Plastic waste is getting a lot of attention these days, in part due to China's ban on waste imports at the beginning of 2018, along with a growing awareness of the massive plumes - or gyres - of plastic waste floating in our oceans and rivers. At the same time, production of plastics materials is rapidly expanding on the US Gulf Coast.
The kind of attention people are paying to plastic is not nearly as glamorous as what we saw 51 years ago in a famous conversation from the 1967 hit movie, "The Graduate," when plastic represented all great things to come:
Mr. McGuire: There is a great future in plastics. Think about it. Will you think about it?
Benjamin Braddock: Yes, I will. 
Unfortunately, Mr. McGuire and Benjamin Braddock - along with society at large - did not "think about it" responsibly. Specifically, we did not consider the end-of-life impact of this now ubiquitous, non-biodegradable material, including how to collect, recycle and reuse waste plastic.
According to Wikipedia, a 2017 study conducted by scientists from the University of California, Santa Barbara, and the University of Georgia, of the 9.1 billion US tons (tons) of plastic produced since 1950, close to 7 billion tons are no longer in use.The authors estimate that only 9 percent of the plastic was recycled over the years, while another 12 percent was incinerated, leaving 5.5 billion tons of plastic waste littering the oceans and land. The study states further that 50-80 percent of debris in marine areas is plastic. The authors show that 8 million metric tonnes (8.8 tons) of plastic are entering the ocean per year, and 80 percent of that comes from land sources.
To put this in perspective, in 2016, China accepted approximately 7.3 million tons of waste plastics from Japan, the EU, the US, and other developed countries.
In response to China's decision to ban waste imports, which went into effect January 1, 2018, the EU nations and European Parliament have agreed to set a legally-binding target to recycle 55 percent of plastic packaging waste by 2030. They are now exploring mandates to ensure all plastic packaging is fully recyclable.
Unfortunately, things are not looking very good for the US. Our recycling industry struggles to survive due to the high costs to collect, transport, and process bottles from mixed curbside recycling streams, which are directly competing with the relatively low prices for new (virgin or prime) plastics. In 2016 alone, 7 of 28 American polyethylene terephthalate (PET) recyclers shut down due to economic conditions.
If one quarter of the PET recyclers are shutting down even in the US, where garbage separation, collection, and management infrastructure exists, stop and think about the implications for the many developing countries that don't yet have sufficient waste management systems and infrastructure. As you can imagine, the situation is horrendous. Consider this statistic: 10 rivers, two in Africa and the rest in Asia-discharge 90 percent of all plastic marine debris.
Even though plastic waste is not our greatest environmental or public health issue, it is one that we can - and must - solve. Otherwise, our plastic problem will out of control in 50 years.
While I appreciate innovative successes - such as clothing or consumer products made with recycled PET, for example - their overall impact is negligible. Whether it is the product itself or the packaging it comes in, we need to hold companies responsible for the end life of the plastics they sell. Companies and industry associations - such as the American Beverage Industry - can provide leadership, know-how, and "boots on the ground" in their consumer markets in developing countries. They should not rely on free volunteers or public sector workers to clean up their post-consumer product waste.
To this end, I have asked consumer brands, beverage companies and retailers the following three questions, which are aimed to encourage them to take action to reduce plastic waste of their products:
- Do you have publicly stated goals to track and reduce plastic waste of your products?
- If so, what are these goals?
- If not, why not?
- What efforts are you taking to reduce plastic litter in the countries where you sell products and to support the development of an efficient plastics recycling infrastructure - especially in your markets in Africa and East Asia, which have weak or no waste collection and recycling infrastructure and processes?
- What measures are you taking to educate and encourage consumers to end litter and/or recycle plastic packaging and products?
Please join me by asking your favorite brands and retailers these same questions.
Mike Nichols, director. The Graduate. Embassy Pictures, 1967.
 National Association for Plastic Container Resources and The Association of Plastic Recyclers, Report on Postconsumer PET Container Recycling Activity in 2016, 2017.