A huge focus in personal sustainability is minimizing unnecessary purchases and waste. In reality, we know that there are a lot of challenges to this. Not everyone has access to grocery stores with bulk bins or the socioeconomic means to purchase longer-lasting products. So on the other end of the scale, we have recycling…right? Well, kind of and sometimes no. It’s complicated.
For decades higher-income countries have been exporting most of their plastic waste to lower-income countries – as much as 70% in 2016. That means the complicated, expensive, and often environmentally hazardous task of recycling these materials falls to lower-income countries. When mass exports of plastics began in 1993, China was among the list of low-income countries receiving these plastics and actually at the top of the chart. Initially, China welcomed the influx of plastics as they found some of the materials could be remade into products cheaply and then resold on the global market. An entire industry developed around this process, and China quickly grew to be the largest importer of plastics in the world.
Fast forward to 2013, and China is a very different country than in the early 90s, with a booming economy and shifting priorities. With the introduction of the “Green Fence”, a temporary restriction on waste imports due to contamination levels, China showed the first sign of its shifting environmental policies and, more importantly, highlighted the severe weaknesses of this global recycling method. In 2017, China moved to make the temporary stay permanent, making a statement to the United Nations that expressed extreme concern over the quality of waste they received. As a result, a ban on 24 different kinds of solid waste, most notably including plastics, was made permanent, and repercussions have since been felt worldwide. There is so much more to tell here, and if you’re interested in understanding why China moved forward with this ban, we recommend watching Plastic China or Beijing Besieged by Waste.
If Not China, Then Where?
China is not the only country that accepted plastic waste, but it is by far the largest. China and Hong Kong have imported 72.4% of all plastic waste since exports began in 1993. With quantities that extreme, it is easy to understand how halting imports disrupted domestic waste management programs. Since the ban, high-income countries such as the US and UK have moved to ship to Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam, and other countries in the region.
While we want to be happy about the thought of these plastics having somewhere to go, the joy is incredibly short-lived when you look into the facts. Most of these countries have weak or non-existent governmental policies regulating the flow of recyclable materials and also lack the infrastructure to handle the material in the first place. Because these countries have no policies in place to protect themselves, they are subjected to a host of materials that, if mishandled, can damage the local environment and the health of its inhabitants.
So Can We Just Recycle it Here?
We briefly touched on the differences between plastics in our last blog and how the various types have different challenges in recycling. Post-ban, there is still a market for plastics 1 and 2 (water bottles, milk containers) in the states, but there is no active market for mixed-plastics or those generally labeled 3-7. Instead, these plastics typically make their way to landfills and are burned or buried, even though they are marketed as recyclable materials.
It is worth noting that even plastics 1 and 2 can be thrown into landfills if they arrive at the recycling center “contaminated”. The exact definition of what that means varies widely between centers, but it could mean anything from some water left in a bottle to grease smudged on the outside of a laundry detergent jug.
What Can We Do?
The outlook on the recycling economy is incredibly mixed, depending on who you ask. Organizations such as Greenpeace have been moving in recent years to sue companies that falsely push the recyclability of their products to consumers. The argument here is that even though these products may be recyclable, consumers do not have access to these facilities, and therefore labeling them as such is false and misleading. Taking on the industry in this way is, of course, challenging, slow-moving, and expensive. Moreover, state-by-state action is not nearly as effective as federal mandates or agreements made amongst entire industries. However, activists and organizers have generally expressed appreciation for these tactics.
On the other hand, representatives from both the recycling and plastics industries are adamant that there is progress on the horizon. But there is reason to remain skeptical. With no new economic incentives and no fundamental changes in recycling technology, the only changing component of the conversation seems to be the dire urgency due to climate change. But will this be enough for these executives to buy in and move away from plastics and towards real change? On this, the jury is still out.
So, it seems that in the meantime, we must continue to focus on what we have power over – our choices. Each of us makes decisions every day that send signals to companies about what we’re willing to accept from them. Choosing to actively support those companies who prioritize environmentally forward policies and practices is the best way to communicate the kind of world we wish to live in. To be sure your purchasing decisions are well-informed, download the Ethically chrome extension, to view a company’s Ethically rating before you purchase.