Where Does Our Recycling Go? Part 2

Woman in colorful clothing separating plastic waste, surrounded by plastic trash.
Image by Mumtahina Rahman from Pixabay

In Part 1, I covered the evolution of recycling efforts and touched on some of the huge problems impacting the planet as a result. In Part 2, I’d like to take a deeper dive into the damage caused by sending our plastic waste overseas to other countries, especially China.

Since the practice began, China has transformed into the western world’s main dumping ground for its recycling waste. So much so that, inevitably China became so overwhelmed and polluted that they were forced to implement strict policies to stop the flow of recyclables. “The impact of that decision is still being felt,” noted a report from the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives. There is a constant search “for new destinations for the waste produced by world powers, with the United States at the forefront.”1

“There’s no single country that can replace China’s recycling capacity.” -Adam Minter2

Blue Walmart gift card found in dump of e-waste residues, Guiyu, China.
Walmart gift card found in dump of e-waste residues, Guiyu, China. Photo by baselactionnetwork on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Where Does Recycling Go Now?

With China effectively closing its doors to new plastic waste, large western countries have been forced to seek alternatives. Some recycling services have just stopped; others are landfilling recyclable materials. The United States and other western countries have resorted to sending their plastic waste to less developed countries that do not have the infrastructure to manage it. The U.S. exports tens of thousands of shipping containers full of plastic recycling to developing countries that mismanage more than 70% of their own plastic waste, because they do not have the infrastructure to handle the volumes. Imported recycling exacerbates the problem.3

These countries included Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam, Bangladesh, India; but even countries in Latin America and Africa are now taking the West’s recycling waste.4 “The actual amount of U.S. plastic waste that ends [up] in countries with poor waste management may be even higher than 78% since countries like Canada and South Korea may reexport U.S. plastic waste.”5

New Bans

A few countries, like Vietnam, Malaysia, and Thailand, started banning some imports because of pollution. So shipments began making their way to Cambodia, Laos, Ghana, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Senegal, which had previously handled almost no U.S. plastic. As of 2021, Mexico and Ecuador are among the most significant plastic importers, as they have less legislation regulating recycling imports. The West exports approximately 35 containers per day to that region.6

Colorful plastic packaging and boy at the Structural City Dump, DF-BR.
Photo by Marcello Casal Jr./Agência Brasil, Creative Commons license (CC BY 2.5 BR)

Recycling Systems Are Flawed

Most plastic is not recycled, though many do not know that because of how our recycling amounts are calculated. A major flaw in our system is that recycling rates are based on how much we divert from landfills, not on how much waste is actually reprocessed into new products. “Plastic waste has been exported and counted as ‘recycled’ by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency…Without documented traceability of the final fate of the plastic waste, bales of waste plastic collected from municipal and commercial recycling systems were loaded onto trucks and shipped to buyers in foreign countries, many of which had inexpensive labor, no health and safety standards, few environmental regulations and no guarantee that the plastic waste would actually be recycled.”7

Local governments follow the lead of the EPA and calculate their recycling rates based on the volume of landfill diversion. “The practice artificially increased the volume of materials diverted away from U.S. landfills and helped municipalities hit their recycling goals.”8 But all it does is take up space and pollute other parts of the world. Worse, this has caused those countries to become major sources of plastic pollution to the ocean.

“Since exporting plastic waste is a convenient way for the United States (U.S.) and other industrialized countries to count plastic waste as ‘recycled’ and avoid disposal costs and impacts at home, there has been in a significant increase of plastic waste shipments to other countries instead of China. Unfortunately, most of our plastic waste is still shipped to countries that are not equipped to safely and securely manage it.9

Gigantic waste pile with a digger on top, workers (and cows) at bottom sorting out recyclables.
Image by Mumtahina Rahman from Pixabay
Gigantic waste pile with workers (and cows) at bottom sorting out recyclables.
Close-up, similar to previous photo. Image by Mumtahina Rahman from Pixabay

Polluting Other Countries

Our waste is now polluting other countries, especially in Southeast Asia, and harming the health of humans and wildlife in those areas. In the first half of 2018, western countries sent 754,000 tons of plastic waste to Malaysia alone.10 In Vietnam, more than half of the plastic imported into the country is sold to small household level recycling facilities and processed informally. As an article from The Conversation explained:

