Recycling Crisis in the U.S.

According to one study, “”Around 60% of the plastic produced is less dense than seawater. When introduced into the marine environment, buoyant plastic can be transported by surface currents and winds, recaptured by coastlines, degraded into smaller pieces by the action of the sun, temperature variations, waves, and marine life or lose buoyancy and sink. (Lehreton, et al). In the US, 80% of plastic waste in the oceans originates on land, and only 9% gets recycled, according to the EPA (Monks). This is creating an eye-opening ratio of the amount of plastic in the ocean versus the amount of fish.

In 2014, the ratio of plastic to fish was 1:5. In 2050, it is projected to be more than one piece of plastic waste per fish. Plastic production is consistently rising due to the cost-effectiveness of producing the material. Companies which utilize disposable plastic products save thousands of dollars every year by choosing plastic products as opposed to sustainable materials like paper of compostable fiber. Currently, there are 8 million tons of plastic waste in our oceans (Henderson). The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is a floating mass of trash and plastic in the Pacific Ocean located between California and Hawaii. This is one of many trash islands found in oceans across the globe. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is created by the currents of the North Pacific Gyre and is, as of now, equivalent to the size of Russia. Plastic is an extremely durable material and is non-biodegradable. In the ocean, plastic photodegrades from the sun’s UV rays and breaks down into pieces that are microscopic, making it impossible to remove from ocean waters. These particles attract toxins and heavy metals, which are then ingested by fish, marine mammals, phytoplankton and are destroying coral reefs. The pieces are miniscule enough to be absorbed by plankton, the organisms at the root of the food web that play a key role in fish and marine mammal species. The following is from a CNN study published in September of 2016: The team is also studying the effects of ingesting seaborne plastic through a partnership with toxicology specialists at London’s Brunel University. Studies have shown a quarter of food fish sold at markets in California and Indonesia contain plastic, and although this has not yet resulted in public health warnings, tests have shown ingestion can cause tumors in lab animals (Monks).

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Fish is a staple of our food supply and, without it, we would face an industry crisis. Fishermen would go out of business, drastically affecting supply and demand, increasing unemployment across the fish sourcing industry. Plastic bags present a challenge for marine wildlife. Marine mammals such as dolphins and whales face death due to constant ingestion of plastic bags. Earlier this year, a pilot whale was found off the coast of Thailand bordering on death, vomiting up several plastic bags. Marine preservation experts were unsuccessful in the attempt to revive the whale. During an autopsy, over 80 plastic bags were recovered from the whale’s stomach.

Credit: CNN Ocean pollution caused by plastic bags prompted the European Union in early 2018 to propose a ban on some plastic items (New York Times, May 28, 2018). Yet stemming the demand for and use of plastic products (especially single-use disposable plastic products) is merely one part of addressing the ocean pollution problem. Another important aspect is determining how much plastic has polluted the world’s oceans. The Great Pacific Garbage patch is merely one area of the world’s oceans which has been impacted by plastics pollution. The world’s oceans consist of gyres (large systems of ocean currents) located in the Indian Ocean, the North Atlantic, the North Pacific, the South Atlantic, and the South Pacific. The enormous task of attempting to map such vast regions in order to determine the extent of the plastic pollution problem, as noted by the following: It took nearly half a century, but scientists finally have a handle on how much plastic enters the open ocean every year. The last estimate was in 1975 when a National Academy of Sciences study hazarded a guess that about 0.1% of global plastic production sweeps out to sea annually. Now, researchers say reality is much grimmer. The team looked at how much plastic waste every coastal country in the world produces and estimated how much plastic waste every coastal country in the world produces and estimated how much it could potentially spill into the sea because it ends up as litter or in dumps and leaky landfills. The scientists figured roughly 15% or 40% of that littered or dumped plastic enters the ocean each year. Adding together all 192 countries of the world with a significant coastal population, the researchers report online today in Science that about 4 million to 12 million metric tons of plastic washed offshore in 2010 alone, or about 1.5 or 4.5 of the world’s total plastic production enough to cover every foot of coastline on the planet. (Schultz)

