For many years we’ve known that the plastics crisis was looming and that we needed to find a better way to handle single-use packaging. Now, we have no choice but to deal with the mess that has been created. The time to face our trash has arrived, and as of 2018, China will no longer accept the 24 types of solid waste they previously accepted from the U.S. and the rest of the world. China's list of banned post-consumer items is expected to grow.
What does this mean for the United States?
To wrap our heads around what is going on, let’s get a quick understanding of the previous waste process. It goes a little something like this...
General Recycling Process:
Step 1. Recycling bin >
Step 2. Separating at recycling facility >
Step 3. Recovery facility for cleaning and processing >
Step 4. Sold on commodities market >
Step 5. Manufacturer >
Step 6. New product >
For decades China has made deals with multiple countries to take their waste which they then recycle and use for their booming manufacturing industry. They were taking in almost 9 million metric tons of plastic scraps per year from around the world, according to GreenPeace. This amount accounts for about half of the world’s plastic, paper, and other scrap waste. This amount of waste is inconceivable. This process was an inefficient band-aid that has piled out of control for China and has now become our problem to deal with, again.
The United States was sending 1.42 million of the 9 million tons of post-consumer plastics to China annually. Now that we no longer ship these post-consumer plastics, refuse companies are raising rates to deal with it. As of 2018, we're starting to see increases on trash and recycling bills anywhere from $2 to $4. The cost is being externalized to citizens rather than pressuring beverage manufacturing companies to address the waste they’re creating. In fact, there have even been talks of fining citizens who are found recycling improperly.
Some recycling facilities have already stopped accepting certain plastics because they don’t have a place to send them. Recycling is a business after all and recyclables are a commodity, if no one can see the value in these plastics for recovery and recycling, they merely become trash. The City of Sacramento has dropped plastics #4-7. Flagstaff, Arizona now only accepts plastics #1-2. Take a look at some of the other states and see the plastics recycling industry scrambling for solutions.
Externalizing Plastic Waste to China
Between 2006 and 2012, plastic scrap imports to China increased. When we buy plastic products or anything that comes with plastic wrapping that says it can be recycled, this is not always true, the matter is not black and white. Because of this confusion, more people are now seeing the reality of our flawed plastic recycling process, and thus its use as a material in the first place.
While the invention of plastics has advanced society in some areas of health, transportation, and other sectors, the single-use throwaway plastics market has become an overwhelming problem to our society. Take for example that a single-use plastic water bottle will never be recycled into another plastic bottle. On top of that, less than 30% of that plastic can be used in the “recycling” process and turned into new, though inferior, materials. That is of course only when the plastics are adequately washed, sorted, and handled correctly. This is a crucial issue, and the U.S. had been failing at sending good plastics because of lazy sorting, poor cleaning, and general slack in the recovery process.
This has left China with severe pollution issues. They can no longer put their people and environment in danger, and so they had to say enough! Now China is faced with finding solutions to their waste disposal problem while picking up the pieces from other environmental concerns they face, like air and water quality.
Grabbing for Scraps
The U.S. has asked China to lift the ban. But China had to refuse in order to take care of their own environmental issues at this point. Vietnam, Malaysia, and Thailand are taking on some of the waste load. However, some of these countries are already at capacity, and some do not have a functional, well-developed waste management system to handle the capacity. The obvious solution is not another China; it’s managing our own products and recycling here at home. Instead of grabbing onto the scraps of the old and nearly dead system, we have to embrace the new solutions that already exist. These solutions are the alternatives to plastic. They are the reusable items that are made from sturdy, safe materials like aluminum and glass, which have a robust recycling system already in place.
3 Easy Solutions Anyone Can Commit To
Now that we know the single-use plastic waste problem has come to a head, here are some steps we can take to combat this issue until appropriate policy and plastics manufacturers catch up.
If any of these things are new to you, remember it only takes about 21 days to develop a new *better* habit. And we would love to hear about your journey with a post or a comment. If you would you like to be interviewed about your experience, let us know!
#1 Ditch the Single-Use Plastic Bottle
There are now alternatives to single-use plastic water bottles. If you’re on the go and need cold water? Check out the PATHWATER store locator and be sure to reuse your bottle! That’s what it was made for.
You can keep a canteen or other refillable bottle next to your front door, and when you leave the house, you won’t forget it. Place it near your keys and make it a challenge to remember every day for 3 weeks - until it becomes a habit.
#2 Grab Your Stainless Steel Coffee Mug
Make a commitment to bring your own cup when heading to your favorite coffee shop. This act alone saves 500 billion plastics lids from ending up in our waste stream each year.
#3 Produce Bags and Reusable Bags.
The next time go shopping and your produce is wrapped in plastic, when you get to the checkout line you can intentionally unwrap your fruits and vegetables and ask the cashier to tell the producer to stop using plastic in their packaging. If we do this, we will be shifting the responsibility back onto manufacturers rather than passively allowing our own trash and recycling bills to be increased. Ask the clerk if they know that the U.S. currently has no place to ship our plastic trash to. Bets are they don’t know, and you’ve just educated them and grew the movement a little. And of course, be sure to have your own reusable grocery bags ready to use.
By China halting the acceptance of our plastic trash, it’s forcing us to finally be better and seek realistic solutions to the one-way waste stream we’ve created. We might even start seeing recycling jobs come back to the U.S. We will definitely see more and more people choosing better, easy to reuse and recover materials like aluminum.
We have the potential to turn our plastic crisis into an opportunity to get on a better path.