Plastic Pollution in New York

Plastic Pollution in North American Cities (2024)

Plastic Pollution is a Global Crisis

Plastic pollution has become a global threat affecting not only the environment.

It also affects wildlife, human health, and the economy.

From littering in urban areas to the accumulation of microplastics in oceans, the impacts of plastic waste are far-reaching and undeniable.

Nonetheless, increasing amounts of plastic are produced and consumed every day.

It is imperative that we take action to address this growing problem.

In this blog article, we will examine the role North American cities can play in tackling this crisis and discuss the urgent need for solutions.


But isn’t plastic pollution a problem of developing countries?

Definitely not!

It may be true that countries in Africa, Asia, and South America have the highest share of mismanaged plastic waste

It may also be true that China is the leading producer of plastic globally.

BUT North America (specifically the US) is responsible for generating the largest amount of plastic waste in the world. 

In 2016, the US produced approximately 42 million metric tons of plastic waste. That is almost as much as India and China combined, who are following on second and third place.

In terms of coastal nations, the US ranks third for its contribution to litter, illegally dumped trash, and other mismanaged waste along its shorelines.

Only a small fraction of plastic waste in the US is recycled - around 9%. For over 30 years, the US has been exporting half of its recyclable plastic to China and other countries in Asia.

Some of those countries, like the Phillipines do  not have the adequate waste management systems to deal with these huge amounts of waste.

This practice was dramatically reduced in 2018 when China ceased importing plastic scrap as part of its green campaign to improve its environment. Other countries followed.

But the problem of managing the ongoing flood of plastic waste remains.

The statistics don’t leave a doubt that North America needs to step up in the fight against the plastic crisis.


So which role do cities play in this fight?

It is estimated that 80% of marine plastic debris comes from land.

Urban centers are even responsible for astonishing 60% of plastic marine debris.

This places big cities at the center of fighting plastic pollution globally.

North American cities are no exception, as they are facing a growing problem of plastic pollution that is affecting the health of their residents and the environment.

Plastic waste is found in the streets, parks, and waterways of cities across the continent, and the impact on wildlife and human health is alarming.


The Causes of Plastic Pollution in North American Cities

1. Littering: One of the biggest sources of plastic pollution in North American cities is littering plastic waste.

Items like cigarette butts, food wrappers, dog poo bags, and beverage containers that are discarded carelessly, end up on streets, sidewalks, and other public spaces.

This leaves the litter at risk of ending up in the environment where it can take hundreds of years to break down.

In addition, plastic litter in the streets can be carried by stormwater runoff into nearby waterways, where it can harm aquatic life and contaminate the water supply.


2. Improper Waste Management: Another issue is the lack of proper waste management systems in many North American cities.

Many cities still rely on landfills to dispose of their waste, which can leach toxic chemicals into the environment and harm wildlife.

Furthermore, many cities deal with contaminated recycling waste or lack the infrastructure to recycle plastic waste properly.

This leads to much of it ending up in landfills or the natural environment. For the U.S. this means that up to six times more plastic waste is burned than is recycled.


3. Single-use plastics: North American consumers love single-use plastics.

It is estimated that Americans use 50 billion disposable coffee cups every year and 500 million straws every single day.

The sheer amount of single use plastic that is consumed adds to the challenges.

The more plastc is consumed, the higher is the probability that these plastic items end up in the environment due to littering and poor waste management practices.


4. Industrial Waste: Industries, such as construction, petrochemical, or cosmetic industries, can contribute to plastic pollution.

They can release plastic waste and microplastics into the environment through processes such as industrial discharge, runoff, or simple human negligence.


Efforts to Reduce Plastic Pollution in North American Cities

As the causes of plastic pollution are well known, governments can take concrete steps to reduce their plastic footprint and combat plastic pollution.


1. Littering: To tackle littering, cities can implement anti-littering laws with strict penalties. 

Additionally, cities can invest in public awareness campaigns. This can educate citizens about the impacts of littering and encourage them to dispose of waste properly.

Of course, also need to ensure that enough trash and recycling bins are avaialable in public spaces. 

Finally, regular street cleaning programs can also keep plastic litter off the streets.


2. Improper Waste Management: To improve waste management, cities can invest in modern waste management infrastructure.

This includes sorting facilities, composting facilities, and recycling centers. 

They can also implement educational programs to educate citizens about proper waste disposal and encourage them to recycle.

The City of Toronto for example recently launched the TOwaste app. The app provides guides on how to separate waste, where to dispose of it properly, and more.

As another action, local governments should work with waste management companies to hold them accountable. 

Ensuring that waste is collected and disposed of properly reduces the risk of plastic waste ending up in the environment.


3, Single-use plastics: To reduce the use of single-use plastics, implementing single-use plastic fees or banning single-use plastic are effective measures.

Cities should encourage the use of reusable alternatives, such as reusable coffee cups and water bottles.

Consumer education also plays a crucial role in reducing the upstream consumption of plastic. This improves downstream impacts on waste management and littering.

Additionally, regulators should partner with businesses to reduce single-use plastic packaging and encourage the use of alternative materials.

Only if the sustainable alternatives become economically more attractive, corporations are prompted to replace their single-use plastic packaging.

Last but not least, investments in research and development can accelerate the discovery and development of sustainable materials.

They also reduce the production costs of these materials.

That can be accompanied by partnerships between academia, business, and the local governments.


4. Industrial Waste: To reduce industrial waste, cities can work with industry leaders to implement waste reduction programs, including recycling and composting programs.

Furthermore, regulators have the power to enforce strict regulations on the disposal of industrial waste, including fines for companies that violate these regulations.

Additionally, industries need to be encouraged to develop new, more sustainable methods of production that generate less waste in the first place.


Plastic Pollution Needs A Collective Solution

In conclusion, plastic pollution in North American cities is a growing concern that requires a multilayered approach to solve.

While global collaboration is important (see our latest articles about global regulations on pollution and environmental protection), governments also have a great chance to tackle the problem on a local level.


  • reducing the use of single-use plastic products
  • investing in better waste management systems,
  • supporting plastic reduction policies,
  • educating consumers about the issue,

city governments can make a real impact in the fight against plastic pollution and protect the health of our communities and the environment.

Finally, as consumers every single one of us has the power to make a difference by choosing sustainable alternatives to single-use plastic and thus contributing to replacing the polluting materials.

After all, plastic pollution is a problem that can only be solved in a collective effort.


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