For decades, people in most developed countries have been carefully separating their trash into waste and recycling. They have been making sure to do their part for the environment by recycling, but do they fully understand what happens to the items they place in their blue recycling bins?
Countries have been shipping the contents of these blue bins to Asia for a long time. All these years, people assumed that the recyclable material they export is going through the processes necessary to reduce the materials’ impact on the environment, but plenty of reports make it clear that, even though the intentions were noble, importing countries have often dumped the material into bodies of water, failing to meet the goal that exporting countries are struggling to achieve.
In March 2018, China’s Operation National Sword went into full effect, causing a recycling crisis around the world. China, the biggest importer of recycled materials, took a stand against importing recyclable waste from Western countries, something that it had been doing for over two decades. After China refused to take in recyclables, the Western world turned to nations like Malaysia, the Philippines, Cambodia, Thailand, and India, among others. Fast forward to early 2019, and these Southeast Asian countries shocked the world by beginning to reject the waste as well.
What is causing this backlash?
Primarily, the Asian countries involved are taking a stand against imported waste because toxic waste included in the shipments has been negatively impacting the environment in the importing countries. Additionally, strong economic growth and increased labor costs in these markets are making the recycling sector less profitable in these economies. Their economic growth is also causing an increase in their own plastic use, forcing the countries in question to manage their own waste before they can address that of other countries.
How is the United States reacting to the crisis?
This sudden and massive shift in recycling’s global ecosystem has caused recyclers in the United States to panic, as waste with nowhere to go is piling up. It has forced locations in the United States to bear heavy costs associated with managing and processing waste, causing waste managers to charge city governments up to four times more than they previously did for their services. Recycling is beneficial to the environment, but it is a cost-intensive and lengthy process. In response to the current situation, many cities and counties are either halting their recycling processes or dumping the excess waste in landfills or incinerating it, damaging the environment in the process.
How do we overcome this issue?
Reduce dependence on plastics! Governments worldwide are discussing ways to tackle recycling supply chain challenges. From banning single-use plastics like cutlery and straws, to restrictions on plastic shopping bags and imposing taxes on manufacturers, policymakers are encouraging the public to reduce their waste generation. In February of this year, California introduced legislation that proposed a phase out of single-use plastic products by 2030. Washington, DC already has a 5-cent tax on plastic or paper bags, and in January of this year, DC’s ban on plastic straws went into effect, aiming for a complete phase out by July 1. Other cities and counties across the United States have also implemented a ban on plastic bags or imposed a tax on their use, affecting states such as Alaska, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, North Carolina, Texas, and Washington, among others.
While these solutions can be implemented in the short to medium term, they are not fool-proof ways to ensure a reduction in plastic use and waste. Much of our current recycling and waste challenges are due to the linear organization of the economy—plastics are manufactured, used, and then discarded, causing an infinitely-increasing amount of waste. Because so much waste is generated by reliance on single-use plastics for everything from straws to basic consumer products, the plastics economy needs to move from being linear to circular—establishing value chains that that reuse plastics at their highest and best use point until the material’s maximum utility is reached, drastically reducing overall plastic consumption and waste.
The New Plastics Economy: Rethinking the Future of Plastics report from the World Economic Forum aims to promote the idea that plastics should never become waste, meaning they should be used until we can extract maximum value out of the resources that were used to manufacture them in the first place. This could be achieved, for example, by using technology to improve materials used in manufacturing, investing in the development of new manufacturing materials, developing technologies for reprocessing discarded plastics, and enabling the reuse of packaging in the business to business (B2B) segment. Making packaging compostable if it is expected to be thrown out with food, developing an infrastructure that focuses on improving trash collection methods, and finding country-specific large-scale solutions for reusing plastic materials in an economy are other examples of promising methods to reduce plastic waste. According to the World Economic Forum report, “after a short first-use cycle, 95% of plastic packaging material value, or $80–120 billion annually, is lost to the economy.” Almost one-third of the discarded packaging material reduces productivity of “vital natural systems such as the ocean and [clogs] urban infrastructure.” In addition to these environmental costs, “greenhouse gas emissions from its production, conservatively estimated at $40 billion annually, exceed the plastic packaging industry’s profit pool.”
The New Plastics Economy factsheet by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s initiative has listed a detailed vision of how a circular economy with plastics could be achieved. Some of the points mentioned in this plan highlight governments incentivizing new value chains to encourage businesses to produce recyclable and reusable plastics. Other parts of the plan detail the use of renewable energy in recycling, eliminating the use of harmful chemicals from manufacturing processes, and reducing the use of resources like petrochemicals in processes to develop products using plastic, as they prohibit reuse in a circular economy. In addition to businesses bringing about a change in their manufacturing processes, there are also business-to-consumer models that can be considered. For example, the use of plastic containers that businesses would encourage consumers to reuse, refill, or return.
While it is evident that solutions exist, implementing them is the hardest part. It involves bringing policymakers, manufacturers, and consumers together to achieve the larger goal of greater sustainability through reduced waste. It was dangerous for Western countries to assume that passing their waste off to developing countries was a constructive solution. It is now imperative to think of quick and effective solutions, because it’s clear that old waste policies caused significant environmental harm and new waste is already piling up.
If you want to know how your state is being affected by this change, check out this state tracker.
Nidhi Upadhyaya is associate director of the Atlantic Council South Asia Center. You can follow her on Twitter @nidhi_u