Worldwide awareness of the harm from plastic pollution has reached an all-time high. Plastics are present in our drinking water (tap and bottled), air, food, rivers, creeks, coastlines, and oceans. This material never goes away. Unfortunately, many still believe that recycling alone will solve this problem. As a society that over-relies on disposable items, recycling provides a comforting sense that our rampant consumption is compatible with eco-friendliness. But we can't recycle our way out of this mess. We have to fight the problem at the source.
A Recycling Ban From China
Since January 1, 2018, China has implemented a “National Sword” policy which bans imports of multiple types of recycled plastic and paper. In 2016, China received at least half of the world’s exports of waste plastic, metals, and paper. That year, the U.S. exported 16 million tons of waste to China. Currently, the U.S. exports around a third of all its recycling, and almost half of that has been going to China.
China now also requires that non-banned materials, such as cardboard and scrap metal, be only 0.5 percent impure. This means that even a miniscule amount of contaminants (like food residue from a greasy pizza box) can ruin a batch of recycling. Since most cities have opted for a system where all recyclables are commingled, eliminating contamination is nearly impossible.
A National Problem That Hits Western States Hardest
Western states are particularly impacted by the Chinese ban. In California, we have consistently exported nearly two thirds of our recycling to China. Some areas, like nearby Sacramento, have responded to the ban by significantly reducing the number of recyclable items they will collect curbside. Waste Management, the company that oversees Sacramento’s recycling (and is the country’s largest hauler) is enacting similar restrictions nationwide.
Millions of Tons of Plastic With Nowhere to Go
A recent study by scientists at the University of Georgia noted that the Chinese ban on foreign waste has the potential to result in 111 million metric tons of "displaced" plastic waste by 2030. In the United States alone, China’s new policy is predicted to generate 37 million metric tons of unusable plastic waste within the next 12 years.In the months since China stopped importing most foreign waste, huge amounts of these materials have ended up in nearby Vietnam, Malaysia and Thailand, none of which are prepared to handle such a huge influx. The environmental community is deeply concerned that large amounts of these imported materials will end up being incinerated.
Recycling as Magical Thinking
Like many environmental issues, plastic pollution is massive, high-stakes, and inextricable from every arena of modern life. When faced with an issue of this scope and importance, people understandably want to focus on a concrete action that makes them feel like they’re part of the solution. Unfortunately, actions which provide the assurance that the problem will be solved and that the status quo is acceptable can innoculate us against a big-picture, potentially paradigm-shifting engagement with the problem. Such actions are, to use a made-up word, “innocuactions.”
In many cases, recycling is an innocuaction. While recycling has played a useful role in waste-reduction and restricting plastic pollution, we cannot in good faith focus on recycling as a primary solution even as we learn that more and more recycled material will end up in a landfill.
Where Do We Go From Here?
China’s import ban can be the catalyst for us to recommit to one of ReThink Disposable’s fundamental values: changing how we consume. Just as there is no “away” when we throw away waste, we can no longer pretend that there is an “away” when we put something in the recycling bin.
The ReThink Disposable certification program shows the cost and environmental benefits from substantially reducing disposables in the food service industry; businesses who become certified save money, eliminate thousands of pieces of disposable packaging items and thousands of pounds of waste, and provide a more attractive, enjoyable dining experience. The food industry changes our campaign is seeking reflect a much-needed cultural mindset shift away from the disposable lifestyle.
We are at the end of a feel-good, “recycle it away” era. If we can activate the behavior change, policy, and innovation to respond accordingly, this could be an opportunity dressed as a crisis.