Rejoice ye sinners, ye half washers, ye bad sorters! And know that from the most fastidious, to the lackadaisical, what happens to your recycling is beyond your control. Since Al Gore spurred the world into half-hearted action with “An Inconvenient Truth”, our societies have taken up a new moral crusade against the serial polluter. A full-scale assault, armed with a new environmental ethics has singled out the litterers, long shower takers, and black baggers as the primary culprits in the decline of our planet. A plethora of personal consumption options were increasingly moralized, and an obsession arose over the carbon footprint or environmental impact of individuals and households. The astute among you may have noticed that the packaging of new eco-friendly products was green, but the material remained polyethylene.

            Plastics are the most widely used packaging in the world; boasting impressive durability, unprecedented flexibility, and lower prices than any that have come before.[1] They are more reusable than paper and can be produced without clearcutting forests. All of which makes plastics a very attractive option for manufacturers in a variety of applications. The versatility of plastic is surely mirrored in its prevalence, with a total of 7.8 billion metric tonnes produced as of 2016 according to a recent study in Science Advances Magazine.[2] Yes, you read that right, that is enough plastic to supply every person on earth with their own metric tonne. While we may question the utility of producing this quantity of plastic, that is none the less what has been done. And for the most part, it’s not going anywhere.

            The permanence of plastics is one of its primary selling points, allowing packaging to remain intact until it reaches the consumer. Unfortunately, while the packaging may have outlived its usefulness once it is separated from the product, it has not lived out its life, not by a long shot. The total lifespan of most common plastics is measured in centuries, with the original item breaking down into smaller and smaller pieces as it circulates in the environment.[3] [4] What this means is that except for plastic that has been incinerated, all plastics produced to date are still here, and will be long after you and I are not.[5]

Unless of course you are one of the engaged citizens dedicated to recycling your waste. In that case, when your sad, empty beverage bottle has outlived its usefulness you will conscientiously deposit it in a recycling bin. From there it will be plucked from outside your home and transported to a facility that will break it down and give it new life; at least in theory.

In practice, very few of the plastic bottles you have laboriously cleaned and deposited in a recycling bin have been put to any kind of use beyond yours. According to Our World in Data, only 9% of all the plastic waste produced since 1950 has been recycled, and of that, most will still ultimately end up in a landfill.[6] This seems counter intuitive given the effort put into recycling initiatives in recent years. Sorting stations are now present in many public places, and public awareness campaigns are regularly undertaken in major cities across North America.[7] While these changes have been successful in making some waste reclamation programs more efficient, they have had little effect on plastics.

Levels of plastic recycling have remained so underwhelmingly low for a few reasons. Primary among them is that recycling is not a public service. Rather, recycling is a business, and a business must have profits.[8] Therein lies the issue: plastics are really quite cheap to produce, whereas sorting, cleaning, breaking down, and reprocessing them can be quite expensive. What this means is that there is little incentive for recycling companies to accept any but the least contaminated items for repurposing, as there is little profit to made if additional cleaning or sorting is required.[9]

Assuming you’ve gone ahead and pictured your personal metric tonne of plastic from earlier; and with the new knowledge that the equivalent of 90 kilograms of that has been recycled; you may be wondering where its all gone. Certainly, our streets don’t appear to be paved in an ever expanding underlayer of soda bottles and shopping bags. Neither do our landfills resemble nightmarish heaps of discarded chip bags. It may seem strange, but we must thank the wonders of international trade for sparing us these indignities. As it turns out, after your waste leaves the curb it gets sorted, baled, and collected for export.[10] It is then sold to a processor who until recently was almost certainly based in China. At which point it takes a lovely boat ride across the pacific to Hong Kong, and from there to a plant somewhere on the Chinese mainland. Upon arrival the bales are inspected, and those that have been contaminated —a surprisingly broad term that encompasses everything from the presence of unrelated or unwashed plastics, to a broken glass jar in the bale— are discarded, ultimately ending their journey in an Asian landfill. Only the best bales are selected for repurposing, and thus very little of our waste is ultimately reused.

Prior to 2017, China’s waste plastic imports were becoming a major problem. With 7.13 million tonnes being imported into the country per year, and only a small fraction of that being worth recycling, the waste was piling up at an alarming rate.[11] The Government of China took action in 2014, when stories describing mountains of trash scattered throughout China were published in the international media, and in China itself. The largest of these trash piles, located in Hebei Province measured 23,000-sq meters, and was reported to occasionally expel a noxious substance dubbed “trash soup” by locals.[12] In 2013 responding to the growing concern over waste management in the country, China’s government temporarily banned all but the highest-grade plastic waste imports. Given the auspicious title of “Operation Green Fence”, this initiative was meant as a temporary measure. None the less, it remained in effect until 2017 when China announced it would no longer accept any form of non-industrial plastic waste imports.[13]  What ensued was panic on a global scale, as much of the 7.13 million tonnes of plastic destined for Chinese shores in 2017 had to find other accommodations. In many cases this took the form of short-term stockpiling until a more permanent solution could be found. However, as the bales pilled up and the trash kept rolling in week after week, many waste management companies began to landfill parts of their growing surplus.[14]

The situation has improved somewhat since the ban came into effect, with India and Indonesia stepping up to import a far greater portion of our waste.[15] While this shift accounts for some of the displaced waste, these new markets do not at present have enough capacity to replace China’s former role. More importantly this shift in the waste trade does nothing to address the larger issue of plastics in general. India is no more able to profitably recycle plastics than China was, and much of the waste they now import will add to their own impressive trash piles in short order.

