What’s In Your Water? Part 2

Green dye flowing into a river that also has a white film floating in it.
Photo by the Massachusetts Dept. of Environmental Protection on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY 2.0)

“We are amid a major water crisis that is beyond anything you can imagine. Pollution problems persist and toxins are everywhere, stemming from the hazardous wastes of industry and agriculture. We’ve got more than forty thousand chemicals on the market today with only a few hundred being regulated.” -Erin Brockovich1

Water Treatment is Necessary

All water is reused, including the water we dump down drains and the contents we flush in toilets. Water treatment facilities “clean” the water by removing solids – including sewage – and treat the water with chemicals. Water has microorganisms, bacteria, and viruses, so it is necessary to treat the water with chemicals so that is safe to drink. However, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) doesn’t research or regulate all of those chemicals. As Erin Brockovich noted, “Scientists still have little data about how individual chemicals impact our health, and know even less about the effects of multiple chemicals on the body.”2

“So there is shit in the water; I’d have to make peace with that.” -Elizabeth Royte, Bottlemania: Big Business, Local Springs, and the Battle Over America’s Drinking Water

Aerial view of a Wastewater treatment plant.
Wastewater treatment plant, image by Michal Jarmoluk from Pixabay

Toxic Contaminants Linked to Cancer

Many contaminants are linked to illnesses and health issues, including cancer. The American Cancer Society estimates that there will be approximately 1,918,030 new cancer cases in 2022.3 But what is causing all of these cancer cases? Though some cancer may be from genetics or lifestyle, I’m convinced that most cancer is due to exposure to chemicals.

In 2019, researchers revealed that between 2010 and 2017, more than 100,000 cases of cancer were likely caused by the accumulation of carcinogenic chemicals in tap water. They cited arsenic, disinfection byproducts, and radioactive contaminants as the major contaminants, but they also noted that other toxins that are not monitored, such as PFASs and PFOAs, may also contribute to cancer cases.4

“How much of any toxic substance can a human body ingest and still be well? -Erin Brockovich5

Children Are Getting Cancer Too

Cancer affects our children globally. In the U.S., cancer is diagnosed annually in about 400,000 children aged 19 or under. It is the leading cause of death by disease past infancy for children.6 As Erin Brockovich wrote, children “don’t smoke, drink alcohol, or work stressful jobs.” So why are so many getting cancer? Children are more vulnerable to chemical toxins than adults because they have higher metabolisms and less mature immune systems.7 We need more research but suspicion should be enough to tell us that there’s a problem.

“American children are growing up exposed to more chemicals than any other generation in history and it shows.” -Erin Brockovich8

Colorful oil floating in water.
Photo by Steve Snodgrass on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY 2.0)

How Do These Contaminants End Up in Our Water?

Contaminants in our water come from many sources. Besides water treatment chemicals, corporations that discharge toxic wastewater and chemicals into the groundwater and surrounding environment pollute the water. Improperly lined landfills leach toxins into groundwater. Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, forces chemicals into the ground to release natural gas and those get into the water supply. The toxins from gasoline and oil spills get into the water. Pharmaceuticals are now in our water supply too.

Herbicides and pesticides applied to large agricultural plots get into the water supply from run-off, meaning rainwater washes some of them away and they get into the water supply. Big agriculture dumps animal waste into our waterways, both directly and indirectly. Tyson Foods, for example, was caught several times directly dumping tons of animal waste into waterways. Indirectly, animal farms maintain hog lagoons to collect animals’ feces and store them in ponds. During floods, those ponds overflow and mix with all of the water and enter the water supply.

Aerial view of a farm, the pink pond at the bottom of the image is an example of a Hog Lagoon, in north Carolina
The pink pond at the bottom of the image is an example of a Hog Lagoon, in North Carolina. Photo by The Waterkeeper Alliance on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0). Image slightly cropped and fade corrected.

