DOI: 10.1111/jiec.13427 ISSN:

Seven decades of plastic flows and stocks in the United States and pathways toward zero plastic pollution by 2050

Mengqing Kan, Chunyan Wang, Bing Zhu, Wei‐Qiang Chen, Yi Liu, Yucheng Ren, Ming Xu
  • General Social Sciences
  • General Environmental Science


The United States is the world's second‐largest producer and consumer of plastics and the largest producer of plastic waste. Understanding the sources, drivers, and destinations of plastic production, consumption, and waste is critical for the United States to develop strategies toward a zero‐plastic pollution future. Here, we characterize the dynamic material flows and stocks of plastics in the United States for nearly seven decades (1950–2018) and project the future trajectories until 2050 under various scenarios on the basis of reduce, reuse, and recycle to explore pathways toward zero plastic pollution. Our estimation shows that 1479 MMt plastics were produced in the United States from 1950 to 2018, 75 MMt waste plastics were domestically recycled, 139 MMt virgin polymers were exported, and 9 MMt recycled waste plastics were imported. Currently, about 326 MMt of plastics still remain in the society as in‐use stock, most of which (63%) are in the construction sector. Plastic pollution would almost double from 37 MMt in 2018 to 86 MMt in 2050 if current consumption pattern and waste management remain unchanged. Single strategies (i.e., plastic bag ban and extended lifespan) could only contribute limited reductions (2%–12%) of plastics pollution, and would not be able to reverse the increasing trajectory of plastic pollution until 2050. Additional measures are needed, such as improving recycling and avoiding landfilling of plastic waste. Our analysis can provide critical insights to help the United States develop long‐term strategies to mitigate and eliminate plastic pollution.

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