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Focus Areas

Addressing Plastics Pollution

Protecting the world's ecosystems from harm through waste management, improved recycling, and sustainable alternatives to plastic

Plastic pollution is a pervasive global environmental issue. Over 6.9 billion tons of plastic produced since 1950 has ended up as plastic waste. Between 2018 and 2021, the already low American plastic recycling rate fell from 8.7% to between 5% and 6%. Given the minimal amount of recycling, much of the plastic that is produced ends up in landfills, waterways, and oceans, presenting substantial threats to human and ecological health. For example, ocean plastic pollution has reached a catastrophic level. Roughly 11 million metric tons of plastic enter the ocean annually, jeopardizing marine ecosystems, major industries like fishing and tourism, and the livelihoods of millions of people. This problem is further exacerbated by the creation of microplastics as disposed plastic products deteriorate over time. 

To preserve public and environmental health, there is an urgent need to increase plastic recycling, reduce plastic waste pollution, replace plastic production with more sustainable alternatives, and clean up already existing plastic pollution. By combining scientific rigor and technical expertise in social and laboratory sciences, engineering, and international development, we can deliver solutions to commercial and government clients facing critical plastic waste management and pollution challenges domestically and internationally. Our staff provides:

  • Independent, objective evaluation of plastic waste feedstock, infrastructure, recovery options, and health impacts;
  • Models and forecasts comparing the economic and environmental impacts of waste management strategies;
  • Assessment and consultation on policy, governance capacity, and public perceptions related to plastic waste, as well as sharing best practices; and
  • Program management across the world to reduce plastics in the environment through integrated solid waste management practices, encouraging 3R behaviors (reduce, reuse, recycle), and reducing reliance on virgin plastics.
A woman collects bottles from a heap of plastic waste.

Reducing Ocean Plastics in Sri Lanka and Maldives

The U.S. Agency for International Development awarded RTI a 5-year $24 million grant to work with government, private sector, and local communities to reduce ocean plastic pollution in Sri Lanka and Maldives. The project started in 2023 by collaborating with partners to map waste flow, strengthen systems that manage solid waste, and support global best practices to bolster the informal waste sector and increase plastic collection. Ultimately, the project aims to prevent thousands of tons of plastics from entering the environment. 

A woman drinks water from a clear disposable plastic water bottle.

Microplastics: Assessing an Emerging Health Concern

It’s become increasingly apparent that nanoplastics (NPs) and microplastics (MPs) are ubiquitous in drinking water, beverages, and other food sources. However, little is known about the potential risk to human health posed by these substances, especially the smallest particles, which are more likely to cross the intestinal tract. RTI researchers conducted a literature review to help fill this knowledge gap and lay the foundation for a better understanding of the health implications of ingesting NMPs. Their assessment determined that the smallest NMPs originate in drinking water. They also found that most food studies focus on the largest particles, underscoring the need for more research to understand the breadth of contamination through ingestion. 

Recycling plastic bottle

Analysis of Gaps in U.S. Plastics Recycling Infrastructure

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) contracted RTI’s services to better understand gaps and limitations within the American plastic collection and recycling infrastructure. RTI’s work provided the EPA with the data and information needed to inform the development of a national recycling strategy and target opportunities for enhancing plastics collection and recycling infrastructure in the US. On this project, RTI’s team conducted research and collected data on the country’s plastics recycling capacity and targeted plastic types/products for all activities along the plastic recycling value chain. Key infrastructure gaps were identified, including limited access to recycling collection and low capture of plastics from generators. RTI’s team found that much of the plastic waste generated in the US never enters the recycling value chain. Recommendations for potential interventions and improvements in recycling infrastructure were developed to inform strategy and investment.