in the natural environment.

Environmental plastics "leakage" is a major concern due to the persistence and potential impacts of plastics on organisms and ecosystems.

The study hopes to be a wake-up call to material scientists and engineers, resin producers, product and packaging designers and manufacturers, retailers, material recovery innovators and operators, and solutions-oriented academics, research institutions and policymakers.

According to the researchers, about 400 metric tons of plastic was in use in 2017, which is eight times greater than the quantity of plastics manufactured that year.

According to the EPA, in 2017, plastics generation was 35.4 million tons in the U.S. The EPA's primary data source on the generation of plastics is the American Chemistry Council.

The researchers said, "Unmoderated production of plastic products has resulted in unacceptable accumulation of debris in landfills and in natural environments, representing a gross waste of resources and disruptions to wildlife and ecosystem function ... Solutions to these rising problems will come in a myriad of forms, but there is widespread agreement that greatly improved coordination between product design and end-of-life is necessary."

The material flow characterization study details a single year of plastics production, use and disposal in the U.S.

According to the researchers, it uses the best available data from industry and public sources. The goal of the study is to generate a road map to help guide industry, policymakers and academics along the path toward accelerated plastic waste reduction.

Update: The researchers detail how they arrived at the estimates of in-use stock of plastics in the U.S. in the published supplementary materials

Update: This article has been updated to include additional information about the data collection methods as well as information on the study's intent.

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