“Informal processing involves washing and melting the plastic, which uses a lot of water and energy and produces a lot of smoke. The untreated water is discharged to waterways and around 20% of the plastic is unusable so it is dumped and usually burnt, creating further litter and air quality problems. Burning plastic can produce harmful air pollutants such as dioxins, furans and polychlorinated biphenyls and the wash water contains a cocktail of chemical residues, in addition to detergents used for washing. Working conditions at these informal processors are also hazardous, with burners operating at 260-400℃. Workers have little or no protective equipment. The discharge from a whole village of household processors concentrates the air and water pollution in the local area.”11

Those who run informal facilities aren’t the ones we should blame, though. We need to point the finger at ourselves! We are creating the waste, often with no real way to dispose of it, and it ends up in a developing country. The people who work in those facilities are poisoning themselves just to feed their families. We are the ones who should be ashamed.

Many of the countries receiving our recycling are unable to handle their own plastic waste, to begin with. Waste that comes from the packaging of imported western products. Corporations have influenced most of the developing world that they, too, should buy disposable products. Our bad habits have influenced the entire world even though we aren’t taking responsibility for our own waste.

Harmful to Human Health

Recycling is not only an environmental issue. As attorney and sustainability expert, Jennie Romer, noted, it is also a humanitarian issue. “[The National Sword policy] brought to light that much of the plastic waste sent to China was not effectively recycled and was instead processed by low-wage workers without the health, safety, or environmental protections mandated in the U.S. We were simply outsourcing the problems associated with these materials.”12

In some areas, the pollution from low-value recycling has left long-term problems. In Wen’an, one of the plastic-recycling zones in China, “studies have shown that heavy metal pollution from plastic-waste recycling is high enough to cause risks associated with cancer in children.” In Shandong Province, chemicals from plastic processing have contaminated the groundwater and families must buy bottled drinking water now.13

The fumes from burning plastics are toxic and harmful, even potentially carcinogenic, and people in nearby areas have respiratory problems, unexplained rashes, and other ailments. “Regular exposure can subject workers and nearby residents to hundreds of toxic substances, including hydrochloric acid, sulfur dioxide, dioxins and heavy metals, the effects of which can include developmental disorders, endocrine disruption, and cancer.”14

“To protect the health of humans and fellow creatures who share our planet, the urgent priority must be to eliminate single-use consumer plastic, and to invest in reusable, refillable and package-free approaches.”15

Adolescent boy with bags of plastic recycling on a wagon or trailer.
Image by Peggy und Marco Lachmann-Anke from Pixabay

It’s Over

The market for recycling, especially regarding plastic, has not come back around and it likely never will. It costs more to import plastic recycling than companies can recover from selling it. We shouldn’t have been sending it away in the first place – we should have focused on reduction. The sheer volumes of waste and ‘recycling’ are hard to fathom because it is measured in the million tons! In fact, despite the challenges of having to send it to other countries, our plastic waste in the U.S. increased in 2020!

Solutions

We must change our thinking. We have to stop producing so much plastic waste immediately. Companies must redesign packaging to eliminate waste. “We need to look beyond collecting and sorting materials. If we consider how products are designed in the first place, and how we process them to maximize recycling, we can minimize the amount of low-value materials and packaging that we need to dispose of.”16

“Instead of pretending that the trillions of throwaway plastic items produced each year will be recycled or composted, we must stop producing so many of them in the first place.”17

Please spread the message about stopping the production and use of waste. We must demand that corporations stop producing so much plastic. We can’t ignore what is going on in other parts of the world, since we all share this planet. What happens to our plastic, whether it is the U.S. or Southeast Asia, affects us all. Check out my Resources page for leaders in the zero waste and plastic-free movements. Stop buying any disposable items you are able to live without. Though recycling looks dismal, keep trying and learn How to Recycle Better. Please share and subscribe! Thanks for reading.

 

Additional Resources:

Video, “Plastic Wars,” Frontline PBS, March 31, 2020.

