Now That China Won't Take Plastic Waste, What's the U.S. Doing?

CC BY 2.0. Seika -- Trash sorting in Jakarta, Indonesia

A new investigation by Greenpeace delves into the ongoing environmental devastation caused by our recycling habits.

It has been ten months since China closed its doors to the world's recycling waste. For the past twenty years, it had taken enormous quantities of plastic and other recyclable materials from countries such as the United Kingdom, Japan, and the United States. 'Enormous quantities' is not an understatement: the UK shipped two-thirds of its waste to China and the U.S. sent 70 percent. Overall, China used to take in 45 percent of the planet's recycling waste.

Needless to say, the decision threw the recycling industry into total chaos because most countries do not have the proper infrastructure in place to deal with their own recycling waste. As a result, many cities and municipalities have limited their recycling capabilities and begun landfilling or incinerating a greater number of products that formerly were recyclable.

Curious about what has happened behind the scenes this year, as U.S. recyclers struggle to adjust to the change, Greenpeace conducted an investigation titled 'Unearthed.' It found that plastic scrap exports from the U.S. plummeted by one third in the first half of 2018 and that other markets have been found in southeast Asia. Exports to Thailand increased by nearly 2,000 percent, in Malaysia by 273 percent, and in Vietnam by 46 percent. Vietnam has been so overwhelmed that it temporarily banned imports between June and October, and a plastics processing facility in Kuala Lumpur was forced to shut down due to residents complaining of air and water pollution.

Unearthed says there is still 280,000 metric tons of plastic not being exported from the U.S. but unaccounted for, leading investigators to suspect it's being incinerated or sent to landfill.

The rise in new markets is concerning for a number of reasons. As Robin Wiener, CEO of the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, told Unearthed investigators,

“Some of these countries just don’t have the infrastructure in ports or roads to deal with an increase in volume of material. Pop-up recyclers are trying to take advantage of these shifting markets but they are not doing it properly. They are not following industry standards when it comes to environmental, health, and safety practices.”

These are valid concerns, but if anyone thought for a moment that China was conducting a safer, cleaner recycling program, they should take a few minutes to watch this excerpt from Wang Jiuliang's sensational documentary, Plastic China. The industry is horrific and dangerous. From a New York Times rave review about Jiuliang's work,

"Thousands of family-run factories operate in the open air shredding the waste plastic into small particles to sell to factories in southern China, which then make them into new plastic goods. The air and nearby rivers are heavily polluted, he found. Workers sifting through the waste with their bare hands are often pricked by used needles."

Meanwhile, in the United States, recyclers who used to pay cities for their waste are now turning around to charge for the service. From the report:

"San Diego is now facing a potential $1.1m annual charge from its waste contractor, which last year provided the city with a $4m income stream. 'The environmental benefits of recycling now come with a cost that we haven’t seen in California before,' Zoe Heller, assistant director of policy development at CalRecycle, California’s state waste management agency, told Unearthed. 'What used to be a very profitable revenue stream is now becoming a cost.'"

Faced with rising bills, it's not a stretch to imagine that some cities will choose to landfill their waste, rather than pay to have it recycled. Residents may be expected to foot the bill for their own waste, either in the form of higher taxes or, as one town in Vermont is planning to do, being charged for their recycling -- which, I must say, sounds like a smart idea.

I've always maintained that, if we didn't have the ability to send waste away to some nebulous, distant place, and if we had to stash it all in our own backyards indefinitely, moving to zero-waste and reusable packaging would become an obsession. The fact that we've been able to offshore the majority of our waste processing has caused us as consumers to grow complacent and lazy.

This report underscores what we've been arguing on TreeHugger for years -- that recycling doesn't work. It is not the feel-good, environmentally-friendly solution that people like to believe it is. What we need is to stop throwing things away, whether it's in the garbage or the blue bin (compost heap excepted). This means making smart, sustainable choices as consumers, and applying pressure on manufacturers to come up with circular packaging solutions.