Plastic has revolutionized medicine, enabling sterile, mass-produced, fairly low-cost health care supplies that save lives. It is used in protective gear like helmets and airbags. Plastic is everywhere: in our electronics, power plants, electrical transformers, and the undersea cables supplying the internet. It’s light, durable and lasts, well, forever.
Which brings to mind the question: “where does it all go?”
Well, a huge amount has ended up in the ocean such as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in the clockwise-spinning North Pacific Gyre—now mostly a chunky deep soup the size of Libya with shredded and gnarly plastic items amid a dense cloud of microplastic that will never biodegrade.
Erica Cirino writes in the Summer 2021 Issue of Yes! Magazine, “As we consider how plastic is shaping our planet, we must also reflect on the ways plastic is shaping us: Research shows microplastic particles carry toxic chemicals and colonize the living bodies of plants and animals—including humans. The health consequences from our inadvertent exposure to microplastic particles—through food, drink, and the air we breathe—and the dangerous chemicals they carry are just beginning to be understood.”
That forever part has decidedly turned from magical to sinister…
So, the question is really: “where is it intended to go?”
Plastic: Where Does It All Go?
It’s recycled, right? Wrong.
“For decades, the world’s richest countries have paid other countries—most often nations in Africa, South Asia, and Eastern Europe—to accept enormous quantities of their populations’ plastic waste for recycling,” writes Erica Cirino in the Summer 2021 issue of Yes! Magazine. However, most or this plastic is not recycled; it ends up dumped, often burned in neighbourhoods with the same characteristics as those places where the plastic is made: low-income regions. Fifty percent of plastic waste collected for recycling is traded internationally. The United States sends plastic scrap to 89 trade partners, mostly in poorer countries and much of that ends up in the major rivers that lead into the ocean, contributing roughly eight million metric tons of plastic waste every year.
In their October 2020 paper in Science Advances, Kara Lavender Law and her team explored why the United States’ remains the #1 contributor of plastic waste to land and ocean. In Table 3 of their paper, Law et al. list the countries with the highest mismanaged plastic waste generated by coastal populations in 2016. After Indonesia and India (Indonesia being one of the chief plastic recyclers for the U.S. after China stopped accepting), is the United States. It sits among other low income nations that have and continue to receive plastic waste for supposed recycling from the United States—itself the top producer and user of plastic in the world (see their Table 1).
The Law et al. analysis indicated that “the United States contributed enormous amounts of plastic waste to the environment, despite having robust waste management infrastructure to collect, transport, and process waste.” They go on to report that “the vast majority of U.S. residents have access to waste and recycling collection, yet illegal dumping and littering are still widespread;” this represents a large mass “because the U.S. population generates the most solid waste of any country in the world.” They also reported that “substantial leakage of plastics to the environment” came from the stream to lower-income countries intended for recycling.
While no study has definitively determined the proportion of material exported by the United States for recycling is ultimately discarded as waste, Law et al. conservatively estimated (from composition studies of plastic and paper scrap bales from materials recovery facilities (MRFs) in North America and the UK) that between 15 and 25% of material in plastic scrap bales consisted of low-value plastics and plastic waste that would likely have been discarded by processing facilities in importing countries. Investigative reports in Malaysia and Indonesia have described massive amounts of processed waste disposed by open dumping and open burning.
Why Are We Still Making and Using Single-Use Plastic?
Plastic is produced using petrochemical ingredients supplied by the oil and gas industry and directly connected to increasing greenhouse gases and global warming. The health effects of emissions from plastic manufacturers and associated oil and gas refineries has also been well-documented—if not effectively dealt with by governments such as the EPA (see my article on Denka, still emitting carcinogens in its process of producing neoprene). In the 1960s and ‘70s scientists studied and understood the consequence of plastic’s lack of biodegradability, its persistence in the environment, and how it harmed wildlife and impeded various environmental processes. While Big Oil had successfully muffled early plastic pollution research, plastic waste buildup became obvious to even the general public by the millennium. We are literally swimming in plastic now.
According to Law et al. “the most straightforward way to reduce environmental inputs of plastic waste is to produce less, especially waste that is not practicably or economically recyclable, readily escapes to the environment, or is unnecessary. Waste reduction must begin with material, product, and packaging design that addresses end-of-life management, including an explicit cost for recovery and treatment. Ultimately, reducing plastic waste in the United States and assuming full responsibility for its reprocessing or disposal will require substantially greater commitments by resin producers, consumer products and retail companies, and the U.S. federal government.”
Some have responded to the growing demand for an alternative to single-use plastic with starch- or sugar-based “bioplastic,” algae films and fabrics and fungus foams that degrade when thrown away. Aside from their own questionable ecological friendliness, these ‘solutions’ do not address our materialism, mass consumption and throwaway culture, which perpetuates mass wasting.
Former EPA administrator Judith Enck promotes strong legislation. “If you cannot reuse or recycle it, ban it,” Enck says. Enck helped advocate for the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act, reintroduced in March 2021 (post-Trump) by Congressman Alan Lowenthal and Senator Jeff Merkley. The act requires that governments and industries take greater responsibility for the plastic products they make, phase out some single-use plastics entirely, restrict plastic waste exports, and place a temporary moratorium on permits for new and expanded plastic facilities—ultimately pushing corporations and industries to stop producing certain non-recyclable single-use plastic products. The bill was read twice and referred to the Committee on Finance. It still needs to pass the Senate and the House, then be signed by the President to finally become law.
On January 1, 2021, an agreement among 187 countries (known as the Basel Convention) took effect to limit international trade in plastic scrap for “recycling” to prevent it from ending up in the environment. (The United States [and Canada] did not sign on), writes Breanna Draxler in Yes! Magazine.
Uncurbed, plastic production is expected to double in the next twenty years, Yes! Magazine editors tell us. “And even if we were to stop the flow of petrochemical products, what do we do with the billions of tons of plastic waste already here?” That will take creativity and will. It’s a massive cleanup which we can all be part of. Check Yes! Magazine’s Summer 2021 Issue for some creative solutions.
POST SCRIPT FOR CANADIANS: What is Canada Doing?
I found the “Global Brnd Audit Report 2020” survey strange in that it did not include Canada as one of the top ten plastic producers and exporters (of plastic as waste). I knew that Canada had been sending half of its recycling exports (much of it plastics) to China, before China banned imports of 24 types of solid waste, including unsorted paper and many types of plastics, such as the variety used to make plastic bottles. In my gut I knew that, just as with the United States, Canada was still NOT recycling much of its plastics, but sending it to poorer countries to deal with in unfair trade deals (e.g. plastics included in what should be paper-waste streams for recycling).
I recently watched “The Fifth Estate” whose excellent detective work exposed the truth about Canadian recyclers: recycling facilities of three major cities (Montreal, Toronto, and Calgary) are breaking the law by shipping illegal, unsorted household trash—hidden among approved recycling exports—to poorer countries, including Malaysia, India, Vietnam, Philippines and Indonesia. These countries are becoming increasingly worried that the environmental costs are greater than the income they earn from importing the waste. Kerry Banks of 10000 Changes writes, “Because a significant percentage of the imported trash is composed of mixed municipal waste that cannot be recycled, much of it ends up illegally incinerated on roadsides and unregulated landfills, where it releases highly poisonous fumes, or is dumped in rivers where it finds its way to the ocean.” The Canadian government is keeping the names of those caught violating environmental and international laws a secret. In the past five years, at least 123 shipping containers (from random inspections) have been returned to Canada for carrying unrecyclable trash. This is why China pulled out.
In an excellent summary from March 2020 of what Canada’s major cities are doing with waste, Kerry Banks of 10000 Changes writes:
It is difficult to get an accurate breakdown of the export paths of garbage in Canada because cities all dispose of waste differently. In Vancouver, for example, plastic containers, plastic bags and overwrap remain in British Columbia, with a local Vancouver company processing the material into pellets that can be manufactured into new packaging and other products. Glass, meanwhile, is shipped to Abbotsford to be processed into new bottles and to Quesnel to be made into sandblast materials. Metal containers are sold to markets in B.C., Ontario and the U.S., and can be recycled into new packaging, such as aluminum cans and sheet metal for automotive manufacturing. Foam packaging is recycled locally in Vancouver or overseas, and is made into items such as picture frames and crown moulding.
Vancouver’s landfill has a limit of 750,000 tonnes of trash per year. It regularly exceeds that limit and so overflow is exported to landfills in Washington and Oregon. In Ontario, excess municipal garbage is sent to landfills in Michigan.
British Columbia has led the way in Canada by passing legislation that has shifted the onus of handling recycling onto the businesses that create the waste, something known as “extended producer responsibility.” Recycle B.C., a non-profit, took responsibility for the province’s waste recycling about five years ago. It works to keep contamination levels low, so its recycled products are usually higher quality, making them easier to sell.
Although most Canadians don’t realize it, a municipal government’s responsibility ends once blue bin contents are sold to a recycling company. Waste and recycling are largely handled by private industry in Canada. Canadian recycling companies take the material from municipal programs and sort and clean it and compress it into smaller cubes. Those cubes are then put up for auction. After that point, municipalities have no way, or responsibility, of knowing where it goes.
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” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.