Article, “Shrinking market, poor collection services have Hong Kong’s plastic recyclers struggling to stay afloat — and few are succeeding,” by Zoe Low, South China Morning Post, June 22, 2020.

Video, “The Plastic Problem,” PBS NewsHour, November 27, 2019.

Document, “Destination of U.S. and U.K. Plastic Waste Exports, Country Waste Mismanagement Rates and Evidence of Harms to Receiving Countries,” accessed February 19, 2022.

Article, “Material Recycling and the Myth of Landfill Diversion,” by Trevor Zink and Roland Geyer, Journal of Industrial Ecology, 23, August 2018.

Video, “Asia’s ocean pollution crisis,” SCMP Archive, July 6, 2020.

Article, “How A Picturesque Fishing Town Became Smothered In Trash,” by John Vidal, The Huffington Post, April 10, 2019.

Footnotes:

The Packaging Industry and How We Can Consume Differently, Part 9

Last updated on April 10, 2021.

Online shopping exchange, hands coming out of computer screens
Image by Mediamodifier from Pixabay

In my last article, I wrote about giant retailer Walmart and its role in the packaging industry. Today I explore the packaging impact of the largest online retailer, Amazon. They have a number of sustainability initiatives and appear to be very transparent on their website in their efforts toward sustainability. But is it enough?

“Reducing packaging waste, one package at a time at Amazon, we obsess over providing a great packaging experience to our customers.”

Person shopping Amazon from their smartphone
Image by Hannes Edinger from Pixabay

Packaging for online shopping is different

Packaging at the retail store level is designed to stand out on the shelf to entice consumers to buy it. Sometimes packaging is oversized to prevent theft. With online shopping, these are not issues since the consumer is seeking the products directly. “This allows brands to rethink the optimum packaging for the use of the product, freeing designs from shelf height or having to maintain a visual size comparison with competitive products,” wrote Lisa McTigue Pierce in The Future of Packaging.

“The primary challenge we see is that packaging designed for brick-and-mortar retail is in many cases not optimal for online fulfillment. Packaging designed to stand out on a retail shelf is often oversized, with expensive “romance” design aesthetics, redundant features to prevent theft and not capable of surviving the journey to the customer.” -Brent Nelson, Amazon

Frustration-Free Packaging Program

Like Walmart, retail companies work with Amazon to optimize and reduce packaging. Amazon’s Frustration-Free Packaging Program (FFP) began in 2008. This program offers more sustainable packaging that is right-sized, reduces damage during shipping, is made of 100% curbside recyclable materials, does not contain plastic clamshells or wire ties, and is easier to open. Amazon collaborates with manufacturers to help them innovate and improve their packaging, reducing frustration, and cutting waste and costs. “Since 2015, we have reduced the weight of outbound packaging by 33% and eliminated more than 880,000 tons of packaging material, the equivalent of 1.5 billion shipping boxes,” Amazon states. The following are examples of companies working with Amazon to achieve these objectives.

Philips Norelco One Blade Shaver

One Amazon Frustration-Free Packaging case study was the Philips Norelco One Blade shaver project. The plastic clamshell used to both advertise from the store shelf and prevent theft wasn’t necessary for direct purchasing and shipping. Philips reduced the number of packaging components from 13 to 9 and reduced the packaging volume by 80%.

Norelco Frustrayion Free packaging diagramNorelco Frustrayion Free packaging diagram

Philips Hue Smart Lighting

Again, Philips worked directly with Amazon to greatly reduce its packaging waste and volume for this product.  Even though the same amount of packaging components were used, the packaging volume and air were vastly reduced and the frustration-free version is mostly recyclable cardboard instead of plastic.

Diagram showing Amazon standard packaging vs. Frustration free packaging

Fisher-Price Toys

The packaging for toys is often designed to draw the consumer’s attention on the shelf, but this isn’t necessary for online retail settings. So Fisher-Price was able to reduce its packaging components from 19 to just 1, reduce packaging volume by 88%, and reduced the amount of air shipped by 99%!

