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Plastic pollution worsens despite efforts to address the problem

Plastics pollution crisis worsens worldwide
  • Global use of plastics is set to increase through the next decade, spurring experts to reexamine recycling as an adequate solution for plastic waste. 
  • The U.S. is one of the world's worst offenders when it comes to recycling: Only 9% of its plastics were recycled in 2015, while the global rate was less than 20% for the same period. 
  • Some activists say plastics should be completely removed from the global economy, while others are committing to better recycling as a solution. 

In spite of the global effort to curb plastics dependency, plastics use is set to increase through the next decade as oil and gas companies double down on petrochemicals production. That's spurring some activists to argue that production of the durable material should be eliminated altogether.

Plastics usage in the U.S. is expected to increase through 2028, according to a recent Axios report. While water bottles and straws may be the usual suspects in the war against plastic, also increasingly common are Amazon deliveries that use plastic film in their packaging. "E-commerce is one of the top drivers of our increase in plastics," said Amy Harder, energy and climate reporter at Axios.

The recycling debate 

Recycling in the U.S. became especially difficult after China last year declared a ban on plastic waste, propelling the U.S. and other nations to cast about for new countries to dump their waste, like India, Malaysia, Vietnam and Thailand. Inundated with trash, they've also banned scrap plastic imports since last fall.

That's spurring experts and activists to debate recycling -- the last mandate in "reduce, reuse, recycle" -- as an adequate solution for curbing plastic waste. Some experts say the U.S. doesn't have a plastics problem, but a waste problem that can be solved with better approaches to recycling. Many environmental activists, however, say the U.S. should halt plastics production altogether. 

The U.S. has consistently been one of the world's worst recyclers: Only 9% of its plastics were recycled in 2015, down from 10% the year prior. Meanwhile, the global recycling rate was less than 20% in 2015.

Despite the vigorous debate over plastics, many oil and gas companies keep pumping out petrochemicals, which are the building blocks of plastic, while other companies are researching and developing "green plastics," plastics sourced from cleaner, more sustainable materials. For example, Lego is making toy blocks from sugarcane-based plastic.

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