A recent study published in the journal Nature estimates that only 500,000 metric tons of plastic are flowing into the oceans annually. That may sound like a lot—it is the equivalent of 5,000 blue whales—but it pales in comparison to previous estimates, which range from 4.8 million to 12.7 million metric tons. We should be celebrating that less plastic is being added to the oceans than previously thought.

Ocean pollution poses serious threats to ecosystems as well as to industries such as fishing, tourism, and shipping. It stems from two primary sources: 80% comes from river and coastline runoff while the remaining 20% derives from marine debris such as fishing nets and ropes.

Increasing levels of plastics in the oceans isn’t good—and the study does note that plastic pollution may be longer-lived than previous estimates suggested—but it isn’t realistic to expect all sources of marine plastic pollution to cease. 

Nor would it be good for Americans and citizens of developing nations to halt plastic usage entirely. Consider the variety of plastic products that keep food fresh longer and reduce food waste, insulate homes, and protect medical implements from contamination. Punishing growth and development by eliminating plastic usage is a quick way to make citizens less safe, healthy, and prosperous.

The U.S. is making substantial progress in its national goals to reduce marine plastics pollution. The Trump administration released a strategy to reduce the amount of litter in domestic waterways as well as clean U.S. waters of plastic waste.  The Biden Environmental Protection Agency is largely continuing these policies. 

Unfortunately, there is only so much that the U.S. can do by itself. A different study estimated that 1,656 rivers emit 80% of the plastic deposited in the ocean annually—with Asian rivers accounting for 81% of global plastic input. North American rivers comprised only 4.5% of riverine plastic inputs. This means that plastic-bag bans and the phasing out of plastic straws by U.S. companies like Starbucks are a drop in a bucket of riverine plastic pollution. 

Asian countries will need to work to modernize their waste management systems to prevent urban, coastal cities from letting plastic seep into the ocean. While the U.S. routinely steps in to create working groups and foster “international policy engagement” on marine litter worldwide, private efforts can lead the way in finding innovative solutions. For instance, SC Johnson committed to opening eight recycling centers in Indonesia in 2019. Florida-based 4ocean has funded the recovery of 31 million pounds of trash as of this publication through the sale of jewelry and other items. 

Protecting and conserving our oceans is a noble goal—one that U.S. policy can and does support without virtue-signaling and punishing development. But it is folly to think that the amount of plastic pollution emitted by the U.S. will ever reach zero. Aiming for that goal will only hurt Americans and citizens of developing nations.