Drowning in Plastic

by Karen Hertel.

Wyoming Rising advocates for civil liberties, quality public education, affordable health care, protection of the environment, and participation in government. In keeping with our recent March for Science and celebration of Earth Day, I wanted to focus on the “protection of the environment” part of our mission. What started as a simple post on “Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle” has turned into a thought-provoking, educational exercise for me. This article looks at plastic waste; future posts will look at how we as individuals and as a society can reduce our use of plastic, other materials in our municipal waste and our local options, and moving beyond recycling to a more thoughtful, sustainable-consumption lifestyle.

Recycling is no panacea to our waste problem. The third “R” of the Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle mantra is arguably the action Americans have paid the most attention to; however recent upheavals in the recycling industry are a wake-up call to refocus on reducing and reusing.

For the past couple of years, the news has carried stories of the Chinese ban on imports of recycling. Since the 1980s, China has been accepting nearly half of the world’s recyclable waste in what was initially widely viewed as a “win-win” partnership. China’s abundance of cheap labor could profitably sort through the recycling, using or selling the bounty as raw materials for inexpensive manufactured goods. Lax environmental regulations allowed for dumping or open burning of plastic that wasn’t worth recycling while pirates and other shysters exploited what regulatory safeguards existed with little fear of reprisal. For several decades the system churned on with little regard to the environmental and health effects. For the United States and other countries, selling plastics, mixed paper, scrap metal and other recyclables to China kept many recycling programs afloat or even profitable. Things began to change in 2013 when China announced Operation Green Fence, declaring “it’d had enough of being the world’s trash dump.” The policy set contamination levels for loads of recycling and led to shipments rejected at the ports sent back. Exporters weren’t paid for the rejected recycling and it started to stockpile back in countries of origin, where markets and infrastructure weren’t equipped to deal with the deluge of unwanted materials.  A whopping one-quarter of the bottles, cans, and paper the U.S. was sending to China were contaminated with too much food and trash or contaminated because different recyclables were mixed together in the same bale. Green Fence was disruptive enough that the U.S. recycling industry had a premonition that our days of dumping our unwanted, often-contaminated recyclables might be coming to an end. Sure enough, the situation escalated abruptly in February 2017 when China announced its National Sword policy, with a stated intent of going after importers using illegal permits and inspecting bales of low-grade plastics and high-moisture paper more closely. Over the next months additional restrictions were added culminating in a complete ban of some materials, including various types of plastic and paper, and a 99.5% purity standard–very difficult to achieve–for materials it would accept.

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Although the Chinese ban has impacted many recyclables–including mixed paper, aluminum and glass—the ban on plastics has arguably had the most publicly visible effect. Prior to National Sword, China imported 95% of the European Union’s plastic collected for recycling and 70% from the United States. Lower-income countries, many without the infrastructure to properly handle recyclables tried to take up the slack. Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives to Plastic (GAIA) just published, Discarded: Communities on the Frontlines of the Global Plastic Crisis, focusing on Indonesia, Thailand, and Malaysia, three countries that have taken in waste after the China ban. The report is blunt about the problem, “By refusing to be the world’s dumping ground, China’s policy—and the fallout that resulted from it—revealed the true cost of rampant consumption, plastic production, and the problems and limitations of recycling as a solution to a world suffocating in its own plastic.” Heartbreaking stories of waste pickers, often unaware of the health and environmental hazards until it’s too late and lured by the prospect of a job, add a human dimension to “the problem that wealthy countries have failed to solve—how to get rid of the heaps of unrecyclable, dirty plastic waste generated by modern consumption.” Garbage pickers sort out anything of value; with everything left “they do what’s easiest: they burn it.” Just as happened in China, the poor are being exploited by the middlemen. Dr. Somnook, a plastic waste researcher in Thailand, says “at each step in the global chain of the recycling industry, each player—from sophisticated waste management facilities in the United States and other wealthy countries, to the licensed factories getting the first take of imported plastic scrap—skimmed off what was valuable to them, and passed ever-less valuable, more difficult-to-process waste to the next facility.” The lowest-grade waste ends up in rural areas where enforcement is lax and it’s common to see workers melting plastic without respirators, toxic liquids being poured into farmlands, and trash burned at night.

“By refusing to be the world’s dumping ground, China’s policy—and the fallout that resulted from it—revealed the true cost of rampant consumption, plastic production, and the problems and limitations of recycling as a solution to a world suffocating in its own plastic.”

Discarded: Communities on the Frontlines of the Global Plastics Crisis

Some of these countries are starting to enact their own bans forcing places such as the U.S. that have long exported much of their recycling to deal with the new reality. Centers are closing in many states, bales of recyclables are being stockpiled, some is diverted to landfills, and some is incinerated. Even prior to the bans on our exported recyclables, the United States has never been as successful at recycling as many other countries. According to the latest EPA figures, in 2015 we recycled 34% (this includes composting) of our municipal solid waste, an increase from the 29% in 2000, but well behind Germany who recycled (including composting) 66% and an average 45% across all European Union countries. Several factors have contributed to Germany’s high rates, including strong government policies such as an ordinance that  required manufacturers to take responsibility for the recycling of their product packaging, a concept gaining traction worldwide. Marie Locke compares the German model to the U.S., The concept in which private industries are responsible for eliminating waste — and for covering the costs — is described as the ‘polluter pays’ principle. In other words, those who create the waste are responsible for cleaning up the mess. The U.S. has a ‘consumer pays’ policy, in which waste management is funded by taxpaying citizens.”