Other assessments highlight the current ambiguity regarding the scope of the ocean pollution due to plastics problem. According to one author, To figure out how much refuse is floating in the garbage patches, four ships at the Malaspina expedition, a global research project studying the Earth’s oceans, fished for plastic all around the world, the vessels came up light by a lot. Instead of the millions of tons scientists had expected, the researchers calculated the global load of ocean plastic to be about only 40,000 tons at the most, the researchers report online today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. We can’t account for 99 percent of the plastic that we have in the ocean,”” noted Carlos Duarte, an oceanographer at the University of Western Australia, the team’s leader. (Chen) With such ambiguity regarding the dimensions of the impact of plastic pollution in the world’s oceans, it is difficult to make an assessment for a proper prescription for the problem. But even if we lack precision regarding the scope of the problem, this does not lessen the responsibility of human beings and the governments which represent us to make ethical choices in favor of protecting the world’s oceans and environment. In turn, we come back to the problem posed at the beginning of this paper: how do we choose between competing values in order to protect the world’s oceans? Is it possible to reconcile competing values in order to make ethical choices which result in better stewardship of the world’s oceans? Reconciling our Values, I: Can we achieve a High Standard of Living While Protecting the World’s Oceans?

The production of plastic products is one barometer of a nation’s attempt to achieve a higher standard of living through the use of technological advances. According to one study, the bulk of plastic waste comes from developing countries. Rapid population growth and a growing middle class mean the consumption of plastic is increasing faster than the capacity to handle the plastic waste and therefore much of the excess ending up in the sea. China and Indonesia are among the countries that produce the most plastic waste. (Jensen) The developed nations, including the United States, could not plausibly insist that developing nations such as China and Indonesia unilaterally decrease their production of plastic. This would open the developed nations to the charge that they seek to deprive developing nations of the opportunity to achieve improved economic standing. On the other hand, developed countries could not afford to ignore the problem of disposable plastic production and disposal by developing countries.

One solution involves establishing an international aid program in order to develop waste management and recycling infrastructure. (Jensen) This alternative would involve a commitment from developed countries to fund an aid program. Developed country governments would need to convince their residents that such economic sacrifice would benefit their own attempts to protect the environment and, in turn, maintain a high standard of living. Another alternative involves implementing a tax or fee on polluting plastics. Fossil plastic according to one author, is still cheaper to buy than the renewable.(Jensen).


Seven Ways to Reduce Ocean Plastic Pollution Today, by Brian Hutchinson, Oceanic Society,

“”Eight Ways to Solve the Ocean’s Plastic Program””, World Economic Forum, March 2, 2018, by Nina Jensen EU Proposes Ban on Some Plastic Items to Reduce Marine Pollution, New York Times, May 28, 2018

Plastics Pile Up As China Refuses to Take the West’s Recycling, New York Times, November 11, 2018, page A8 Billions of Plastic Pieces Litter Coral in Asia and Australia, New York Times, January 25, 2018, page D2

These Cultural Treasures Are Made of Plastic. Now They’re Falling Apart, New York Times, August 28, 2018 How Much Plastic Enters the Ocean Each Year? by Angus Chen, Science, February 12, 2015

How Much Plastic Is There in the Ocean? by David Schultz, Science, December 10, 2014 Ninety Percent of the Ocean’s Plastic is Missing by Angus Chen, Science, June 30, 2014

Trillions of Plastic Pieces May Be Trapped in the Arctic Ice, Eric Hand, Science, May 22, 2014 Plastics and Environmental Health: The Road Ahead by Emily J. North and Rolf Halden, U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health, January 1, 2014

Evidence of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is Rapidly Accumulating by L. Lehreton, et al, Science, March 22, 2018 Monks, Kieron, The Plastics plague Washing Up On Our Shores, CNN, Cable News Network, 2 September 2016,

Carrig, D. (2018, June 22), The US used to ship 4,000 recyclable containers a day to China. Where will the banned trash go now? Retrieved from htttps://

Henderson, E. (2017, January 24). How not recycling plastic is damaging our oceans. Retrieved from

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