By Kaylee Clayton
Until 2018, the United States shipped roughly 7 million tons of plastic to China each year. In China, the plastic was sorted, broken down and reused to create new materials. Paper and aluminum was also shipped over from the U.S.
Not just the U.S. but about 70 percent of the world’s plastic waste went to China according to NPR writer Christopher Joyce. Many Chinese people became millionaires with new recycling businesses that bought the world’s trash and made money from processing and selling it. Joyce said this aided in making China the second wealthiest economy in the world.
At U.S. West Coast ports, empty Chinese shipping containers that had delivered goods to American consumers were sent back full of plastic and paper recycling. While American recycling machines often struggled with breaking down certain types of plastics, China had the capacity to handle the plastics with enough cheap laborers to sort the recyclable materials.
About five years ago, the Chinese government began to worry about the amount of incoming plastic. Much of the plastic was contaminated, which made it difficult to recycle and unprofitable. In 2017, the Chinese government implemented stricter regulations and began to cut down plastic trash imports. In January 2018, China banned almost all imports. “That means a huge amount of plastic is looking for a place to go,” said Joyce.
This left American recyclers with three options: pay a higher price for recycling, send it to different countries, or send it to the landfill.
“Plastic is getting separated at paper factories, dumped in neighboring communities, and the only way to get rid of it is to openly burn it,” said environmental activist Stiv Wilson. “Air, water, and land are all affected.”
Many smaller cities that feel they cannot afford to pay more for recycling choose to incinerate their recycling rather than pay for recycling, which results in harmful toxins being released into the air. Keefe Harrison who runs the nonprofit Recycling Partnership, said “more plastic in the U.S. is ending up in landfills or getting incinerated, which creates pollution.”
Shipments of plastic waste are now diverted to Southeast Asian countries instead of China. These shipments have increased exponentially since 2018. According to Laura Parker from National Geographic, exports from the U.S. to Thailand jumped almost 7,000 percent in one year. Malaysia’s increased several hundred percent. Those numbers have begun to decrease since those countries have cut back on imports.
Alana Samuels reported in The Atlantic that waste-management companies across the country are telling towns, cities, and counties there is no longer a market for their recycling. Recycling is ending at a time when the United States is producing more waste than ever before.
According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the total amount of municipal waste was 208.3 million tons in 1990 and 262.4 million tons in 2015. According to Frontier Group, “The U.S. produces more than 30 percent of the planet’s total waste, though it is home to only 4 percent of the world’s population.” A Columbia University study estimated Americans throw out seven pounds of materials per person every day, which is 2,555 pounds of materials per year.
The Zero-Waste Movement proposes an alternative to shipping waste to other countries and landfills. This idea started 20 years ago when Daniel Knapp, Ph.D., CEO, Urban Ore, Inc., a Material Recovery Enterprise in Berkeley, California, shared his research around the world on his idea of “No Waste.”
The Zero-Waste Movement encourages the redesign of resource life cycles so all products are reused. By eliminating single-use items, plastic water bottles, Ziploc baggies and plastic straws, one can live a lifestyle of reducing and reusing. The goal is for no trash to be sent to other countries, landfills, incinerators or the ocean. Of the 260 million tons of plastic the world produces each year, about 10 percent ends up in the ocean, according to a Greenpeace report. Plastic Oceans reported that “more than 8 million tons of plastic are dumped in the oceans every year.”
The Zero-Waste Movement encourages people to take responsibility for their product consumption and only use materials that can be reused. Some individuals have managed to keep
all the waste they have created for several years in a 16 oz. mason jar. Lauren Singer, environmental activist and CEO of Simple Co., kept all the trash she made in four years in a 16 oz. jar. She began with eliminating single-use plastic, analyzing what her trash consisted of, composting raw materials, making her own products, and investing in sustainable and reusable alternatives.
Spring Arbor University (SAU) junior and environmentalist Madilyn Nissley said “the Zero-Waste Movement is a good thing, but if someone cannot commit to changing everything in their life then it
feels overwhelmingly impossible.” The Zero-Waste Movement could be the answer to America’s current recycling dilemma.