Recycle. [1970]. Source: Library of Congress

The U.S. saw a big move to single-stream recycling in the 1990s, where everything is mixed together in the curbside bin and then sorted at the material recovery facility (MRF). The upside was that more households recycled but the downside was that recyclables decreased in quality. Broken glass in a load can get embedded in paper or cardboard and contaminate an entire bale.  With single-stream recycling people tend to be less aware of what is accepted at their local center and more likely to practice “aspirational” or wishful recycling, where we think an item SHOULD be able to be recycled, so we put it in the bin. Now that China and other countries aren’t willing to sort through our recycling, the quality issue has come home to roost. There’s often a real disconnect between claiming some green cred because we recycle and actually knowing what happens to our recycling. Susan Collins, president of the Container Recycling Institute, calls it a fairy tale, saying “The public has been trained to put their stuff in their bin at the curb, and for the stuff to just go away.   And of course there is no such thing as away, away is always somewhere.”   

Plastic, in particular, has not been a recycling success story. In 2017, the first global analysis of all mass-produced plastics ever manufactured (from 1950 when large-scale production began thru 2015) was published in the journal Science Advances. Worldwide, 90.5% of plastic has never been recycled. 12% is incinerated and the remaining 79% ends up in landfills or the environment. The 90.5% statistic is so shocking it was named the 2018 International Statistic of the Year by Great Britain’s Royal Statistical Society. These statistics are based on the total 8300 metric tonnes (Mt) of plastic produced from 1950-2015; of this only 2500 Mt are still in use. Recycling rates of plastic have gotten better; it’s estimated that in 2014 Europe had 30% plastic recycling, China (25%) and the United States (9%). Although we tend to believe that once our recyclables enter the system, we’ve done the “green” thing, only 10% of the plastics that get recycled have been recycled more than one time. At some point in its life cycle, unless incinerated, plastic is going to end up in the landfill or the environment. We should recycle plastic but that only delays, rather than avoids, final disposal in what is essentially still a linear process rather than a closed loop. To reduce plastic waste we must ensure that recycled plastic displaces the production of virgin plastic. The authors of the study caution us that “without a well-designed and tailor-made management strategy for end-of-life plastics, humans are conducting a singular uncontrolled experiment on a global scale, in which billions of metric tons of material will accumulate across all major terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems on the planet.”

We are a world drowning in plastic. Some of the numbers I found the most sobering, and important to think about, are (click the links for more information):

  • The growth of plastics production in the past 65 years has outpaced any other manufactured material.
  • World plastic production has increased exponentially from 2.3 million tons in 1950 to 162 million in 1993 to 448 million by 2015.
  • Of all the plastic produced since 1950, over half was produced in the last 13 years.
  • From 1950-2015, approximately 6300 Mt of plastic waste has been generated. If current production and waste management trends continue, roughly 12,000 Mt of plastic waste will be in landfills or in the natural environment by 2050.
  • The largest market for plastics today is packaging materials (42% in 2015). That trash now accounts for nearly half of all plastic waste generated globally—most of it never gets recycled or incinerated.

  • Worldwide, 73 percent of beach litter is plastic: filters from cigarette butts, bottles, bottle caps, food wrappers, grocery bags, and polystyrene containers.
  • In 2018, #breakfreefromplastic volunteers collected and catalogued 187,851 pieces of plastic pollution in 42 countries. The top three companies alone (CocaCola, PepsiCo, and Nestle) accounted for 14% of the branded plastic pollution found worldwide.
  • Some 700 species of marine animals have been reported so far to have eaten or become entangled in plastic.
  • A dead sperm whale that washed ashore in eastern Indonesia in November 2018 had  13.2 pounds of plastic trash in its stomach, including 115 drinking cups, 25 plastic bags, plastic bottles, two flip-flops and a bag containing more than 1,000 pieces of string.
  • If trends continue, by 2050 oceans are expected to contain more plastics than fish (by weight).
  • Currently, the production of plastics represents about 6% of global oil consumption.
  • When oil and gas are cheap, it’s more profitable for manufacturers to buy virgin plastic than it is for them to buy recycled plastic feedstock.
  • If trends continue, the entire plastics industry will consume 20% of total oil production, and 15% of the annual carbon budget in 2050.

Stories and images like the dead sperm whale in Indonesia get people’s attention. Alongside the chaos caused by the disruption in the global trading of recyclables, the human and environmental toll of our decades long love affair with plastic is becoming all too apparent. There’s a lot to love about plastic; for example, its lightweight, functional, convenient, and it helps to preserve and protect our food supply. Innovative thinkers see a new plastics economy where the first step is insight and a willingness to rethink our current “take, make, and dispose” system. Next, the public, private sector and civil society all need to mobilize to move plastic from an open-loop resource that is maybe downcycled once or twice and then ends up in our trash to a closed-loop, circular-economy product.  Plastic is of course not the only culprit in creating our mountains of waste, but it’s a big one. We all need to join the individuals, communities, and countries actively working creatively and thoughtfully towards a zero-waste society.

National Geographic. Planet or Plastic?
National Geographic’s multi-year effort to raise awareness about the global plastic trash crisis. A compilation of NG stories, photo-essays, short films, and ways to get involved.

GAIA. Discarded: Communities on the Frontlines of the Global Plastics Crisis(2019).

Branded: In Search of the World’s Top Corporate Plastic Polluters(2018). Published by GreenPeace. Member groups of the global Break Free From Plastic movement mobilized to collect waste and plastic pollution in 42 countries. What they found and documented is fascinating.

Plastic Ocean (2016): Widely available documentary film that tells the story of a journalist, a free diver, and a team of scientists who spend time in 20 locations around the world over four years to explore the fragile state of the oceans, uncover alarming truths about plastic pollution, and reveal working solutions.

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