I typically review only non-fiction books, but this fictional tale hit too close to home and I have to share it with you!
This dystopian novel offers a glimpse into a dark future if we don’t make great changes in our current world. The story takes place decades from now and the remnants of wasted resources and excessive plastic abound. Due to global warming, sea levels rose drastically. Americans constructed levees to keep the rising sea level back but those eventually collapsed and caused the great floods. “After the sea walls would not be rebuilt. The roads would not be repaired. Maps had been redrawn with the oceans farther inland…There were no homes.” The main characters live in Scrappalachia, in “the center of the United States,” an area that “became the great vast orchards of scrap” after the floods. They live in old vehicles or make-shift shacks next to Trashlands, a strip club.
“They followed the plastic tide. After the floods destroyed the coasts, rewrote the maps with more blue, something was in the water that lapped at Ohio and Georgia and Pennsylvania. Plastic. People learned quickly that it was useful. It had to be.”
Few forests and natural areas and bodies of clean water exist, thus animals and wildlife are rare. As one person remarks, “People make everything go extinct.” That statement is striking because it’s sadly true. In reality, we are causing the mass extinction of thousands of species right now. In the book, only the older generation could recall things we take for granted, like running water, the internet, or kids playing in autumn leaves. Books are rare since the floods destroyed many of them. An older man recalled the U.S. postal system, which had stopped gradually:
“Roads had been washed away. There were gas shortages, price gouges. Letters piled up, were lost or stolen. Strikes happened…Hospitals closed just when the stream of patients, their lungs filled with water or smoke, became untenable. Groceries couldn’t keep bottled water, rice, or meat on the shelves. It became more common to see plastic bottles than crops in a field. The ground was too saturated to plant…No one knew to collect the plastic yet. No one knew it was all they would have.“
In this future, plastic is a highly valuable resource and people can’t understand why previous generations ever wasted it or discarded it. They struggle to believe that plastic items were once created to be disposable or made for single-use, such as plastic forks. But most plastic had been packaging. One character muses, “What a world that must have been, to have had to protect everything.” A young woman finds what had been a plastic trash can, but didn’t know what it was. Someone older explains that people used to throw stuff away and needed a place to store their ‘trash’ before removing it from their homes.
Plastic drives all aspects of life. ‘Pluckers’ collect and sell plastic waste to factories for little profit in order to survive. The factories reprocess the plastic into plastic bricks and other items. Factory owners sometimes kidnap young children from the poor and force them to work in the factories. Children’s hands are small, which allows them to do a better job at sorting the plastics.
“Yes, people knew that plastic was poison, but they didn’t care. They wanted to make money.”
This novel presents a brilliant concept, an uncertain future drastically changed by the climate crisis. This future is full of sexual assault, rape, and violence. Women live with made-up “families” in order to protect themselves. Some characters feel that women could run the world better than men, and had even come close to doing so at one time.
“[Women] would all do a real fine job of running a world. You know it. I know it. And men know it. That’s why they hold them back.”
I really enjoyed this book and found the perspective really impactful. I hope the world doesn’t come to this! Perhaps we, as a global community, can unite and tackle the effects of climate change. Feel free to comment below on what you thought of the book. Thanks for reading, please share and subscribe!
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
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
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
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
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
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!
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.
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.
Most of us drop our recycling into a blue bin, believing we are doing the right thing, and move on. This ‘out of sight, out of mind’ point of view is because most of us are so busy that we don’t have time to think about it. But where does our recycling actually go?
If you’ll recall from my article “How Our Recycling Systems Work,” just because recycling is accepted or collected does not automatically mean that it is recycled. If you read my article on why recycling is not the answer, then you also know that our volume of waste, even when recyclable, is out of control. We send most of our recycling away, out of our country, and into the landscapes and lives of people in other countries. Those countries pay workers very low wages to sort recycling and it exposes them to toxic conditions in the process.
“While recycling and the circular economy have been touted as potential solutions, upward of half of the plastic waste intended for recycling has been exported to hundreds of countries around the world.”1
How Recycling Grew
While municipal recycling in the U.S. began in the 1970s as a response to quickly filling landfills, it really took off in the 1990s. Back then, recycling services were inexpensive because recyclers could easily profit from the materials. The U.S. sought to increase the recycling of municipal solid waste to avoid landfilling and incineration. Often referred to as landfill diversion, it has become increasingly important as our volumes of waste exponentially increased over the last two decades. The types of plastics accepted in municipal systems grew from just PET #1 and HDPE #2 bottles and jugs to include other types of plastics as cities and states emphasized landfill diversion.
In addition, companies and corporations used ‘recycling’ as a way to increase their sales. Recycling makes it ok to use disposables. Companies branded more of their products as environmentally redeemable, which made consumers feel better about their purchases.2 In effect, this normalized buying increased amounts of packaging, plastic, and disposables.
Marketing campaigns for plastic started with organizations like the American Chemistry Council working to protect the interests of wealthy stockholders. They launched campaigns touting the recyclability of all plastics, and “many local governments took the bait, or were pressured to fall in line.”3 Further, since plastics are made from petroleum and chemicals, the petroleum industry strongly backs organizations like the American Chemistry Council. There is a lot of money behind all the plastics in our daily lives.
“The planet’s load of nearly indestructible plastics — more than 8 billion tons have been produced worldwide over the past six decades — continues to grow.”4
U.S. Exportation of Recycling
As the volumes of recycling increased, the U.S. began reducing domestic recycling. We began exporting our waste to China because of cheaper labor and equipment costs. At the time, China’s economic growth and its demand for our materials were strong.5 “Shipping recyclables from the U.S. to China made economic sense due in large part to the trade deficit,” wrote attorney and sustainability expert, Jennie Romer. The U.S. buys more from China than China does from the U.S. Instead of returning empty shipping containers, the U.S. began shipping recyclables at a discount.
“Due to low cost shipping and labor, the U.S. became reliant on China to accept plastic materials collected by U.S. municipal systems.“6
China Becomes the World’s Dumping Ground
China handled almost half of the world’s recyclables for about 25 years. They have imported about half of the world’s plastic waste since 1992.7 Recyclables were one of the largest categories of exported materials to China between 2007 and 2016. By 2016, the U.S. transported about 1,500 shipping containers full of recyclables across the ocean to China every day.8
Their plastic scrap import business grew from a grassroots effort among poor villagers seeking to make livelihoods. “According to one estimate, roughly sixty thousand small family farms were converted into family-run plastics-recycling facilities.”9 This recycling economy grew correspondingly as our volumes of waste increased exponentially.
The U.S. was exporting 77.9% of its plastic waste by 2016. Japan exported 87.6%. Seven European countries (Germany, the U.K. Belgium, Spain, Italy, France, and the Netherlands) exported 57.5%.10 Up to 70% of Australia’s plastic waste was going to China. Can you imagine how much plastic that is?
“For other countries, China represented a convenient dumping ground for mixed waste. For China, accepting the world’s castoffs became too big a burden.” -Randy Miller, Miller Recycling Corporation11
Operation Green Fence
In addition to the insane volumes, the recycling China received was severely contaminated. Contamination refers to recyclables that are mixed with trash, food waste, and other non-recyclables. The quality of the recyclables started to decrease. Chinese manufacturers incurred large expenses to sort out and dispose of the non-recyclables in Chinese landfills.12 Contamination rates more than doubled between 2007 and 2013.13
The Chinese government passed the Green Fence policy (aka Operation Green Fence) in 2011 and implemented it in 2013. It was a direct response to the volume and contamination problems. It authorized an aggressive inspection effort and the goal was to limit the number of contaminated recyclables and waste that was flowing into China.14 Another goal was reducing illegal foreign smuggling.15
The policy lowered the contamination rate to 1.5%. That means that 98.5% of the contents of recycling bales had to be free of food waste, trash, non-recyclables, and other debris. This was a strict rate and difficult for Materials Recovery Facilities (MRFs) to manage through single-stream recycling systems.
In the policy’s first year, “almost 70 percent of all incoming containers loaded with recyclables were subjected to thorough inspections.” Recyclers and shippers both faced risks if caught shipping substandard materials. Shippers could have their licenses revoked; recyclers could face the costs of paying for the return of containers full of non-recyclable materials. Almost 22,000 large containers were unqualified and rejected.16 Rightfully so, China did not want to receive garbage from other countries. Though the Green Fence policy was temporary, it began to set off changes in the global trade of recycling waste, especially plastic.
Operation Green Fence “highlighted the fragility of global dependence on a single importer.”17
Too Much Plastic…And Trash
Despite the effects of the Green Fence policy, exports to China continued. While the policy reduced the contamination rate to 1.5%, plastic production, and thus plastic waste, steadily increased. “In 2016 alone, about half of all plastic waste intended for recycling (14.1 million [metric tons]) was exported by 123 countries, with China taking most of it (7.35 million [metric tons]) from 43 different countries.”18 The map below illustrates the countries with the largest exports of plastics to China, showing the U.S. as one of the highest.
“There’s simply too much plastic for us to recycle away the problem.” -Greenpeace19
The National Sword Policy
Enacted in 2018, this policy banned “24 kinds of solid wastes, including plastics waste from living sources, vanadium slag, unsorted waste paper and waste textile materials.”20 China passed this even stricter policy in order to reduce pollution from low-value recycling, protect its people, and also reduce the smuggling of illegal goods.21 The ban included certain low-value plastics and mandated a 0.5% contamination rate, which is so strict that it almost functions as a ban on most recycling and almost all plastics.
“Before the policy was implemented, China would import huge quantities of waste from other countries, including the U.S.The country had fairly low standards for what it would accept, so recyclable waste would often be mixed with trash and contaminated items such as plastic containers with food debris.China’s processing facilities would then have to manage all that unusable waste.“22
The Human Cost
At the plastic scrap businesses, farmers and low-wage workers picked through low-value bales of scrap plastic for the best materials. They processed the best plastics, #1 and #2’s, into recycled plastic nurdles.23 China used to accept most of the #3, 4, 5, and 7 plastics. But most of these plastics were burned for fuel in people’s backyards or dumped in nearby waterways.24 The workers often even lived among the plastic scrap.
Plastics are made of chemicals and petroleum. Plastic in water breaks down into small particles and releases toxins. When humans drink or bathe with that water, they are ingesting or exposing their skin to those chemicals. Plastic releases those chemicals into the air when heated or burned. Using China as a dumping ground affected the lives and health of thousands of people, who were simply trying to earn enough to support their families.
The Film, Plastic China
One impetus for the National Sword policy likely came from the 2014 documentary Plastic China.25 The film exposed the environmental and social harms caused by imported plastic waste. It showed the families living and working around toxic plastic materials, even a child washing her face in the wastewater. “Some waste experts believe that the documentary was a motivation for China’s strict National Sword regulations to end China’s unofficial role as the world’s ‘dumping ground’ for waste.”26. Here’s the trailer, which will give an idea of how bad things were:
It is a powerful exposé. As an article from 99% Invisible noted: “Plastic China made the film festival circuit and was even seen in China for a while before the government pulled it from Chinese Internet. Coincidence or causation, National Sword came shortly thereafter. China moved to crack down on informal recycling plants and build newer, better, safer and more efficient recycling systems. Beyond that, the country also shifted focus to recycling internally rather than taking on recyclables from the rest of the world.”27
But China still had to deal with the waste it had already accumulated. Unfortunately, a lot of it wasn’t recycled. “Since the documentary ‘Plastic China’ debuted in China in 2014, more than 60 investigations and articles have shown that millions of tons of exported plastic wastes have been dumped or burned rather than recycled.”28
National Sword Exposed a Broken System
The waste management system in the U.S. was broken before the policy was passed, but it wasn’t apparent. “The National Sword has exposed the fallacy and flaws of the international flow of plastic waste exports as a responsible method of recycling plastic and creating a so-called ‘circular economy’ of plastics.”29
Unfortunately, a circular economy for plastics was never a real thing. Secondary markets for recycled plastic were limited, at best.30 Since virgin plastic often costs less than recycled plastic, there has always been little market demand for it. Worse, plastic can only be recycled once or twice before it is no longer usable. It was never endlessly recyclable.
After National Sword, the recycling market for low-value plastics disappeared almost overnight. With no one to buy the recycling bales, some U.S. recycling facilities began paying for incineration or landfill costs. As Sandra Ann Harris wrote, “The world is unequipped to handle the onslaught of waste that would normally have been shipped to China for recycling. Private and municipal recycling programs that depended on [the] sale of discarded plastics to China have resorted to burying and burning the waste, with serious carbon emissions consequences. Others have gone out of business.”31
China strictly enforced the 0.5% contamination rate through regular inspections and by limiting the number of U.S. companies authorized to transport recycling to China. “Bales that do not meet inspection are either redirected to different end-markets in Southeast Asia or sent back to U.S. ports and placed in landfills, both of which are extremely expensive and consume considerable amounts of fossil fuels.”32
The types of recyclables that Materials Recovery Facilities (MRFs) in the U.S. accepted drastically changed. In some cases, MRFs have to pay to get rid of recycling rather than earn from it. So the demand for plastics is almost non-existent and the value is now negative. These markets are not likely to ever come back unless we make huge, sweeping changes to our entire system. It will become economically challenging to keep recycling facilities operational. Recycling can be part of the solution only if it is economical. Most major companies aren’t going to alter their bottom line just because it’s the right thing to do.
“Spawning the Recycling Crisis”
Some say that the National Sword policy ‘spawned the recycling crisis.’ While it’s true that we suddenly did not have anywhere to send our millions of tons of waste, the problems stemmed from our own creation. We have been producing millions of tons of waste for decades with exponential increases each year. Our corporations had the power to turn off the tap of single-use disposable items and we had the buying power to demand change. So China’s new policy didn’t ‘spawn the recycling crisis,’ it just exposed it. We had been using China as our dumping ground for years, and China became polluted from collecting the western world’s trash.
“While many commentators have blamed East Asian import restrictions for our current struggles, the U.S. is at fault for becoming dependent on exporting its recyclables. The United States failed to curb the rise of plastic, failed to build domestic demand for recycled material, and failed to ensure that product designers considered the end life of their products.” -The State of Recycling National Survey, U.S. PIRG Education Fund33
What Happens to Recyclable Items Now?
The long-term effects of National Sword will continue to be studied, likely for years. Scientists estimated that “111 million metric tons of plastic waste will be displaced with the new Chinese policy by 2030.”34 But where does will it all go?
In the U.S., we have had to landfill or incinerate a lot of recycling. Some recycling programs have shut down altogether. Others are burning recyclables in an incinerator or sending all of them to landfills.35 Worse, we have also started sending it to other countries, places that don’t necessarily have waste management infrastructure. Instead of China, are we now putting human health at risk in those other countries?
In Part 2, I’ll explore how our waste and recycling are affecting people in other parts of the world. Thank you for reading, please share and subscribe!
Article, “Why U.S. Cities Are Ending Single-Stream Recycling,” by Ryan Deer, Roadrunner Recycling, Inc., July 8, 2021.
I used to be an avid believer in recycling. When I was 11, my family began collecting and taking our recycling to the local center. Soon after, the county we lived in passed a recycling ordinance. I was hooked. I even wrote a paper in 9th grade about landfills and recycling, citing a study about mining landfills for recycling and resources that I’d found inspiring.1
Since then I’ve dutifully washed, separated, and toted my recycling, no matter where I’ve resided. If there was no recycling service, I tracked down the recycling centers. At parties or on vacations where recycling wasn’t available, I carted my recyclables all the way home so that I could recycle them. I have spent a great deal of time over my life teaching and educating others on the how’s and why’s of recycling.
Imagine my disappointment just a few years ago when I discovered that only 9% of plastics are recycled.
“Recycling is great, but unfortunately it is not enough. There’s simply too much recycling to process, and we’re still consuming way too many resources.” -Kathryn Kellogg, 101 Ways To Go Zero Waste
The Notion of Recycling is Misleading
The reason that recycling is NOT the sole solution to our waste problem is the misconception that it IS the sole solution to our waste problem.
Many well-meaning people toss their once-used plastic bottle or container into a blue bin somewhere and think that they’ve done their part. But most do not know the real impact of what they are doing. This is because we’ve been fed the myth of recycling for decades. Plastic manufacturers carefully curated the message that we can use all of the plastic we want to because we can just recycle it. That’s a very convenient notion but not at all how it works.
Recycling actually increases consumption, because it gives consumers a false sense of taking care of the environment and doing the right thing. The fact that we think we can recycle something often drives our purchases. It is acceptable to us to buy single-serve plastic yogurt cups and plastic single drink bottles because we can justify the waste those things create with recycling. We pass these notions on to our children as well.
Additionally, companies push these falsehoods through marketing. They want us to think their products are recyclable or sustainable in some way, in order to drive up sales. Some will go as far as ‘greenwashing‘ their products.
“If the public thinks that recycling is working, then they’re not going to be as concerned about the environment.” -Larry Thomas, former head of Society of the Plastics Industry2
There are many recycling myths! Here are just a few of them.
An Endless Loop
First, recycling is not a clean, closed, endless loop where everything that goes in is remade and reused. Materials, especially plastics, degrade in quality. Many plastics are not recycled at all. Since plastics are polymers mixed with chemical additives, plastic products are typically downcycled. Downcycling means made into a lower-quality plastic. Therefore, new plastic from petroleum is often preferred by manufacturers in order to keep making equivalent-quality plastic products. Further, new plastic is often cheaper than recycled. “The current cost of virgin plastic nurdles is much cheaper than the cost of recycled plastic nurdles, so it doesn’t make economic sense to purchase recycled plastic – and much of our carefully sorted plastic ends up stuck in a landfill, incinerated, or shipped abroad.”3
So a plastic water bottle is not remade into another plastic water bottle. It may be downcycled into carpeting or synthetic fabric. After an item outlives its use as a lesser type of plastic container, carpet, or plastic lumber, it is still landfilled. So while technically recycled (downcycled) one time, it is not an endless loop of the same materials being used over and over again.
Further on the myth of reusing materials, have you ever noticed on something you purchased has a label that reads “made from 45% post-consumer” waste/content/plastics? This simply means that 45% of the product or packaging is made from recycled materials. While 100% post-consumer exists, most often, virgin materials must be mixed in with recycled materials to maintain a product’s durability. This is especially true with plastics, paper, and cardboard.
Recycling diverts waste from landfills
Another myth is that recycling automatically diverts waste from landfills. This is just not true. Many recyclables end up in landfills if recycling is contaminated. Contamination is simply the mixing of recyclables with dirty items and non-recyclables. The average resident may not want to spend time cleaning their recyclables or may not know it is necessary. They may not understand what is and is not accepted in their local recycling. They may also be “wish-cycling,” which is when someone attempts to recycle something they think should be recycled, like plastic bags, which are not recyclable. Plastic bags can get tangled in the machinery, and it contaminates the end product of recyclables. If recyclables have too many contaminates, or non-recyclable items, those bales are likely to be landfilled (or even incinerated) rather than sold to a company that will reuse them.
If it is collected, then it is recycled
Just because you put it in a blue bin that “accepts” something does not automatically mean those materials are recycled.
Plastics #3-#7 are often collected in municipalities across the country but they are sent to landfills or are incinerated. Some still export their mixed plastics to other countries. But collecting mixed plastics through single-stream recycling is a big part of the problem. “Acceptance of such a plastic item at a [Materials Recovery Facility (MRF)] alone is not sufficient and reasonable assurance to a customer that it will be manufactured into another item, as required by the FTC…Companies cannot legitimately place recycle symbols or “Check Locally” text on products made from plastics #3-7 because MRFs nationwide cannot assure consumers that valueless plastics #3-7 bales will actually be bought and recycled into a new product.”4
“Acceptance by a [Materials Recovery Facility] is Not Proof of Recycling.”5
The amount of waste and “recycling” humans create is ridiculous, and most people really don’t have any idea about the total volume. Waste and recycling go into a bin and we don’t think about it again. This further creates misconceptions surrounding recycling simply because we don’t understand the volumes of waste we create. If you combined the waste from just you and your neighbors, how much waste is that? Now imagine the amount from your entire neighborhood, city, state, and then nation.
The EPA estimates that of the 292.4 million tons of municipal solid waste (aka trash) generated in the U.S., approximately 69 million tons were recycled.6
Of this, 35,680,000 tons were plastic. Thus, an 800-pound bale of PET would be roughly 18,400 of the 16-ounce PET Bottles.7 Other estimates vary slightly, depending on the size and actual weight of each individual plastic bottle. Now I am not a mathematician. But if all plastics from the 35 million tons were plastic PET bottles, and one ton weighs 2,000 pounds, that would mean there are about 46,000 plastic bottles per ton. Then multiply 35,680,000 by 46,000, and that equals 1,641,280,000,000 individual plastic bottles. And that’s just plastics from one year!
Recycling is Important
Extracting natural resources is terrible for the environment, human health, wildlife, and directly affects climate change. Preventing the extraction of virgin materials is important, especially when it comes to fossil fuels. Both extracting and burning fossil fuels greatly contribute to global warming.
“Recycling consistently requires less resources and produces fewer greenhouse gases (GHGs) than production of new materials,” wrote Beth Porter.8 For example, recycling aluminum uses 95% less energy than extraction. Almost 75% of all aluminum that has ever been produced is still in use. Paper has a recycling rate of approximately 68.2% (in 2018), the highest compared to other materials in municipal solid waste.9
The Plastics Market
“Recycling depends on the idea that the cost of collecting and sorting certain materials is rational because somebody will want to buy them to make something else. In reality, many plastics have no such market.”-The State of Recycling National Survey, U.S. PIRG Education Fund10
Plastic production is complex and chemical. Worse, “most plastic is derived from oil drilling and/or fracking. Ethane cracker facilities turn ethane into ethylene, a building block of most common plastics.” We know that the oil industry, gas processing facilities, and ethane crackers are all associated with climate change and environmental problems.11“The massive expansion of plastic production in the U.S., fueled by at least $200 billion of investment in 340 petrochemical projects, is flooding the market and causing polyethylene [recycling] prices to decline to historic lows – below prices last seen during the 2008 financial crisis.”12
Since there is little market for recycled plastics, it exacerbates the waste crisis. Recycled plastic must be given some kind of economic value so that collecting it for recycling has a financial incentive.13
“The simple fact is, there is just too much plastic — and too many different types of plastics — being produced; and there exist few, if any, viable end markets for the material. Which makes reuse impossible.”14
What Can You do?
“Somewhere along the way, key parts of the “reduce, reuse, recycle” mantra got lost. We have lost track of reducing and reusing.”15
PLEASE RECYCLE! This post is not intended to discourage you from recycling.
But recycling is not the answer to our waste crisis.
We must restructure the way we think about trash. We must change our goals surrounding waste. The goals should focus on refusing, reducing, and reusing long before recycling enters the picture – in that order! If you read my article on how recycling works, you’ll recall that recycling processes are very complex and recycling is easily contaminated.
It is also imperative that we move away from single-use disposables. That alone could help improve pollution, reduce ocean microplastics, and help climate change. Thank you for reading, please share this article and subscribe for future articles!