Fisher-Price toys Frustration Free packaging diagram

Hasbro

Hasbro also works with Amazon on packaging design:

Frustration-Free Packaging Program Certification

Today, this program requires certification. In 2019, Amazon updated the program’s guidelines which included instructions about how to calculate recyclability, product-to-packaging ratio, and requirements for oversized items. Suppliers on Amazon had to switch to the appropriate packaging or pay a surcharge on each item shipped. But Amazon works directly with manufacturers to innovate and improve their packaging functionality in order to certify, according to Amazon’s sustainability report. They have testing facilities that identify steps manufacturers can take to improve their packaging. Now more than 2 million products qualify under the FFP program.

Overall, the FFP program sounds great, but I find that products with this option are difficult to find. That may be because the option is not offered since many companies are certified to use Frustration-Free Packaging automatically. But next time you’re ordering from Amazon, if this option is available, please select it and avoid packaging waste! Here’s what you’ll see if it is an option:

Lego Friends set from Amazon showing frustration free packaging option

Current Packaging Sustainability Initiatives

Amazon’s packaging sustainability mission is “to optimize the overall customer experience by collaborating with manufacturers worldwide to invent sustainable packaging that delights customers, eliminates waste, and ensures products arrive intact and undamaged.” Additionally, Amazon committed $10 million to the Closed Loop Fund; they’ve committed funding to support The Recycling Partnership in its effort to improve recycling across the United States; they are a member of the Sustainable Packaging Coalition (SPC). Amazon also uses the How2Recycle labeling system mentioned in my post about Walmart packaging.

Screenshot of Amazon's homepage

Plastic Air Pillows

More often than not, however, it seems that Amazon ships items with what are called ‘air pillows,’ those plastic bags filled with air to cushion products. In theory, these can perhaps be reused or recycled through a place that accepts plastic bags for recycling (note that those are likely not recycled). But largely, they add to the plastic bag waste stream and pollute our waterways. The use of these is the exact opposite of sustainability.

French press shipped from Amazon, with plastic air pillows.
French press shipped from Amazon, with plastic air pillows. Note: I ended up returning this French press and was able to reuse the same air pillows. But in most cases, air pillows are not reusable.

In another order, Amazon used a box closer to the size of the item package, and thus did not use air pillows. I wish they ship products like this more often.

Computer speakers shipped without plastic air pillows.
Computer speakers shipped in a cardboard box without plastic air pillows.

What to do with Amazon Packaging

It can be confusing and overwhelming to figure out what to do with all that packaging. Note that Amazon makes no attempt to reclaim its packaging for reuse or direct recycling. This is a missed opportunity to greatly reduce the impact of its packaging. The packaging is solely the consumer’s responsibility.

They have a page that helps you figure out what to do with their packaging. You can view each type of packaging Amazon that uses in its shipping and delivery, and see how they suggest you dispose of it. Their cardboard boxes and brown paper packaging are recyclable in most municipal recycling systems. However, their common bubbled and plastic shipping bags are difficult to recycle. You have to take them to a specific location that collects those types of plastic films, such as Publix which I mentioned in a previous post.

Last year, Amazon launched a fully recyclable paper padded mailer that protects products during shipping. I have received one or two of these but I was not aware that these were fully recyclable until researching for this post. Although you do not get a choice of packaging at checkout, fully recyclable packaging is long overdue so I’m glad it’s now available.
Amazon package recycling page

But Amazon’s priority is profit

In many ways, I am excited about all of the things Amazon is doing for sustainability. Amazon will always be looking at profit first, and overall they could do so much more. They should be more directly involved with Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), which I wrote about in a previous post. Amazon encourages and advises its suppliers to follow EPR concepts, but the company does not have a take-back program for its own shipping packages.

Many consumers want to buy products that are sustainable and eco-conscious, but often don’t know what options they have. Amazon could make a significant difference just by overtly advertising their sustainable packaging options and Frustration-Free Packaging (FFP) program. I suspect many people just throw away much of the packaging they receive only because they don’t know what else to do with it.

Overall, Amazon is not doing enough. They, alone, have the ability to change the entire packaging industry.

Solutions

The most important thing you can do for the environment and your finances is to buy less. You can try to avoid purchases from Amazon and instead choose a local retailer. When you do make purchases, be a conscious consumer. Next time you order from Amazon, look for the FFP option if it’s available. Recycle all cardboard and recyclable mailers in your curbside recycling or at your local recycling center. Save the plastic mailers and recycle them at a local grocery store that accepts them. Last, but not least, the Plastic Pollution Coalition currently has a petition asking Amazon to stop using single-use plastic packaging. I’ve signed, will you please sign too?

