187 countries signed a treaty giving nations the power to block the import of contaminated or hard-to-recycle plastic trash. A few countries did not sign. One was the US. Last year, the equivalent of 68,000 shipping containers of American plastic recycling were exported from the US to some of the world’s poorest countries, including Bangladesh, Laos, Ethiopia and Senegal, offering cheap labor and limited environmental regulation. America alone generates 34.5m tons of plastic waste each year
Of the 9% of America’s plastic that the Environmental Protection Agency estimated was recycled in 2015, China and Hong Kong handled more than half: about 1.6m tons of the plastic recycling every year. They have developed a vast industry of harvesting and reusing the most valuable plastics to make products that could be sold back to the western world. Amid growing environmental and health fears, China shut its doors to all but the cleanest plastics in late 2017. America is still shipping more than 1m tons a year of its plastic waste overseas.
“People don’t know what’s happening to their trash,” said Andrew Spicer, who teaches corporate social responsibility at the University of South Carolina and sits on his state’s recycling advisory board. “They think they’re saving the world. But the international recycling business sees it as a way of making money. There have been no global regulations – just a long, dirty market that allows some companies to take advantage of a world without rules.”
A study led by the University of Georgia researcher Jenna Jambeck found that Malaysia, the biggest recipient of US plastic recycling since the China ban, mismanaged 55% of its own plastic waste, meaning it was dumped or inadequately disposed of at sites such as open landfills. Indonesia and Vietnam improperly managed 81% and 86%, respectively. In 2018, the US sent 83,000 tons of plastic recycling to Vietnam. In the Philippines, about 120 shipping containers a month are arriving in Manila and an industrial zone in the former US military base at Subic Bay. Records indicate they were filled with plastic scrap shipped from such places as Los Angeles, Georgia and the Port of New York-Newark. From the Manila port, shipping records and Philippines customs documents show, some of the US plastic was transported to Valenzuela City. The area, on the outskirts of the Philippine capital, is known as “Plastic City” and residents are increasingly concerned about the number of processing factories sprouting in their midst. Since China closed its doors, the amount of plastic recycling Turkey takes in from abroad has soared, from 159,000 to 439,000 tons in two years. Each month, about 10 ships pull into the ports of Istanbul and Adana, carrying about 2,000 tons of cheap US scrap plastic that is no longer wanted by China. Most of it comes from the ports of Georgia, Charleston, Baltimore and New York. “There are 500,000 street collectors in Turkey, working almost like ants to collect the waste,” said Baran Bozoğlu, head of Turkey’s Chamber of Environmental Engineers. Yet he said the “uncontrolled and unlimited” import of foreign recycling was leaving these local recyclers without markets for the scrap they collect. “It’s like we have flour and water and, instead of making our own bread, we import bread from abroad! Does that make any sense to you?’
Scrap-picker Eser Çağlayan, explains, ‘‘I want to tell people in US this: recycle in your own yard,” he said. “Don’t bring down our income and put us all in danger of hunger.’’
Jan Dell, an independent engineer for the organization The Last Beach Cleanup works with investors and environmental groups to reduce plastic pollution explained “The path of least resistance is to put it on a ship and send it somewhere else – and the ships are going further and further to find some place to put it,” she said.
As countries like Vietnam, Malaysia and Thailand banned imports, records show the plastic waste fanning out to a host of new countries. Shipments began making their way to Cambodia, Laos, Ghana, Ethiopia, Kenya and Senegal, which had previously handled virtually no US plastic. In the first 10 months of 2018, the US exported 192,000 metric tons of plastic waste to Malaysia for recycling. Each month throughout the second half of 2018, container ships ferried about 260 tons of US plastic scrap into the Cambodian seaside town of Sihanoukville. No one interviewed in Sihanoukville had any idea that plastic recycling was being exported from the United States, and what happened to the plastic after it arrived is unclear.
Waste plastic is a commodity, and recycling brokers search across the US and abroad for buyers who will want to melt the plastic down, turn it into pellets, and make those pellets into something new. Through a trading network that crosses oceans and traverses continents. It’s a network that is complex, at times nefarious, and in which few consumers understand their role. Now, that network is at a breaking point. Plastic’s first stop on its months-long journey is a recycling facility where it is sorted into bales based on its type – soda bottles, milk jugs and clamshell-style containers, for instance, are all made of subtly different kinds – and readied for sale. Traders might spend $150 to buy a ton of plastic scrap from a US recycler. Once it is shipped abroad, sold to a processor, turned into pellets and then again shipped to a manufacturer, the seller might ask as much as $800 per ton. Yet the cost of similar virgin plastic, which is often higher quality, is just $900 to $1,000 a ton.
Steve Wong, a Hong Kong-based businessman, is one of the middlemen who connects your recycling with international buyers. “At one time, I was one of the biggest exporters in the world,” he said, worth millions. Now, Wong said, his company, the Hong-Kong based Fukutomi Recycling, was deep in debt. Wong’s problem is hardly a lack of supply. Each month the equivalent of thousands of shipping containers worth of recyclable plastics, which used to be exported, are piling up all over the United States. Nor is his worry a shortage of demand for plastic. It is desperately needed by factories in China for manufacturing into myriad new products – from toys and picture frames to garden gazebos.
What is nearly killing his business is the fact that many countries have soured on the recycling industry, after unscrupulous operators set up shop, operating as cheaply as possible, with no regard for the environment or local residents.
“In our industry, if you do it properly, you save the environment,” Wong said. “If you do it improperly, you destroy the environment.”
A study released this spring by the environmental group Gaia documented the human toll of US plastics exports on the countries that receive them.
“The impact of the shift in plastic trade to south-east Asian countries has been staggering – contaminated water supplies, crop death, respiratory illness from exposure to burning plastic, and the rise of organized crime abound in areas most exposed to the flood of new imports,” the report found. “These countries and their people are shouldering the economic, social and environmental costs of that pollution, possibly for generations to come.”