In a perfect world, if we place a take-out container or a coffee cup in the recycling bin, these single-use plastics will be neatly sorted, recycled and converted into useful new plastics. Unfortunately, that is not the case for a significant majority of plastic waste in the United States. So if our plastic waste is not treated at local recycling facilities, where does it end up? That is where the exporting of waste comes in.
The US exported 1,07 million tons of plastic waste in 2018, about one third of its recycling, according to the Plastic Pollution Coalition. Data from the U.S. Census Bureau shows that 78% of those exports were shipped to poor waste management countries. Such nations, such as China, India, Malaysia and Indonesia, lack the infrastructure and legislation to collect, process and recycle plastic waste efficiently and sustainably into new materials. So why does the US manage to flood those countries every year with millions of tons of plastic waste?
John Hocevar, Oceans campaign director for Greenpeace USA, in an article published for The Guardian criticized recycling firms trying to dodge responsibility for plastic waste management by selling the bulk to emerging companies with looser standards and regulations. Nevertheless, it is not a sustainable strategy to displace our own waste concerns in other countries. Countries in Asia that receive large amounts of plastic waste from around the world are beginning to implement policies that limit or completely ban plastic waste imports as they too can no longer handle the millions of tons of plastic shipped from all over the world.
Most recently, China implemented tighter regulations on foreign plastic imports, resulting in US plastic waste exports to China dropping by 92 percent. Under the new policy, China will ban 24 types of solid waste and set stricter contamination standards, according to Public Radio International. The US is now focusing its plastic waste exports to countries such as Vietnam, Malaysia and Thailand because of this scheme. Nevertheless, the obscene amounts of plastic coming from all parts of the developed world, from Canada to Japan, to Germany, have also overwhelmed these nations.
India, one of the biggest importers of plastic waste, also plans to implement a policy to ban scrap plastic imports similar to China in a report published by the state of California. A full nation ban is due to come into effect on 31 August 2019.
NPR claimed that since these countries are to restrict or prohibit plastic waste imports, US recycling facilities lack the infrastructure and ability to support the massive quantities of plastic waste produced by US consumers.
Alternatives to exporting waste
The United States is faced with a dilemma: how can we be responsible for our own waste as more and more countries stop importing waste?
One solution to the problem is to avoid the use of single use plastics. A levy or ban on single-use plastic bags has already been enforced in towns across the country. In 2014, California became the first state to enact a ban on single-use plastic bags, as well as a 10-cent levy on recycled paper bags, reusable plastic bags, and compostable bags, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Private sector corporations are also making a concerted effort in the near future to reduce or eliminate their plastics production. CNBC notes that Starbucks committed to removing plastic straws from stores by 2020, and water-bottle manufacturer Evian committed to using 100% recycled material for their bottles by 2025.
The plastic intake, as it stands, greatly outweighs the capacity to dispose of it. Plastic pollution is one of our planet's biggest environmental problems, and the accumulation of microplastics in our oceans in particular threatens biodiversity and the health of both marine and human lives. Until a synthetic replacement for plastic is made for a more sustainable and equivalent discovery, states, corporations and individuals need to be innovative in finding solutions to minimize and repurpose our plastic waste.