Below, I’ve listed several companies that sell environmentally friendly packaging for shipping. There is no reason that companies like Amazon can’t switch to those types of mailers.

In my next post, I’ll explore companies that already have sustainability built into their products and unique packaging solutions. In a future post, I’ll address whether online shopping or in-person shopping is better for the environment.

Thanks for reading, and please subscribe!

“If you want to eliminate waste in your life – and in the world – the answers will always come down to one simple thing: consume differently.” -Tom Szaky

 

Companies that sell eco-friendly shipping packaging:

EcoEnclose

Ecovative Design and Paradise Packaging – mushroom packaging

Ranpak paper packaging

Uline carries a line of paper cushioning products

Western Pulp sells molded fiber packaging

Footnotes:

The Packaging Industry and How We Can Consume Differently, Part 5

Last updated June 20, 2021.

Calvin Klein Men's underwear plastic packaging
Calvin Klein Men’s underwear in an unnumbered plastic box. Photo by me

In Part 5 of my series about the packaging industry, I explain corporate responsibility. You can read my first article on packaging and follow the series from there.

There are many ways that companies can take responsibility for the waste they create. But it often becomes the consumers’ problem. What kind of impact could we make if we change that?

Calvin Klein: Not an Example of Company Responsibility in Packaging

A couple of years ago, we ordered some Calvin Klein Men’s underwear, which arrived in an unnumbered plastic box. Plastic without a number cannot be recycled, anywhere. So I wrote to the company to see if they’d take the packaging back to reuse. They responded, “I regret to inform you that our warehouse will not reuse the packages.” They did not provide a reason, nor did they express interest in more sustainable packaging. I asked if they would stop using plastic packaging, or if they would at least switch to numbered plastic so that I could recycle it. They responded that they’d pass my comments on to their Product Development Team.

This left me with no option but to throw the packaging in the trash or find a way to reuse it. I ended up using it a couple of times as a gift box, and now it is in my collection of “plastic that I must pay TerraCycle to recycle.” Hence, the onus is on me, the consumer. We stopped buying from Calvin Klein.

This has got to stop.

“Currently, most product designers are under no obligation to consider how their products will be disposed of at the end of their useful life. This leads to the creation of unrecyclable products.”-The State of Recycling National Survey, U.S. PIRG Education Fund1

Image of my own trash audit from 2017, when I started trying to go plastic free. Notice that most of my trash is packaging waste.
Image of my own trash audit from 2017, when I started trying to go plastic-free. Notice that most of my trash was packaging waste. Photo by me

There is a way to make companies responsible for their own packaging

It’s called Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR). It is a policy concept that makes it the manufacturer’s responsibility for reducing packaging waste and improving packaging. Companies would have to have to rethink packaging, recyclability, and end-of-life impacts. There are four ways that EPR can work:

      1. EPR extends the manufacturer’s responsibility from the design and marketing to the post-consumer stage (meaning when the consumer is finished with a product).
      2. Producers either physically take items back through take-back programs, or they pay a third party for those services.
      3. Individual governments set standards for the responsible party, defines what materials should be collected and avoided, and require data collection. This model sometimes involves taxation or fees.
      4. EPR can go beyond packaging and address the post-consumer stage of items beyond packaging, such as electronics, batteries, cars, tires, etc.

It can be a combination of those as well. Here’s a video that explains EPR from Washington State, as the idea can apply anywhere:

The Costs of EPR

Extended Producer Responsibility would cost the manufacturers and companies a nominal amount of money, and they would likely shift that cost to the consumer. “But perhaps this cost is better incurred at checkout than in…greenhouse gas emissions, marine debris, resource scarcity, toxicity, and food and drinking-water pollution,” wrote Scott Cassel, founder and CEO of the Product Stewardship Institute, in The Future of Packaging.

In our current system, the true cost falls on taxpayers because we are paying for our municipalities to haul our waste, whether it goes to a landfill or a recycling center. And then we pay again when those systems fail, and the cost becomes an environmental issue.

