China’s decision to stop recycling America’s waste has cratered the market, leaving plastic and other trash to pile up
Where does it all go? The plastic bag for your supermarket run, the banh mi sandwich wrapper you strip away for lunch, the endless packaging shipped via every Amazon order, the water bottle you crush post-workout — what happens when you throw it away? And if you haul it out to your green recycling bin, does it even get recycled?
Common sense screams yes, but in the wake of changing laws and shifting global markets, the reality is far dirtier.
At a time when we’re able to irrigate deserts, create man-made glaciers, communicate constantly across time zones and borders — even if it destroys our mood and memory — one of the biggest problems we face starts at home. And no, it’s not politics or climate, but in many ways it’s just as important.
We Americans create about seven pounds of trash per person a day. As a nation, that’s more than 262 million tons of waste a year, according to the EPA. Despite our best efforts, more than half of that waste is sent to landfills, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
The plastic that ruled our lives was a commodity yielding huge returns when it came to recycling. The market shift began tilting once China decided to stop taking our junk.
In 1960, the United States recycled 5.6 million tons of trash — a number that grew to nearly 70 million tons by 2015. While numbers have trended upward for decades, even taking into account growth in overall trash production and population, there’s been a staggering 184% increase in the amount of trash produced today versus 1960. No matter how much you fill your recycle bin, the system is crashing. The “why” is the dark corollary to globalism. Cheap products beget cheap products beget more and more packaging.
For years, the plastic that ruled our lives was a commodity yielding huge returns when it came to recycling. That profitability is based on global demand, and even before the trade war began, the market shift began tilting once China decided to stop taking our junk.
In the shadow of an interconnected world
Last year, China decided to scrap what once made fiscal dollars and sense. After years of hoovering up our junk, it stopped being profitable to sift, clean, and recycle plastics contaminated with paper, food waste, and other nonreusable materials. In 2017, China began to cut back on plastic imports. In early 2018, it banned allimports.
China’s National Sword policy meant the Middle Kingdom went from buying 60% of the plastic waste exported by the G7 during the first half of 2017 to taking less than 10% a year later. This monumental move signaled the end of the recycling market for the rest of the developed world. To give a sense of this impact domestically, the United States exported 30% less plastic scrap in the first half of 2018 than in 2017. Today, those numbers are even grimmer. The equivalent of 250 Olympic-sized swimming pools — about 19,000 shipping containers’ worth of plastic once exported abroad — is now piling up each month.
As a result of this ever-growing pile, U.S. cities are now sending their plastic to landfills in record numbers. In my own Los Angeles County, Coby Skye, assistant deputy director of environmental programs for L.A. County’s Department of Public Works, admitted to the Guardian recently that cities throughout the United States are reflecting this global change by dumping everything you and I throw into a recycling bin into a landfill.
The coming new world order
With China saying no, new scrap kings have been crowned in Thailand, Malaysia, and Vietnam, since many Southeast Asian nations have scant environmental restrictions and are teeming with illegal processing plants and pollution. In Thailand alone, there are at least 60,000 Thai and foreign-registered factories that import waste products, many of them toxic. Greenpeace says Thailand’s plastic waste imports grew from 70,000 tons in 2016 to nearly half a million tons in 2018. In that two-year span in Southeast Asia, plastic waste imports rose over 171%, which translates to about 423,000 20-foot shipping containers.
There’s big money driving these moves. Between January and November of last year, Chinese imports of copper scrap from Thailand shot up nearly 95% from 2017, a 355% leap from the previous year; in the Philippines, scrap copper shipments rose over 520%. But even that shift could now be threatened.
A new legally binding and globally reaching hard stop called the Basel Amendment seeks to protect the developing world from all of our junk. The treaty, which was ratified earlier this year by 187 nations — though not the United States — amounts to a de facto trade restriction where rich nations could no longer dump their trash in 36 developing ones. In many ways this is an idealistic approach to protecting the third world, but doing so poses a huge unanswered question: If not there, then where?
Why hasn’t the United States backed the amendment? The EPA says it hinders recycling. In a July letter to the Basel Action Network, the nongovernmental organization that championed the change, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler waves a stick, warning that these regulations will promote more waste being sent to landfills by the first world.
The Basel Action Network reckons forcing world governments into an even more untenable solution will force their hand and, thereby, actionable change. To that end, it advocates for legislation and market incentives to reduce plastics use, which Jim Pickett, the organization’s executive director, calls the only solution to this problem.
“The amendment was a very important first step to prevent the plastic crisis being put on the backs of developing countries,” says Pickett, who acknowledges that forcing nations to incinerate their plastic exacerbates an already critical burden of carbon output.
“In the end, this could do more harm to the environment.”
The amendment, which will take effect in January 2021, remains highly controversial. The United States is, after all, the only member of the 36 OECD nations out of step. Pickett rationalizes that “there is simply no way that we are going to be able to recycle our way out of the plastic waste problem. We’re running out of options other than reducing plastics use, starting with single-use plastics.”
He’s right, but pulling the rug out from under the feet of world leaders is a rude way to force change. Change takes time, and in the interim, the metric tonnage stacking up has nowhere to go and is largely being burned or buried.
“The Basel Convention’s restrictions on plastics trade, when implemented, will stymie the supply chain and prevent recyclable materials from getting to where they can be recycled,” says Adina Renee Adler, vice president of international affairs at the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, an association of companies that process, broker, and consume scrap commodities. “In the end, this could do more harm to the environment.”
Adler calls it critical that products be manufactured with recycling in mind. She thinks that could help influence purchasing behavior, but that assessment seems optimistic. It’s an approach reminiscent of green energy hopefuls who believe that the commonsense benefits of sustainable energy could reinvent costly fossil fuel infrastructure. Yes, cleaner manufacturing practices could be a big win for plastic in the long term and even open new avenues to recycle them, but it’s a costly gambit. Industrial-scale revolutions are never led by mom-and-pop shops.
Wins and losses
To be fair, there are some positives: 127 countries already have restrictions on plastic bags. In July, Panama banned them altogether, the first Central American nation to do so. Britain is debating a tax on plastic packaging made with less than 30% recycled content, and Rwanda has banned plastic (much to the frustration of its people). San Francisco’s airport has outlawed plastic water bottle sales. In a move to curb straws being dumped into the ocean, in many big cities now it can seem impossible to find a plastic straw (which can endanger the already disadvantaged ).
In March, the European Parliament backed a law requiring 90% of plastic bottles to be recycled by 2029. But just how they’ll do that with the old infrastructure in shambles remains unclear.
In California, RePlanet, the state’s biggest recycling center, shuttered all 284 locations, leaving countless poor and often homeless people with one less income stream from redeeming bottles and cans. As more of us realize the futility of saving plastic bottles, public morale will shift, although it’s doubtful that an administration that’s pulled the plug on the Endangered Species Act — and is actively hostile to climate and environment — will take action.
Beyond plastic, cardboard recycling has plummeted: Two years ago it was worth around $200 a ton in California. It’s now $20 a ton. Similarly, mixed paper was once $100 a ton — now it’s worth zero. Where once a recyclable commodity’s value was paid for by the cost of the service, plus shipping and manufacturing, that’s now a thing of the past, says Pete Keller of Republic Services, one of the biggest waste and recycling companies in the United States. That means it costs a lot to recycle, which supports why the global business framework has collapsed.
“The entire notion of recyclability is being revealed as a fraud.”
Even at peak reduce-reuse back in 2015, a recent study found that, at best, around 9% of all world plastic has been recycled — the rest was heaved into landfills. And back to Southeast Asia: They’re cracking down too. Indonesia, the Philippines, and Malaysia are so inundated that their ports have been pushed to the brink. Now they’re sending waste to even poorer nations, like Vietnam.
The Philippines has even sent back years-old rotting waste to Canada in a diplomatic row that reflects the stain on national pride that comes with being dubbed the world’s garbage dump.
“The entire notion of recyclability is being revealed as a fraud,” Pickett told me. “Export is going to be increasingly impossible as an avenue for plastic waste.”
Old gods and the new
While most scrap traders have gone under, some leverage a loophole to sell plastic pellets to China, which is not covered by the ban.
In Hong Kong, Craipeau, the eponymous firm created by Max Crapieau is doing just that. China has gone from being the biggest scrap processor to the biggest importer of pellets used for everything from bottles and toys to blankets and bean bag fillers.
Another way to stay afloat in this market is being navigated in California: Companies like CalRecycle are retrofitting facilities to clean waste so China accepts it. San Francisco’s Recology, which spent $3 million installing new sensors to reduce impurities, and SA Recycling upgraded facilities to wash aluminum waste, making the trio among the biggest scrap traders in the country.
Steve Wong knows what it’s like to be on top. The founder of Fukutomi Recycling in Los Angeles was once Asia’s de facto scrap king, accounting for 7% of China’s total plastic imports, a business formerly worth more than $100 million with manufacturing centers and subsidiaries around the world. For decades, Fukutomi was doing 400,000 tons a year.
Today, the company Wong built in 1984 is teetering, looking at once no-go markets like Haiti and Mexico to stay afloat. We meet in an asphalt-heavy office park off Interstate 10, about an hour east of Los Angeles. Fukutomi’s modest HQ is sandwiched between offices advertising foster and hospice services. It’s a cramped space filled with boxes, piles of sample pellets, and dated company pamphlets.
Wong says this tumult began in 2013, when China introduced its Green Fence policy, the precursor to today’s full ban. It was around that time when Fukutomi started hemorrhaging funds.
“China doesn’t want the image that we live on other people’s rubbish,” he says. “Recycling is not only about collection — it’s about separation. And the market change means the situation is limited. For me, we can make money in the raw material, trading. Just trading.”
That’s a big change from years past. The 62-year-old, days after completing a marathon — his 100th, he says between sips of green tea — takes out a lighter and holds the flame under what looks like ordinary plastic wrapping. He shows off the different smoke colors and pungent smells that indicate impurities and plastic mixtures. It’s a crash course demonstrating just how hard it is to separate and clean a substance so many of us take for granted. Melting points, density, contamination, additives, properties, separation.
“Not many people know this, but there are more than 42,000 different types of plastic,” Wong explains, holding a piece of burning polyethylene terephthalate, or PETE, which you and I know as the thin rolls of plastic found in countless everyday items. “Most people only recycle four of them. There are lots of material companies can still recycle, but they don’t make money. The cost of recycling is more than the selling price.”
The master alchemist describes the process itself, using salt to change water density to separate materials of the plastic, such as aluminum, a dizzying process made worse from the fumes circulating the room. Thickness, color, weight, melting point — all Wong needs to tell what kind of plastic we’re talking about is a quick glance.
“You can tell by the smell,” he smiles.
The developing world values recycling more than the West, he points out, but that’s changing as the Basel Amendment squeezes an already squeezed market. Wong’s one of a growing group of scrappers pushing against the change. “All of these countries will no longer be able to take imports of plastic scrap. The USA is not a party, but it affects the United States because all these importing countries, developing countries, they are Basel Convention parties, so they will not allow imports of material which is classified as hazardous waste. In one year, 90% will not be allowed in developing countries.”
The irony of what’s going on here in the West, where we tout clean living but ship our waste elsewhere, isn’t lost on Wong. “How many of us really know where our trash goes?” he asks, wondering aloud about the paradox of how to clean world oceans when it’s impossible to sift the microplastics we all know about, yet we bury our heads when it comes to funds or global strategy. It’s a see-no-evil approach, one that begs for the end of single-use plastics and new composites, Wong says, all lofty goals without global consensus.
“People are looking for financial efficiency, and that means that this is an environmental consequence,” Wong says. “But the recyclers don’t look at it as the main objective. We are not NGOs.The main thing is survival.”
Driving home, I can’t help but notice the junk strewn along the overpass — medium- and high-density polyethylene bags, torn nylon polyamide flowing in the wind. After an afternoon with Steve Wong, these will never just be plain old plastic.
The question of what to do if there’s no point to recycling feels like the biggest bamboozle no one talks about.
All Rights Reserved for Adam Popescu