“We assume watchdogs are in place and that regulatory agencies and government standards are keeping us safe…Big businesses rule the roost, dumping their leftover chemicals wherever they like with little regard for our safety.” -Erin Brockovich9

Improve Infrastructure and Treatment

Landfill leachate at a place called Maendy. The orange froth is a mixture of solvents, phenols and other chemicals from a landfill
Landfill leachate in Wales. The orange froth is a mixture of solvents, phenols and other chemicals from a landfill created before regulations. Photo by richie rocket on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Governmental and municipal agencies across the United States must upgrade antiquated water infrastructure and water treatment practices. “The technology we rely on for treating most of our drinking water is almost a century old and many of our water treatment plants have been in operation since the early twentieth century.”10

Monitor Pollution

Federal, state, and local government agencies must supervise industries and monitor for pollution since we know we cannot rely on the industries to self-regulate or self-report. “Unsupervised industry pollution combined with failing infrastructure is a recipe for disaster. To add insult to injury, the more polluted the water becomes, the more chemicals we need to treat it.”11 Otherwise, cancer and related illness will continue to grow.

“We’ve had industrial byproducts discarded into the ground and into our water supply for years. The companies who dump these toxins know it. They have always known it. The government knows it too. These issues affect everyone – rich or poor, black or white, Republican or Democrat. Large and small communities everywhere think they are safe when they are not.” -Erin Brockovich12
Aerial view of the San José-Santa Clara Regional Wastewater Facility.
Aerial view of the San José-Santa Clara Regional Wastewater Facility. Photo by John Cameron on Unsplash

What Can You Do?

As I mentioned earlier, water treatment is necessary. But many contaminants in water aren’t just from disinfection, as mentioned in Part 1. Find out what’s in your water by using the Environmental Working Group’s Tap Water Database. Then learn more about those contaminants in my Guide to Common Water Contaminants. Educate others, advocate through community and municipal meetings, call your water company and local politicians, and don’t take no for an answer.

Please don’t switch to bottled water. This may sound counterintuitive but it is largely a scam. It provides a false sense of security, as the water source for most bottled water is tap water.

In the meantime, review how you’re filtering your water at home. Most water filter systems don’t remove all contaminants. In my next article, I’m going to cover how to filter out the contaminants you are most concerned about. Stayed tuned, and thanks for reading!

 

Additional Resources:

Database, Environmental Working Group’s Tap Water Database.

Website, Waterkeeper Alliance.

Website, Erin Brockovich.

Interactive Map, “PFAS Contamination in the U.S.,” Environmental Working Group, updated October 4, 2021.

Map, “Contaminant Occurrence Map,” Water Quality Research Foundation.

Article, “Health Professionals: Fracking Can’t Be Done Without Threatening Public Health,” Environmental Working Group, March 16, 2018.

Map, Oil and Gas Threat Map.

 

Footnotes:

What’s In Your Water? Part 1

Photo of a person pouring water into a glass from a kitchen faucet, with a splash.
Photo by Jacek Dylag on Unsplash

There are many pitfalls when it comes to finding safe, chemical-free drinking water. Like a lot of people, when I was younger I drank my fair share of bottled water, thinking it was cleaner, healthier than soda, and readily available. I even reused the same plastic bottles over and over to try and minimize my use of plastic. In the mid-2000s I became aware of the dangers of chemicals leaching into water from single-use plastic bottles. So I immediately made the switch to tap water and never looked back.

For my home tap water, I’ve almost always used Brita water pitchers for drinking water. I thought I was filtering out whatever harmful chemicals and potential toxins that the water company didn’t filter out, hence making my water even safer to drink.

Only now am I finding out how wrong I was!

A Broken Brita pitcher

Brita filter pitcher with broken handle and orange top.
My broken Brita pitcher.

After beginning my journey toward plastic-free living, I had to address the plasticity of my Brita pitcher and its filters. At the time, I decided that using a home water filtration system was best since I didn’t want to buy bottled water, especially in plastic bottles. Also, I discovered that you can recycle Brita’s plastic filters, pitchers, and even the filter wrappers through a free TerraCycle program.1 I save all the waste and ship it off about once per year.

Our Brita water pitcher cracked at the handle about 3 years ago, probably because the company makes them out of cheap plastic (though Brita does not disclose what type of plastic is used in their pitchers, only that they are ‘BPA-Free’). We did not drop it or bang it on the sink or anything, we simply filled it and poured it. We kept using it because I refused to purchase another plastic pitcher, ‘recyclable’ or not. But now the handle has completely broken off.

Shopping Leads to Discoveries

On a recent shopping trip, I decided to replace my broken water pitcher. In the process, I discovered that there is more than one type of filter for Brita, and they offer different levels of filtration. It turns out that the different levels filter different contaminants. This immediately gave me pause. Was my family, drinking city-treated tap water while trying to avoid plastic, still exposed to toxins and chemicals in our water?

Additionally, there were many brands of water filtration systems, all offering promises of “cleaner” and “safer” drinking water. I soon felt overwhelmed and undereducated about water filtration, so I left the store without purchasing one. I planned to research water filtration systems, purchase one, and share my research with you.

But it’s much more complicated than I thought. And I discovered that our water situation is much worse than I ever knew.

Kitchen sink with faucet running.
Image by Karolina Grabowska from Pixabay

What’s In Your Water?

When I searched online for a comprehensive comparison of home water filtration systems, I kept seeing the same advice over and over again: Find out what’s in your water. Then select a water filtration system based on that. I found my way to the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG’s) Tap Water database, the most ambitious collection of data regarding tap water pollutants. “The database collects mandatory annual test reports from 2014 to 2019, produced by almost 50,000 water utilities in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.”2 The data is comprised of water quality analysis from more than 31 million state water records.

“For too many Americans, turning on their faucets for a glass of water is like pouring a cocktail of chemicals. Lead, arsenic, the “forever chemicals” known as PFAS and many other substances are often found in drinking water at potentially unsafe levels, particularly in low-income and underserved communities…[our database] reveals that when some Americans drink a glass of tap water, they’re also potentially getting a dose of industrial or agricultural contaminants linked to cancer, brain and nervous system damage, fertility problems, hormone disruption and other health harms.”-Environmental Working Group3

My Water

On EWG’s tap water database, I entered my zip code and found my water provider.4 What I discovered was so alarming that I almost cried!

Screenshot of the 7 contaminents found in my local water.

Above are just the contaminants that exceed EWG’s guidelines. My family’s tap water has 13 times the recommended limit on hexavalent chromium, a carcinogen made famous by the Erin Brockovich cases against PG&E since the 1990s. However, though I’d maybe heard of some of the other contaminants, I was not familiar with their toxicity or threats to human health.

“The [Environmental Protection Agency] standards were negotiated based on the technical feasibility and cost of water treatment and did not consider the long-term toxicity of these contaminants.” -Environmental Working Group5

Hexavalent Chromium

Chromium is an odorless, tasteless, metallic element that occurs naturally. Hexavalent chromium compounds are a group of chemicals with properties like corrosion resistance, durability, and hardness. These compounds have been used in the manufacture of pigments, metal finishing and chrome plating, stainless steel production, leather tanning, and wood preservatives. They have also been used in textile-dyeing processes, printing inks, drilling muds, fireworks, water treatment, and chemical synthesis.6 It may even be present at low levels in cement, which is used in concrete, mortar, stucco, and grouts.7

Also known as Chromium-VI, it was commonly used as a coolant and anti-corrosive at natural gas plants and electrical power stations. If not handled or discharged properly, it can seep into the groundwater and poison those who use the water, as was the case in the Erin Brockovich lawsuits. It can be ingested, inhaled, and absorbed through the skin.

It is a known carcinogen, causing stomach cancer, lung cancer, nasal and sinus cancers, kidney and liver damage, malignant tumors, nasal and skin irritation and ulceration, dermatitis, eye irritation and damage.8 It also causes all manner of reproduction problems to both males and females. Worse, it can cause developmental problems in fetuses. Other reported effects include mouth ulcers, diarrhea, abdominal pain, indigestion, vomiting, leukocytosis, presence of immature neutrophils, metabolic acidosis, acute tubular necrosis, kidney failure, and death.

“The EPA’s national survey of chromium-6 concentrations in drinking water revealed that the contaminant was found in more than three-fourths of water systems sampled, which supply water to more than two-thirds of the American population,” or approximately 232 million Americans.9

EPA has a drinking water standard of 100 parts per billion (ppb) for total chromium. This includes all forms of chromium, including trivalent (non-toxic) and hexavalent chromium.10 Based on a 2008 study by the National Toxicology Program, the California Office of Health Hazard Assessment set a public health goal in 2011 for chromium-6 in drinking water of 0.02 parts per billion. However, “the safety review of the chemical by the Environmental Protection Agency has been stalled by pressure from the industries responsible for chromium-6 contamination.”11 In other words, hexavalent chromium is allowed to be in our tap water in great quantities.

“It’s been common knowledge in the scientific community for years that people who inhale hexavalent chromium can contract lung cancer. Is it really so surprising that swallowing it also leads to cancer?” -Erin Brockovich12

Glass of drinking water
Image by Bruno Henrique from Pixabay

Total Trihalomethanes

Total trihalomethanes (TTHMs) refer to a group of harmful contaminants known collectively as disinfection byproducts. They are found in chemically treated water, which includes municipal tap water. These are formed when chlorine or other disinfectants used to treat drinking water react with plant and animal waste in drinking water supplies. But drinking water must be treated to prevent microbial diseases and pathogens. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) asserts that though necessary, “every measure must also be taken to decrease the amount of disinfection byproducts in finished drinking water served at the tap.”13

Four trihalomethanes include chloroform, bromoform, bromodichloromethane, and dibromochloromethane. The EPA’s legal limit for these in tap water is 80.0 ppb. But the healthy limit recommendation is 0.15 ppb, proposed by the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) and adopted by EWG. Disinfection byproducts increase the risk of bladder cancer, pregnancy problems (including miscarriage), cardiovascular defects, neural tube defects, change to fetal development, and low birth weight. The EPA classified bromodichloromethane and bromoform as “likely to be carcinogenic to humans.”14 People are exposed to these by using water with these contaminants, whether it is drinking, eating food prepared with it, and bathing or swimming.

Bromodichloromethane is found in 48 states and is in the water of approximately 237 million Americans.15

“The federally regulated disinfection byproducts are just a small subset of a larger group of toxic contaminants that form during water disinfection. Hundreds of other disinfection byproducts form in drinking water and may harm human health.”- Environmental Working Group16

Close up image of a water/drinking fountain.
Image by Jason Gillman from Pixabay

Haloacetic Acids

This is another group of contaminants known as disinfection byproducts. The EPA’s legal limits for these are 60 ppb. But the healthy limit recommendation is 0.10 ppb, proposed by the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) and adopted by EWG. In 2018, the National Toxicology Program classified six haloacetic acids as likely carcinogens.17 “Haloacetic acids are harmful during pregnancy and may increase the risk of cancer. Haloacetic acids are genotoxic, which means that they induce mutations and DNA damage.”18

Haloacetic acids are found in tap water in all 50 states and affect the water of approximately 260 million Americans.

Nitrate

Nitrate, one of the most common contaminants in drinking water, gets into water from fertilizer runoff, manure from animal feeding operations, and wastewater treatment plant discharge. “Tap water in agricultural areas frequently has the highest nitrate concentrations. Private drinking water wells in the vicinity of animal farms and intensively fertilized fields, or in locations where septic tanks are commonly used, can also have unsafe levels of nitrate,” even excessive levels.19

The legal limit of 10 mg/L (milligrams per liter, equivalent to parts per million), for nitrate, was set in 1992. “This standard was based on a 1962 U.S. Public Health Service recommendation to prevent acute cases of methemoglobinemia, known as blue baby syndrome, which can occur when an infant’s excessive ingestion of nitrate leads to oxygen deprivation in the blood.” The EWG recommended level of nitrate in drinking water is 0.14 mg/L, which is 70 times less than the federal limit.20 Nitrate is found in the water of 49 states and affects approximately 237 million people.21

Besides the effect on babies, nitrate is associated with thyroid disease, cancers, increased heart rate, nausea, headaches, and abdominal cramps.22 Worse, nitrate converts into other compounds in the digestive system, and they damage DNA and cause cancer in multiple species.23

“Nitrate pollution of U.S. drinking water may be responsible for up to 12,594 cases of cancer a year.”24