There currently are no laws and no economic incentives in the United States to make companies responsible for the waste they sell or for the waste they create. However, when the same US companies conduct business internationally, they follow EPR regulations in countries with those laws, showing that EPR can be successful.

“Unlike in many other developed countries, in the United States manufacturers and brands are not responsible for their packaging once the consumer buys the product.” – Scott Cassel, founder & CEO of the Product Stewardship Institute

Beth Porter noted in Reduce, Reuse, Reimagine that one challenge with EPR is that if companies take control of the waste stream, it could take decision-making power about waste management away from communities and result in the incineration of many materials. “Good EPR would include strong recycling targets and a stated zero-incineration policy. It would result in shifting some responsibility of disposal back onto producers, urging them to rethink designs of their products to be better suited for recycling streams.”

Plastic sports drink bottles stuck in the pond
Photo by Ben Baily on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

EPR around the World

EPR prevails in many other countries. The United States, meanwhile, “is currently one of only three nations of the 35-member Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) that does not have an EPR system specifically for packaging in place or under development,” according to Cassel.

In 1991, Germany passed the “Ordinance on the Avoidance of Packaging Waste,” which was intended to shift the burden of packaging disposal from the public to the industries producing the packaging. This led to the creation of the Green Dot symbol, which indicates that a fee has been paid by the manufacturer to pay for the package’s end-of-life disposal. However, this symbol does not necessarily mean that a product or package is recyclable, a common misconception. For more information, watch this video:

The European Union passed the “Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive” in 1994 and thirty countries have implemented it. This aims at preventing the production of packaging waste through elimination, reuse, recycling, and/or recovery of packaging. “In Europe, global companies have accepted EPR as an appropriate cost of doing business and of being responsible corporate citizens,” wrote Matt Prindiville, Executive Director of UPSTREAM.2 Beth Porter noted that “Belgium boasts more than five thousand companies that follow [EPR]…the result of this is an impressive 95 percent recovery rate for packaging materials in the country.” Other countries that have adopted EPR legislation include Canada, Australia, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea, Taiwan, and Romania.

“Overall…EPR legislation has had the intended effect of moving up the waste stream into product and packaging design, logistics, and shipping departments of major manufacturers.” -Daniel Imhoff, Paper or Plastic

Dairy section of a supermarket, lots of plastic packaging
Image by Squirrel_photos from Pixabay

Opposition

There are some who oppose EPR legislation, arguing that it amounts to an additional fee or tax. Trade associations like the American Institute for Packaging and the Environment (AMERIPEN) and the Grocery Manufacturers Association oppose it. They argue that packaging disposal, recycling, and pollution cleanup costs should be the responsibility of the government. “In the U.S., these companies have determined it’s better to fight to keep EPR at bay than to partner with local and state governments to develop 21st-century systems for designing and managing packaging materials,” Prindiville wrote. Companies and manufacturers need to take responsibility.

Solutions

EPR legislation must be passed to make companies responsible for their packaging. Without laws, it is doubtful that companies will do the right thing on their own. Remember, many companies are already practicing EPR in other countries because it is mandated. But not in the US, because they aren’t required to by law. You can write your legislators and request that they propose and/or support EPR legislation. The Story of Plastic film offers a great explanation of this.3

While EPR is one strong solution, it is not the sole answer to our packaging waste problems. We should combine EPR with many other ideas as the current waste stream is too enormous. We need to create vastly less waste on a global scale. Buy less and be mindful of the things you do purchase.

In my next post, I’ll cover take-back programs, a form of EPR. Thanks for reading, and please subscribe!

 

“If you want to eliminate waste in your life – and in the world – the answers will always come down to one simple thing: consume differently.” -Tom Szaky

 

Additional Resources:

Article, “Sustainability and the Economy,” Packaging World, March 13th, 2020.

Post, “The Producer Pays,” Knowledge @ Wharton, University of Pennsylvania Wharton, April 4, 2017.

Article, “5 Reasons EPR Is the Answer for Plastics Recycling,” by Matt Prindiville, Sustainablebrands.com, accessed June 20, 2021.

Footnotes: