Where Our Recycling Really Goes…


Boy swimming in plastic-choked Mekong River

We’ve all been thinking that we’re doing our part to stem the waste stream that is choking our oceans—by diligently recycling and putting our “recyclable” plastics in the recycling bin. We do this, faithfully believing that when our municipality tells us this material will be recycled, it will be properly transformed into another usable material—not dumped into the environment.

Guess again.

A Guardian report from eleven countries has tracked how “recyclable” waste from the US (and you can assume Canada is the same) makes its way across the world—and overwhelms the poorest nations. The finding that “Ten Rivers Contribute over 90% of Plastic Pollution in our Ocean” on the ten most polluted rivers—mostly with plastics—can be traced to this dilemma. Most readers immediately—and effortlessly—put “the blame” on the countries through which these rivers flow—but closer inspection reveals that the major source of the polluting plastics lie here in the wealthy nations of US, Canada, and European countries. My article “When Recycling is Just a Business—Not Part of a World Solution” sheds additional light on the connections and ongoing deception.

The Guardian investigation revealed that hundreds of thousands of tons of US plastic are annually shipped to poorly regulated developing countries around the globe for the labor-intensive process of recycling. The consequences for public health and the environment are grim, they say. Here’s what the Guardian crew found:

  • Last year, the equivalent of 68,000 shipping containers of American plastic recycling were exported from the US to developing countries that mismanage more than 70% of their own plastic waste.
  • The newest hotspots for handling US plastic recycling are some of the world’s poorest countries, includingBangladesh, Laos, Ethiopia and Senegal, offering cheap labor and limited environmental regulation.
  • In some places, likeTurkey, a surge in foreign waste shipments is disrupting efforts to handle locally generated plastics.
  • With these nations overwhelmed, thousands of tons of waste plastic are stranded at home in the US, as we reveal in our story later this week.
shipping containers recycling

Containers full of “recycling” material arrive in Vietnam

“These failures in the recycling system are adding to a growing sense of crisis around plastic, a wonder material that has enabled everything from toothbrushes to space helmets but is now found in enormous quantities in the oceans and has even been detected in the human digestive system,” writes the Guardian.

Vietnam is the fourth largest contributor to marine plastic pollution globally according to a 2015 study by the University of Georgia. The Mekong River in Vietnam is one of the most plastic-ridden rivers. The Guardian article features the experiences of “Nguyễn Thị Hồng Thắm, a 60-year-old Vietnamese mother of seven, living amid piles of grimy American plastic on the outskirts of Hanoi,” on the Red River where plastic chokes the Vietnamese beach of Hau Loc.

HauLoc plastic beach

Plastic litters the beach of Hau Loc near Hanoi, Vietnam

The cruel irony is that most of us in North America faithfully believe that we are helping by diligently recycling our plastics and other recyclables. “They think they’re saving the world,” says Andrew Spicer, from the University of South Carolina. “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.”

The Guardian summarizes how this trash crisis developed from the 1950s to the present:

“Plastic only came into mass consumer use in the 1950s, but in the Pacific Garbage Patch it is already thought to be more common than plankton. Officials around the globe have banned particularly egregious plastic pollutants, such as straws and flimsy bags, yet America alone generates 34.5m tons of plastic waste each year, enough to fill Houston’s Astrodome stadium 1,000 times.

“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 our plastic recycling every year. They developed a vast industry of harvesting and reusing the most valuable plastics to make products that could be sold back to the western world.

“But much of what America sent was contaminated with food or dirt, or it was non-recyclable and simply had to be landfilled in China. Amid growing environmental and health fears, China shut its doors to all but the cleanest plastics in late 2017.

“Since the China ban, America’s plastic waste has become a global hot potato, ping-ponging from country to country. The Guardian’s analysis of shipping records and US Census Bureau export data has found that America is still shipping more than 1m tons a year of its plastic waste overseas, much of it to places that are already virtually drowning in it.

“A red flag to researchers is that many of these countries ranked very poorly on metrics of how well they handle their own plastic waste. 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.”

“The simple fact is, there is just too much plastic – and too many different types of plastics – being produced; and there exist few, if any, viable end markets for the material,” Michael J Sangiacomo of Recology recently wrote in an op-ed.

The Guardian continues:

“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.”

“For many experts, the most frightening example of how an out-of-control recycling industry can overwhelm a country is Malaysia. Immediately following the China ban, it became the go-to destination for US plastic and is still paying the price.

“In the first 10 months of 2018, the US exported 192,000 metric tons of plastic waste to Malaysia for recycling. Some of the factories had licenses to process foreign waste. Some only had licenses to deal with Malaysian plastic waste but secretly processed foreign waste. Often, such “processing” actually meant illegally burning plastic, with the toxic fumes inhaled by Malaysians living near unlicensed factories and dump sites.

THIS is why we must stop using plastics in the first place. Petition your grocers and local businesses to provide alternatives and say NO TO PLASTIC. WE are the problem. WE can fix it.



Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press (Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” will be released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in 2020.

4 thoughts on “Where Our Recycling Really Goes…

    • Yes, I feel that too… Finally some action is happening. BUT, we have a LONG way to go… The first part is to break the inertia (we’ve done that, i think). Now, we need to build momentum. Let’s do it!


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