Hefty EnergyBag Program

Hefty Energy Bag Program Starter Kit with informational card, orange trash bag, and plastic film.
Hefty Energy Bag Program Starter Kit, received October 21, 2022. Photo by me.

In October 2022, I received this Starter Kit in my mailbox (wrapped in plastic film). This program claims to be a solution for recycling all of the non-recyclable plastics that come into our daily lives. Items must be rinsed or cleaned first, of course, and they don’t accept everything. Items they will accept include yogurt containers, Styrofoam or polystyrene take-out containers, plastic packaging, plastic straws, and many others. For a full list please refer to the graphic below. They do not accept items that you can already recycle in your area, such as any plastics #1 and #2. They also do not accept #3 PVC plastics.

Hefty Energy Bag program mailer
Hefty Energy Bag program mailer.

The program admittedly sounded exciting, but over the years of doing this, I’ve learned to be skeptical. With this program, I could now recycle all my non-recyclable plastics with this mostly convenient Hefty EnergyBag Program and honestly, it felt too good to be true. So I started looking into it.  When I first looked up their website, using the QR code from the mailer, they did not include Tennessee – the closest was Atlanta, Georgia.

Screenshot of their locations from Hefty's website
Screenshot of their locations from Hefty’s website, captured on October 23, 2022.

I started by reaching out to them through their Contact Us page and asked why I received the mailer if the program wasn’t available in my area. A week later, they updated their website and responded to me. They said I could take items bagged in the orange bags to our local recycling center in Chattanooga, Tennessee. They sent the mailers out just a couple of weeks too early.

How does the program work?

Let’s break this down so we can understand how it works. I follow the order on the company’s mailer. This information is also available on their website.1

Hefty Energy Bag program mailer
Hefty Energy Bag program mailer.

#1: “Consumers must purchase Hefty EnergyBag product.”

The bags, which you must purchase at your own cost, cost about $10.49 per box of 26. This amounts to under $0.41 per bag. Seems cheap, but when compared to Hefty Strong Tall Kitchen Drawstring Trash Bags in the same size (13 Gallon ), those are about $0.18 per bag. That means these special orange bags are more than double the cost of regular trash bags. So right at the beginning, the company is shifting the cost to the consumers. Hefty makes many plastic products that you’re already paying for, so why aren’t they covering the cost of the bags if they really want to do the right thing?

#2: “Hard-to-recycle plastics get collected in the bag.”

Consumers are once again given the responsibility of not only collecting all the items into the special bags, but also understanding which items are and are not eligible.

#3: “Full tied bags can be dropped off at any of the designated recycling centers in the area.”

It refers to their website for locations. The bags are not collected curbside; they must be dropped off at a designated place. Where I live, I must take the bags to the recycling center. I’m not sure of the reason for this. While some people will participate, many residents won’t recycle anything unless it is picked up curbside. 

#4: “The normal recycling truck collects and delivers the bags to a local Recycling Facility (MRF) as a part of normal service.”

This statement is confusing since it seems like they mean the curbside recycling truck will pick it up as part of the normal service, but it means that the orange bags will be collected at the recycling center on a regular basis and taken to the MRF facility.

Buckhorn Mesa landfill in Arizona, image shows mountain of colorful trash and a bulldozer at top, clear blue sky in background.
Buckhorn Mesa landfill in Arizona, photo by Alan Levine on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY 2.0).

#5: “Bags are sorted at the MRF and sent to a facility for use as valued resources.”

This is where the process gets muddled because our local Materials Recovery Facility (MRF) does not ship or sell plastics #3-#7. They landfill those materials. I’ve also read that most MRFs will not open and sort recyclables that are in plastic bags. Will they make an exception for the Hefty EnergyBag Program orange bags? I was curious to know if our local MRF, which is WestRock, has made a commitment to participate in this specific program, and if not, what will they do with the orange bags? I emailed Hefty (Reynolds Consumer Products is the parent company) with the following questions:

1) Your website indicates that these bags go to our local MRF for sorting. However, if our local MRF currently landfills plastics #3-#7, how do we know these items will get used for another purpose and not be landfilled?

2) Do you know if our local MRF is now participating in this Hefty program? Have they made a specific commitment for the Hefty EnergyBag Program?

3) Is it up to each individual MRF to decide what to do with the orange bags?

4) Have the MRFs preselected end-of-life partners (this term was extracted from your 2020 life cycle assessment)?

I wish I could include their response, but unfortunately, I have now sent this request 3 times and still have not received a reply.

More recently, I sent a list of similar questions to our local MRF, WestRock, but I have not yet received a response.2

#6: “The collected plastics can become an energy resource, feedstock for fuels or new products, or ground into smaller pieces to make new plastic building products and plastic lumber.”

Hefty indicates that these plastics can be reused to create energy, lowering our need for petroleum or new fossil fuels. On their website, under their header “PLASTIC WASTE IS MORE VALUABLE THAN YOU THINK,” they advertise that these plastics can be used for the following purposes:

      • Alternative fuel for manufacturing cement, reducing the need for natural resources like coal
      • Aggregate material for concrete blocks, plastic lumber, and other building products
      • New plastic products such as park benches, and Adirondack chairs
      • Feedstocks that can be refined into high-grade fuels or converted back into plastics

I wish plastic waste were actually valuable, because most of the time, it isn’t. Most plastics go to a landfill.

The above information came from a study that Reynolds Consumer Products commissioned, from the Sustainable Solutions Corporation, a company that helps envision and design sustainable solutions for companies. The “intended use of this study is to determine the environmental benefits of alternative end-of-life options currently utilized in the Hefty® EnergyBag® program compared to a traditional trash bag (Flex Bag) sent to landfill.” One of the main goals is “to create a more sustainable future by diverting this waste [from the landfill] and utilizing the material as a valued resource.”3

Full orange trash bag sitting on a street or sidewalk.
Photo from Rawpixel.com (CC0).

Does this mean the Hefty EnergyBag Program is a ploy?

Maybe. Hefty indicates that “the function of the Hefty® EnergyBag® orange bag is to serve as an alternative household waste bag to collect and divert difficult-to-recycle plastics from landfill.”4 A worthy goal, but I don’t know that it is actually happening. They are shifting the cost and effort to the consumer and the MRF. It also sounds like they are allowing the MRF to decide what to do with these items. However, most MRFs cannot sell “hard to recycle” plastics to manufacturers because there is just so much of it and it’s of little value.

In my area, I believe the Materials Recovery Facility (MRF) landfills the plastics that the Hefty EnergyBag Program collects. Perhaps that will change soon, and if it does, I will update this article! But it is worth asking your local MRF if they are participating in this program. Be direct and let them know you’ll be spending extra money on these bags and that you’d like to know if they are able to sort and sell or ship the materials.

Marketing (or Greenwashing?)

Hefty wants all of this non-recyclable plastic, including the plastics they manufacture, to stop going to landfills. So they paid for a study showing how these plastics could be used. But they themselves have nothing to do with the recycling or end-of-life use of these plastics. So, Hefty looks like they are doing the right thing, while earning more profits from selling the orange bags. They are not stopping plastic production at the source, even within their own company.

Is this just an excuse to justify the continued production of single-use disposable plastic products?

This is likely just a marketing campaign in order to increase their appearance of sustainability. If Hefty wanted to make a real difference, they would cover the cost of the bags for consumers, and/or cover some of the costs for the MRFs to do the extra collection and sorting. Even more, Hefty could have those plastics sent to them directly and they could reuse them in their own products.

I imagine it will be easy to spot these bright orange bags in landfills 50 years from now.

I hope this is helpful. Thanks for reading, please share and subscribe!

 

Footnotes:

Tap Water vs. Bottled Water

Last updated on October 30, 2022.

A glass of tap water next to a plastic bottle of water.
Image by Alexander Lesnitsky from Pixabay.

Now that I’ve terrified you about the contaminants in tap water in Part 1 and Part 2 of What’s In Your Water? you may be thinking about switching to bottled water. But which is better?

The short answer is that you are better off drinking tap water, despite the contamination problems we have in the United States.

Is Bottled Water Safer?

No. While there has always been a debate about whether tap water or bottled water is safer, the answer is that tap water is safer. Studies have discovered that most bottled water brands are from a tap water source. Some use distillation or reverse osmosis processes. But few are from actual springs or glaciers.

Tap water is always tested and the results are publicly reported. But bottled water is not necessarily held to the same standards. “Public drinking water facilities are required to test for contaminants each year and publicly disclose the results, while the bottled water industry is not required by law to disclose the results of its testing.”1

“Bottled water is not regulated by the EPA, which is responsible for the quality of water that comes out of your tap.” -Erin Brockovich2

Gallon bottle of distilled water,
Gallon bottle of distilled water; note that the source was “municipal water.” Photo by me.
Gallon bottle of distilled water, the label.
Gallon bottle of distilled water; note that the source was “municipal water.” Photo by me.

Cost of Bottled Water vs. Tap Water

Kitchen faucet with running water.
Photo by Imani on Unsplash.

Bottled water is “one of the greatest scams of all time…bottled water is roughly 2,800 times more expensive than tap water!”3 Other estimates are slightly lower at more than 2,200 times more expensive than tap water, exhibiting the outrageous markups of bottled water. Bottled water, at these rates, costs far more per gallon than gasoline has ever cost us.4

The costs above are based on single bottles of water, the 16-20 ounce size, usually sold at the checkouts of department stores or at convenience stores. Those generally cost between $1 and $3 each. But what if you buy in bulk?

A 24-pack of Dasani 16.9-ounce bottles at Target is $5.49 where I live, or almost 23 cents per bottle. The same amount of Great Value brand bottled water at Walmart is $3.18, or just 13 cents per bottle. That seems significantly cheaper, but it isn’t when we compare it to tap water.

The Dasani water at Target costs about $1.73 per gallon of water, and the Walmart water costs about $1.00 per gallon. Tap water costs an average of $0.005 per gallon in the United States. Nationwide the average cost for municipal water is about $2.50 per thousand gallons. This is grossly less expensive than bottled water.

“The outrageous success of bottled water…is an unparalleled social phenomenon, one of the greatest marketing coups of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.” -Elizabeth Royte5

Bottled Water Sales

Shelves of bottled water at a grocery store.
Photo by me.

According to the Container Recycling Institute (CRI), between 1960 and 1970 the average person bought 200 to 250 packaged drinks each year, mostly soda and beer.6 In the 1970s, Americans purchased about 350 million gallons of bottled water. “Much of that came in the big five-gallon jugs used in office water coolers; the rest made up a niche market of mineral waters bottled from natural springs.”7 With increased interest in health and fitness during the 1980s, bottled water saw more increases in sales.

Once bottled water took hold of consumers, its sales increased exponentially. “Between 1990 and 1997, U.S. sales of bottled water shot from $115 million to $4 billion, boosted by public health messages against obesity, by multimillion-dollar ad campaigns that emphasized the perceived health benefits of bottled water…Between 1997 and 2006, U.S. sales of bottled water leaped from $4 billion to $10.8 billion, or 170 percent.”8

By 2020, we increased to purchasing 15 billion gallons of bottled water annually in the United States.9 We spend more than $16 billion per year on it. It outsells bottled soda annually. Globally, bottled water consumption grows each year, now totaling over 100 billion gallons annually.

The Marketing of Bottled Water

“In the end, it’s hard to untangle how much of bottled water’s success was due to clever marketing and ‘manufactured demand,’ and how much of it was driven by shifting consumer preferences. Health concerns, the desire for status symbols, the lure of convenience, and, yes, lots and lots of energetic marketing—all played a role.” -Robert Moss, Serious Eats10

The huge growth in bottled water sales was largely due to marketing. Many companies started advertising bottled water as either a safer option than tap, or a healthier alternative to sugary drinks. Early in the 2000s, the same era where we saw major growth in bottled water production and sales, a chairman of PepsiCo said: “The biggest enemy is tap water. . . . We’re not against water — it just has its place. We think it’s good for irrigation and cooking.”11 They were ready to market bottled water as better than tap water.

When bottled water first started selling everywhere, it was a great alternative to soda and fruity bottled drinks. Plus, people could carry the bottle around and refill it over and over, not knowing that that was dangerous. According to Serious Eats, “A tectonic shift was under way in the beverage industry, and it involved much more than water. Americans were looking for alternatives to carbonated soft drinks, and water was just one of many options—including bottled teas and lemonades, like Snapple and AriZona Iced Tea; sports drinks, like Gatorade and Powerade; and even coffee-based drinks.”12 

But marketing bottled water as safer and superior to tap water was a shady tactic. Corporations were looking to make as much money as they could, and bottled tap water reaps huge profits. There has always been a barrage of advertisements from companies producing bottled water, claiming that theirs is the purest and the healthiest. “Water municipalities can’t possibly compete with these companies when it comes to advertising,” wrote Erin Brockovich.13

Dasani (Coca-Cola) advertisement, screenshot taken from their website. Dasani is tap water filtered with reverse osmosis.
Dasani (Coca-Cola) advertisement, screenshot taken from their website.

One example is Dasani, which is simply tap water filtered with reverse osmosis filtration. What are the minerals that enhance the water? No one exactly knows as the company does not disclose that information. “DASANI adds a variety of minerals, including salt, to create the crisp fresh taste you know and love. Although we are unable to disclose the exact quantities of minerals added to our water, we can tell you that the amounts of these minerals (including salt) are so minuscule that the US Food and Drug Administration considers them negligible or ‘dietarily insignificant.'”14 I think consumers have a right to know.

“Bottled water labels can be confusing. They portray an illusion of virtue, with images and messages printed on the bottles saying they are filled with water from pure mountain springs, while many of these bottles contain tap water in a fancy-looking to-go package.” -Erin Brockovich15

The Plastic Bottles

Many plastic water bottles with white caps.
Photo by Jonathan Chng on Unsplash.

Historically, single beverages consisted of mostly soda and beer. More importantly, many of those were in refillable glass bottles, or at least recyclable aluminum cans. But today many beverages, especially bottled water, come in plastic bottles.

Plastics are made from petroleum and chemicals. And it takes a ton of petroleum to produce plastic bottles. It’s ridiculous that the price of oil is so high but petroleum-based plastics are produced cheaply and discarded as easily as toilet paper. That doesn’t even account for the transportation of bottled water. “Bottled water requires 2,000 times more energy than tap water to produce the same amount.”16 Worse, it takes about 22 gallons of water to produce a single pound of plastic, “which means it takes 3 liters of water to make 1 liter of bottled water,” according to Kathryn Kellogg, a zero waste expert.

“More than 17 million barrels of oil are wasted to produce the water bottles Americans buy in a typical year.” -Fran Hawthorne, Ethical Chic18

Chemicals Leaching into Bottled Water

Cases of Dannon bottled water outside with forklifts in background, in Florida. Plastic leaches toxins when exposed to heat. These are sitting outdoors at a Florida warehouse, where it is hot year round.
Cases of Dannon bottled water, in Florida. Plastic leaches toxins when exposed to heat. These are sitting outdoors at a Florida warehouse, where it is hot year round. Image by David Mark from Pixabay.

On top of that, plastics leach chemicals into the water. Plastics are polymers derived from oil with other chemicals added to make them flexible, strong, and colorful. You can read more about chemicals in plastics in my articles here and here. The chemicals in plastic bottles, such as phthalates, bisphenols, and antimony,19 leach into the water, especially under heated conditions or from exposure to ultraviolet light (sunlight). By the time bottled water has been stored for months, or even years, it is unknown how many chemicals have leached into the water.

Reusable Water Bottles

Four types of reusable water bottles, two blue and two stainless steel colored.
Image by NatureFriend from Pixabay.

Your own reusable water bottle should be metal or glass. Don’t buy a plastic one. Even those that advertise “BPA-Free” or that have similar disclaimers contain chemicals in the plastics that are likely harmful.

You can ask almost any restaurant, cafe, or coffee shop to fill your water bottle, and they will almost always comply. You can use water fountains or water bottle refill stations, which are now found in parks, museums, airports, libraries, and other public areas. There are global networks of refill station maps at findtap.com (best for U.S. users) and refillmybottle.com (best for global users).

Water bottle filling station at the Oregon Convention Center, Portland, Oregon. Two drinking fountains and a bottle refill section behind the fountains.
Water bottle filling station at the Oregon Convention Center, Portland, Oregon. Photo by Jeremy Jeziorski on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY 2.0).
Water bottle filling station at the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. Drinking fountain at right and bottle fill section at left.
Water bottle filling station at the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. Photo by Taylor Notion, used with permission.

“The fact is that bottling water and shipping it is a big waste of fuel, so stop already. The water that comes to your house through a pipe is good enough, and maybe better.” –Garrison KeillorSalt Lake Tribune20

Stick With Tap Water

Today, corporations market bottled water to us in so many ways. They sell enhanced or vitamin waters, flavored waters, sparkling waters, and even luxury waters. Plastics pose health concerns about chemicals leaching into the water. There are some brands that use a “box” or carton, but those are not recyclable. Aluminum or glass are better options, but you are still paying far too much for water.

Stop buying bottled water. There are exceptions, of course. If you are in a situation without your reusable bottle and are desperate for water, buy the bottle of water. Bottled water is also extremely important for emergencies and emergency relief efforts.

While there are a lot of contaminants in tap water, stick with it anyway. Just get a good water filtration system. Corporations are bottling water with just filtered tap or “municipal” water. On the occasion you do buy bottled water, do not reuse the water bottle or leave it anywhere it can get hot, such as in a car. Just recycle it.

I hope this article has helped! Let me know if you have any questions or ideas by leaving a comment below. Thank you for reading, and please share and subscribe!

 

Footnotes:

Book review: Trashlands: A Novel, by Alison Stine

Trashlands: A Novel book coverI 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.

Plastic and trash debris floating in water with fish swimming around it.
Photo by Naja Bertolt Jensen on Unsplash

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.”

Junkyard and piles of scrap, incudling a damaged car.
Photo by Evan Demicoli on Unsplash

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!

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.

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