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:

  1. Executive Summary, “Plastic waste has arrived in Latin America: trends and challenges in the region,” Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives, July 2021.
  2. Article, Now China refuses to be dumping ground for the world’s waste, where on Earth will it all go?,by Adam Minter and Faye Flam, Post Magazine, July 9, 2018.
  3. Article, “Where does your plastic go? Global investigation reveals America’s dirty secret,The Guardian, June 17, 2019.
  4. Executive Summary, “Plastic waste has arrived in Latin America: trends and challenges in the region,” Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives, July 2021.
  5. Article, “157,000 Shipping Containers of U.S. Plastic Waste Exported to Countries with Poor Waste Management in 2018,by Jan Dell, Plastic Pollution Coalition, May 6, 2019.
  6. Executive Summary, “Plastic waste has arrived in Latin America: trends and challenges in the region,” Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives, July 2021.
  7. Article, “157,000 Shipping Containers of U.S. Plastic Waste Exported to Countries with Poor Waste Management in 2018,by Jan Dell, Plastic Pollution Coalition, May 6, 2019.
  8. Article, “Recycling’s Sword of Damocles,by Liz Zarka, East Bay Express, May 21, 2019.
  9. Article, “157,000 Shipping Containers of U.S. Plastic Waste Exported to Countries with Poor Waste Management in 2018,by Jan Dell, Plastic Pollution Coalition, May 6, 2019.
  10. Article, Plastic pollution: One town smothered by 17,000 tonnes of rubbish,by Yvette Tan, BBC News, February 13, 2019.
  11. Article, “Here’s what happens to our plastic recycling when it goes offshore,The Conversation, January 29, 2019.
  12. Book, Can I Recycle This?: A Guide to Better Recycling and How to Reduce Single-Use Plastics, by Jennie Romer, Penguin Books, New York, 2021.
  13. Book, Can I Recycle This?: A Guide to Better Recycling and How to Reduce Single-Use Plastics, by Jennie Romer, Penguin Books, New York, 2021.
  14. Article, “Where does your plastic go? Global investigation reveals America’s dirty secret,The Guardian, June 17, 2019.
  15. Report, “Circular Claims Fall Flat: Comprehensive U.S. Survey of Plastics Recyclability,by John Hocevar, Greenpeace Reports, February 18, 2020.
  16. Book, Can I Recycle This?: A Guide to Better Recycling and How to Reduce Single-Use Plastics, by Jennie Romer, Penguin, New York, 2021.
  17. Report, “Circular Claims Fall Flat: Comprehensive U.S. Survey of Plastics Recyclability,by John Hocevar, Greenpeace Reports, February 18, 2020.

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