Plastics in the US: Toward a Material Flow Characterization of Production, Markets and End of Life

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Managing plastics has become a focal issue of the Anthropocene. Developments in plastic materials have made possible many of the technologies and conveniences that define our modern life. Yet, plastics are accumulating in landfills and natural environments, impacting resource utilization and ecosystem function. Solutions to these rising problems will require action and coordination across all stages of plastics value chains. Here, we offer the first contemporary plastics material flow by resin type through the US economy, encompassing 2017 production, sales, use markets and end-of-life management. This roadmap, while sourced from disparate and incomplete data, provides stakeholders with a system-scale context for understanding challenges, opportunities and implications of future interventions. More than three-quarters of the plastics reaching end of life went to landfill, and less than 8% was recycled. Packaging was the largest defined use market for plastics, but two thirds of the plastic put into use in 2017 went into other markets, including consumer products, electronics, buildings and transportation. In nearly all uses, increased coordination between material and product innovation and design and end-of-life recovery and recycling are needed. Alignment of technology, policy and market drivers will be necessary to reduce plastic waste and improve the circularity of plastic materials.

plastics material flow
circular economy
waste reduction
Publication Type: 
Journal Article
Environmental Research Letters
Date Published: 
August 25, 2020
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Full Citation: 
Heller, Martin C., Michael Mazor, and Gregory A. Keoleian. (2020) “Plastics in the US: Toward a Material Flow Characterization of Production, Markets and End of Life.” Environmental Research Letters 15(9): 1-14. 094034
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