China's Ban on Bad Plastics, a Chance to Fix the Single-Use Plastic Mess in the U.S.
For many years we’ve known that the plastic 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 was created decades ago. The time for us to face our trash has arrived. As of 2018, China no longer accepts 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. Here’s what everyone should know about China’s ban on bad plastics.
What does China’s plastic ban mean for the United States?
Let’s get a quick understanding of the general recycling process to wrap our heads around what is going on. It goes a little something like this...
General Recycling Process:
Step 1. Recycling bin >
Step 2. Separating at recycling facility >
Step 3. Material Recovery Facility (MRF) 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. The total amount of waste China was importing is/was 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 officially.
The United States sends 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. After the ban in 2018, trash and recycling bills increased from $2 to $4. The cost was being externalized to citizens rather than pressuring beverage manufacturing companies to address the waste they were creating. 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 any items that come with plastic wrapping, even if it has a recyclable symbol, it doesn’t necessarily mean it is recyclable or will get recycled. The recycling symbol on plastic is for marketing, and the number inside that symbol is meant to indicate the type of plastic resin it is. Because of this confusion, more people are starting to see the reality of our flawed plastic recycling process and questioning its use as a viable material in the first place.
While the invention of plastic has advanced society in some areas of health, transportation, and other sectors, the single-use throwaway plastics market has become an overwhelming problem for our society. For example, a typical single-use plastic water bottle will never be recycled into another plastic bottle, 1 for 1. On top of that, less than 30% of that plastic can be used in the “recycling” process and turned into new, though inferior, materials. Some bottles on the market claim to be from 100% recycled materials. Recycled plastics can only happen when the plastics are adequately washed, sorted, and handled correctly. Currently, no suitable plastic can be recycled because of a lack of education, lazy sorting, poor cleaning, and general slack in the recovery process.
The extreme quantity and poor quality of plastics the U.S. sends overseas have left China and other countries with severe pollution issues. They can no longer put their people and environment in danger, so they had to say enough! Now China is faced with finding solutions to its waste disposal problem while picking up the pieces from other environmental concerns they face, like air and water quality.
Plastic recycling won’t save us; we need more reuse
The U.S. asked China to lift the ban. But China refused, putting a stop to the plastic pollution problem coming into their country. Vietnam, Malaysia, and Thailand are taking on some of the waste load, but as small countries, they have already become overwhelmed with enormous quantities of bad plastic. Many other countries don’t have a functional, well-developed waste management system to handle the capacity. The obvious solution is not finding another China; it’s managing our products, choosing better materials like aluminum, and recycling here at home. Instead of grabbing onto plastic scraps, we must embrace better existing solutions. We don’t need more plastic recycling; we need more reusable items made from sturdy, safe materials like aluminum and glass, which already have a robust recycling system.
3 Ways to Reduce Single-use Plastic that Anyone Can Commit to
Now that we know single-use plastic pollution in the U.S. has come to a head, here are some steps we can take to combat this issue until appropriate policy and beverage manufacturers catch up to reuse.
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 want to be interviewed about your experience, get in touch with us!
#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 PATH 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, so you won't forget it when you leave the house. 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 Reusable Coffee Mug
Commit to bringing your own cup when heading to your favorite coffee shop. This act alone saves 500 billion plastic lids from ending up in our waste stream each year.
#3 Reusable Produce & Shopping 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 enough people do this, we can shift responsibility back onto the waste producers rather than passively allowing plastic trash to pile up in our waste stream. Have a conversation with the store clerk about your concerns, and of course, be sure to have your own reusable produce and grocery bags.
China’s ban on plastic trash is forcing us to finally be better and seek realistic solutions to the one-way waste stream we’ve created. We are seeing a resurgence of recycling facilities returning to the U.S., and definitely seeing more and more people choosing better, reusable, highly recyclable beverage containers like aluminum.
We have the potential to turn our plastic crisis into an opportunity to reuse with PATH.
Join the revolution with us!
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