            So where does that leave us? Needless to say, the landscape for plastic recycling is a tad bleak. There really is little in the way of good news at present. Individuals, and households are left with meagre influence over what kinds of packaging their goods arrive in. And seeing as they also have no ability to ensure that packaging is properly disposed of, the answer would seem to lie beyond the consumer. If we are to solve this problem, the producers of plastics must be held accountable for their product. Nowhere is this sentiment more strongly felt than with Greenpeace. According to Sarah King, Head of the Oceans and Plastics Campaigns at Greenpeace Canada:

It is up to plastic producers, such as the major consumer goods companies, to take responsibility for the full life cycle of their products and this includes if it ends up in the environment. Some of the most well-known companies, like Nestle, Tim Hortons, PepsiCo., The Coca-Cola Company and McDonald’s, are also some of the top plastic polluters identified through Greenpeace brand audits around the world.[16]

We are stuck with our currently existing plastic waste for the time being. Having said that, there are several management options available to us should we manage a shift away from plastics. These would include the expansion of refillable glass bottles programs for beverages, and an increased prevalence of bulk food dispensers in grocery stores. While the idea of picking up takeout in ones own reusable container might feel alien at present, that is the exact kind of change necessary if we are to eliminate plastic.[17]

All this is not to say that you shouldn’t be a diligent recycler, or that you should grab your pitchfork and head for the nearest Coca Cola plant. For now, it may be enough to recognise that this is a problem that isn’t going away and that you are but an infinitesimally small part of that. However, while our contributions are small our voices need not be, and it may very well fall to us to demand better from our governments and the corporations that serve us.

Works Referenced

3.      Livia Albeck-Ripka, Your Recycling Gets Recycled Right? Maybe, or Maybe Not”, The New York Times, May 29, 2018.

  • EPA, Advancing Sustainable Materials Management 2014 Fact Sheet.
  • Costas A Velis, “Circular economy and global secondary material supply chains”, Waste Management & Research, Vol 33, 2015, pp 389-391.
  • Bartow J. Elmore, “Citizen Coke: An Environmental and Political History of the Coca-Cola Company”, Oxford University Press, September 2013.
  • Noah M. Sachs, “Planning the Funeral at the Birth: Extended Producer Responsibility in the European Union and the United States”, Harvard Environmental Law, 2006.
  • Kees Vringer, et al, “Sustainable Consumption Dilemmas”, Sustainability, 9, 2017.
  • Marc J Rogoff, David E Ross, “The Future of Recycling in the United States”, Waste Management & Research, Vol 34, 2016, pp 181-183.

  1. [1] Hannah Ritchie, Max Roser, “Our World in Data”, Oxford Martin Programme on Global Development, https://ourworldindata.org/plastic-pollution

[2] Amy L. Brooks, Shunli Wang and Jenna R. Jambeck “The Chinese import ban and its impact on global plastic waste trade”, Science Advances, 20 June 2018.

[3] Rick LeBlanc, “The Decomposition of Waste in Landfills: A Story of Time and Materials, https://www.thebalancesmb.com/how-long-does-it-take-garbage-to-decompose-2878033

[4] Hannah Ritchie, Max Roser, “Our World in Data”, Oxford Martin Programme on Global Development, https://ourworldindata.org/plastic-pollution

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Harvinder Aujala (Recycling Council of BC), Interview, October 2018.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Livia Albeck-Ripka, Your Recycling Gets Recycled Right? Maybe, or Maybe Not”, The New York Times, May 29, 2018.

[11] Gwynn Guilford, “China’s Mountains of Garbage”, The Atlantic, March 25, 2013.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Amy L. Brooks, Shunli Wang and Jenna R. Jambeck “The Chinese import ban and its impact on global plastic waste trade”, Science Advances, 20 June 2018.

[14] Livia Albeck-Ripka, Your Recycling Gets Recycled Right? Maybe, or Maybe Not”, The New York Times, May 29, 2018.

[15] Amy L. Brooks, Shunli Wang and Jenna R. Jambeck “The Chinese import ban and its impact on global plastic waste trade”, Science Advances, 20 June 2018.

[16] Phillippa Duchastel de Montrouge (Greenpeace Canada), Email, 27th November 2018.

[17] Ibid.

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