Radium

Radium is a radioactive element that can occur naturally in groundwater. But coal, oil, and gas extraction activities such as hydraulic fracturing (fracking) and mining can elevate concentrations in groundwater. Radium causes bone cancer; tumors in bone, lungs, and other organs; leukemia; and skin and blood damage. More than a dozen different radioactive elements are detected in U.S. tap water, including beryllium, radon, strontium, tritium, and uranium. But radium is the most common. These affect the water of approximately 165 million Americans. In addition to causing cancers, these may damage the nervous, immune, and endocrine systems. Worse,  radiation can harm fetal growth, cause birth defects, and damage brain development.25

Radium in water is measured in picocuries per liter (pCi/L), which is a measure of radioactivity in water. The current EPA legal limit, not updated since 1976, is 5 pCi/L but the EWG’s recommended limit is 0.05 pCi/L. It is found in the water systems of 49 states and affects approximately 148 million people.26

Other Contaminants in My Water

There were 6 other contaminants detected but under the recommended limits of the Environmental Working Group (EWG). These included chlorate, chloroform, total chromium, manganese, strontium, and vanadium.

Photo of a bird drinking water from a pipe with a green foliage background.
Image by 165106 from Pixabay

Now What?

I was most shocked because, in my area, the water utility we are on is considered one of the best around. It is in compliance with legally mandated federal health-based drinking water standards. So what happened?

As it turns out, almost everyone’s water is contaminated.

But how did the water in the United States get so tainted with chemicals and toxins? More importantly, what can I do about it? Can I filter these toxins out? In my next articles, I’ll explore the different water filtration systems and how our water became so contaminated and polluted. In the meantime, please investigate the contaminants in your own water at EWG’s Tap Water Database. I’ve also compiled a Guide to Common Water Contaminants. Thank you for reading, please share and subscribe!

 

Additional Resources:

Article, “Erin Brockovich: the real story of the town three decades later,” bABC News, June 10, 2021.

Article, “Drinking Water Nitrate and Human Health: An Updated Review,” by Ward, Mary H et al. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, vol. 15, No.7, July 23, 2018

Footnotes:

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:

Where Does Our Recycling Go? Part 1

Last updated on March 6, 2022.

Women separating recycling in filthy conditions.
Image by Mumtahina Rahman from Pixabay

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

Comic strip, a man indicating the our waste doesn't belong here, but that it is good for other countries.
Plastic Waste Trade Watch Newsletter. Graphic of the Month – September 2021. Image from baselactionnetwork on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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

Rear of a Recycling truck emptying a green recycling bin on a street, bird's eye view, two workers shown as well.
Image by zibik from Pixabay

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

Family working in a Jiangsu landfill, sifting through garbage in search of any valuable recyclables.
Family working in a landfill in China, sifting through garbage in search of recyclables, 2007. Photo by Sheila on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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

Family, including a child, working in a Jiangsu landfill, sifting through garbage in search of any valuable recyclables.
Family working in a Jiangsu landfill, sifting through garbage in search of any valuable recyclables, 2007. Photo by Sheila on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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.

World map showing the Chinese import ban and its impact on global plastic waste trade.
“Sources of plastic waste imports into China in 2016 and cumulative plastic waste export tonnage (in million MT[Metric Ton]) in 1988–2016. Countries with no reported exported plastic waste values are white…Quantities for sources of Chinese imports include PE, PS, PVC, PP, and PET.” Source: “The Chinese import ban and its impact on global plastic waste trade,” by Amy L. Brooks, Shunli Wang, and Jenna R. Jambeck, Science Advances, June 20, 2018.

“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.

Two workers on smoking, burning, stinking garbage pile, Huaibei, Anhui, China.
Two workers on a burning and smoking garbage pile in Huaibei, Anhui, China, 2009. Photo by Philip McMaster on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC 2.0)

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.

Negative Value

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

Four Women sorting Plastics for melting. Outskirts of Guangzhou, China. Smashed cathode ray tubes ‘stored’ in back of processing shop, Dali, China.
“Women sorting Plastics for melting. Outskirts of Guangzhou, China. Smashed cathode ray tubes ‘stored’ in back of processing shop, Dali, China,” 2013. Photo by baselactionnetwork on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-ND 2.0)

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!

 

Additional Resources:

Article, “Why U.S. Cities Are Ending Single-Stream Recycling,” by Ryan Deer, Roadrunner Recycling, Inc., July 8, 2021.

Footnotes: