The Philippines doesn’t want to recycle your low-grade plastic scrap anymore. Neither does China. Vietnam’s not thrilled about taking it either.
Earlier this week, Malaysia became the latest country to join the burgeoning trend: Governments across Southeast Asia are refusing to be dumping grounds for scrap that claims to be recyclable — but largely isn’t. Malaysia will send some 3,000 metric tons of plastic scrap back to where it came from, places like the U.S., Canada, Spain, and Saudi Arabia.
The issue is largely with the plastics industry itself. Eager to make their materials seem recyclable and fend off bans on plastic products, industry groups have spent millions over 30 years to market and lobby for their products. The variety of plastic products — like lids, takeout containers, and straws — also makes scrap difficult to sort for companies trying to compete in a market that doesn’t exist anymore.
All in all, only 9 percent of the world’s plastic scrap gets recycled.
China used to buy up 7 million tons of plastic from the U.S. every year for top dollar, and 45 percent of the world’s plastic scrap between 1992 and 2017 ended up there, according to the United Nations. But China stopped buying plastic scrap in January of 2018. Since then, richer countries have sought to pawn off that unrecyclable material on less developed countries, largely in Southeast Asia, which can’t handle the volume.
That means unusable plastic trash is piling up — and recycling has gotten way more expensive.
“I think that it's time that we all stop kidding ourselves,” said Martin Bourque, the executive director of the Ecology Center, which pioneered curbside recycling in Berkeley, California, back in 1973. “We're collecting this stuff in the blue bin so we can all feel good about recycling, and then we sort it out and half of it is still going to the landfill. At what point do you say, ‘You know what, it's not recyclable’?”
CHINA DOESN’T WANT YOUR CHEAP PLASTIC SCRAP
China’s market for recycling boomed in the 1990s, largely because the U.S.’ trade imbalance made the process cheap and easy. China would ship exported goods to the West Coast, and, because the U.S. wasn’t shipping goods back, tons of empty shipping containers sat at docks, ready to take recyclables back east to process in China’s gargantuan facilities.
But that only worked because Chinese facilities were also largely unregulated, according to Bourque. Much of the unrecyclable plastic was being dumped or stuffed into landfills.
“We were always skeptics of collecting this kind of material, the mixed non-bottled plastics,” Bourque said. “The reason that plastic packaging is super cost-effective is because it's cheap. Everything about it that makes it great for packagers makes it terrible for recyclers.”
Bourque didn’t really believe mixed plastics to be recyclable and held off on collecting them for far longer than many other municipalities. But he finally found a facility in China in 2013 that he thought was environmentally responsible enough to handle Berkeley’s plastic scrap.
But that relationship didn’t last long. China started regulating recycling in 2013, and shortly afterward the company Bourque was working with stopped accepting plastics from the U.S.
Then, in 2018, China decided to not just regulate recyclers but ban most plastic and paper scrap from being imported at all. Packaging has gotten more elaborate; paper will be mixed with plastic, stickers, and labels. And China determined that too much trash was mixed in with the recyclable material to make it worth importing.
There’s also a category of plastics that’s cheaper to make from scratch than to recycle. The prices that recyclers get for the lowest grades of plastic make them not worth the trouble of recycling.
“Recycling kind of lost its way in its overzealousness of trying to make everything recyclable,” Bourque said. “The bottom fell out of the market.”
Since then, other unregulated markets in Southeast Asia have tried to pick up where China left off. They haven’t been able to.
DUMPED AND BURNED
Without China, plastics are ending up dumped into the ocean, illegally incinerated (which produces highly toxic fumes), or stuffed into poorly maintained landfills.
“These mountains of plastic waste sometimes end up being openly burned, which can have really significant health impacts,” said Claire Arkin of GAIA, an advocacy group that opposes incineration. “In Indonesia, the plastic is being burned in places like tofu factories for fuel.”
Some of the plastic is also piling up on the world’s remote beaches. Last year, researchers estimated that the size of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch — as the huge mass of trash in the Pacific Ocean has become known — weighed at least 87,000 tons. Ultimately, some of that plastic disintegrates into tiny microparticles that get swallowed by fish and enters our own food chain.
The turbulence in the global scrap markets is reverberating through U.S. towns and cities. Because China won’t buy up American scrap for top dollar anymore, recycling has become more expensive, and municipalities in the U.S. have started to abandon their recycling programs altogether. As it turns out, sorting and recycling plastics properly costs more.
Philadelphia is reportedly burning half of all the trash residents think they’re recycling. In Memphis, the airport still has bins labeled for recyclable scrap to preserve “the culture” of recycling, a spokesperson for the airport told the New York Times. But none of that’s being recycled. It’s ending up in landfills.
“When a product claims to be recyclable, my immediate response is, OK, ‘Where? How?’” said Joe Dunlop, a waste reduction administrator in Athens-Clarke County, Georgia, who’s been watching recycling markets for 20 years.
To recycling experts, the shift could prompt a reckoning for plastics recycling. They hope the pressure from Asia will lead to a new understanding of what can be recycled and what can’t. What’s ultimately needed, they say, is a reduction in the production and consumption of low-grade, single-use plastics.
“It’s long overdue,” Dunlop said. “The stuff that we were sending overseas for processing was not of good quality, and we finally got called out on it.”
Berkeley — where Bourque tried to get a recycling relationship with China off the ground in 2013 — has stayed committed to its zero-waste policies, even as recycling has gotten more expensive. The city started selling its plastics to a facility in Southern California with optical sorting, a high-tech system that uses light to determine which plastics are recyclable.
“Even with optical sorting, there’s whole categories [of plastics] that have no market,” Bourque said. “Basically all the black plastic is just unmarketable.” (There’s still a good market for soda and water bottles, though, as well as aluminum cans.)
Since Berkeley started sending its plastic to an optical sorting facility, the city has more than doubled its recycling costs compared to what it paid to ship plastics to China, and much of the plastic delivered to the new facility is ultimately determined to be unrecyclable.
Even in Berkeley, a pioneer of municipal recycling in the U.S., they’re considering dropping most types of plastics from the kinds of things they recycle.