Where Your Plastic Really Ends Up: Trashy Secrets of the Recycling Industry

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The world is consuming goods at an alarming rate and recycling is the only method that will sustain our forever unsatiated need to buy. It reduces the quantity of virgin plastics required in production and is a cheaper input. However, in 2020, it is becoming more and more unlikely that the plastics we add to our blue bins will be recycled. Such a trend is atypical because, in general, citizens today are more educated on environmental issues and willing to contribute to waste reduction. Despite this, a number of factors have recently created a perfect storm that has sent the recycling industry into a downward spiral.  

The Big ‘Ban’:

On January 1st, 2018 China implemented the National Sword policy that banned the import of all non-industrial plastic waste. Prior to this, it was the norm for developed countries such as Canada, the U.S., E.U. and U.K. to send all of their unprocessed plastics to China where they could be broken down and re-used domestically to create new products. China was the country of choice as it had a high demand for recycled plastics, lax environmental regulations and used cheap labour which allowed over-seas corporations to turn a profit. In the span of 25 years, China accepted just under half of the world’s non-industrial plastic waste which had several negative implications on their environment. However, their work to rectify damage imposed by other countries left developed nations scrambling to find new ways to off-load their waste; and their solutions were even more damaging.

Without China’s facilities, countries like Canada and the U.S. no longer had somewhere cheap to send their plastics to be recycled; and they were not willing to take on the extra costs of building new treatment plants or hiring more labourers. This problem was exacerbated by the recent switch to single stream recycling where individuals were not required to sort their plastics before sending them to facilities. As corporations were forced to hold on to increasing amounts of unprocessed plastics, the value of this good dropped which made it even more economically unfavourable to recycle. This led to a chain reaction of events that vastly changed the industry for the worse. Recycling companies first started to look to alternate developing nations to off-load their waste and found significant business in South-East Asian countries like Thailand and Malaysia. However, it only took months for these countries to notice severe environmental repercussions similar to those China had experienced and close their doors to receiving plastic waste as well. In desperation, developed nations began to incinerate their recyclables and send them to landfills. As a result, manufactures reverted to relying on virgin plastics which are energetically expensive and damaging to the environment.

What has this done to our environment?

China’s ban has generated significant negative repercussions on the global environment. Most notably, it has resulted in an increase in greenhouse gas emissions caused by the diversion of plastic waste away from recycling facilities and into landfills and incinerators. Furthermore, as companies become desperate to offload their plastic, more of it is released into the ocean which can be very toxic and damaging to marine life. These repercussions are further intensified by the fact that our rate of plastic consumption is not slowing down and rather ever increasing.

What needs to be done?

It is clear the solutions that developed nations have implemented so far in response to China’s ban are not effective and only promote the deterioration of our environment. We need to do better. Exporting companies must first open new treatment facilities domestically before seeking the help of other nations. While this may be less economically favourable in the interim, it is an investment in the health of our planet that is sure to pay-off. Nonetheless, nations around the world need to be willing to open their borders to importing plastic waste. It is not acceptable that we expect one or few countries to be responsible for recycling the world’s plastic. Manufacturers must also become more efficient with plastic they use and should continue to buy in to the recycling industry. Lastly, we as consumers need to improve. Not only should we consider decreasing our consumption, but we should also become better educated on how to sort our blue bins. 25% of waste deposited in blue bins is un-recyclable and the contamination of plastics lowers their quality and makes it more expensive for nations to recycle.

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Referenced Material:

Collins, C. (2019). The global environmental recycling crisis. What options exist for plastic waste? Climate Institute. Retrieved from: http://climate.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/08/The-Global-Environmental-Recycling-Crisis.pdf

Huang, Q., Chen, G., Wang, Y., Chen, S., Xu, L., Wang, Rui. (2019). Modelling the global impact of China’s ban on plastic waste imports. Resources, Conservation and Recycling, 154. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.resconrec.2019.104607

Seitz, R. Z., & Krutka, D. G. (2019). Is recycling sustainable?: An ecological inquiry. Social Studies Journal, 39(1): 34-45.

Wang, C., Zhao, L., Lim, M. K., Chen, W-Q., Sutherland, J. W. (2020). Structure of the global plastic waste trade network and the impact of China’s import ban. Resources, Conservation, and Recycling, 153. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.resconrec.2019.104591

Wang, W., Themelis, N. J., Sun K., Bourtsalas, A. C., Huang, Q., Zhang, Y., Wu, Z. (2019). Current influence of China’s ban on plastic waste imports. Waste Disposal and Sustainable Energy, 1: 67-78. https://doi.org/10.1007/s42768-019-00005-z

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