U.S. Is Running Out of Places to Ship Its Plastic Waste

With China no longer allowing foreign trash into the country, the U.S. recycling industry is scrambling to find what to do with its ever-increasing pile of plastic scrap.

Our cumulative plastic waste is proving too much for either domestic recyclers or foreign countries to absorb.

Most Americans dutifully separate out their recyclable plastic waste for collection by garbage trucks every week. In some areas, such as perhaps most notably San Francisco, there are targets for what is called ‘landfill diversion’, meaning the percentage of trash that is recycled one way or another to keep it from going into landfill. A few years ago one city, San Francisco, even reached the goal of an astounding 80% of all trash being recycled. But while many can pat themselves on the back for having separated out their garbage properly, what most don’t realize is what happens to the recycled waste, often from plastic scraps, after it leaves their doorstep.

That trash goes into waste processing centers, where a combination of people and equipment separate the recycling into different types, arrange to clean it, and package it up for shipment. In the past, a major part of those shipments might have been to domestic companies which could reuse the material and turn it into new plastics. Today, as demand for recycled waste has dropped because the cost to process it is going up, much of that waste is ending up shipped overseas. There it may be recycled or it may end up being incinerated, generating toxic pollution in the process.

Shipping recyclable plastic waste overseas to be sold at very low rates has been a much bigger business than many realize. According to a report from Unearthed, Greenpeace’s investigative arm, China has been the biggest importer of this kind of waste going back to 1992. It has taken in a record 45% of all plastic scrap from all countries up through 2017. In the last full year of data on this, the United States shipped around 70% of its plastic waste to Hong Kong and China.

Other developed countries operate similarly on this as does the United States. Britain, Germany, Japan and Mexico all ship large quantities of plastic scraps out of their country. In the past, much of that also used to go to China.

That is unfortunately all over now, as Beijing made the decision not to accept any more plastic scrap waste from foreign countries as of the beginning of 2018.

When that happened, the United States began scrambling to find another place to dump their trash. Depending on one’s point of view, the positive news was that the United States found several other places in Asia to offload their plastic scraps. As examples:

  • Thailand increased its ‘imports’ of American plastic trash from 4,000 metric tons in the first half of 2017 to 91,505 metric tons in the first half of 2018.
  • Malaysia increased its import of American plastic waste by 273%, to 157,2999 metric tons for the first half period of 2018.

Overall, 81% of all plastic waste exports from the U.S. went to Asia in the first half of 2018. The U.S. is also doing so by targeting countries with easy access for ‘dumping’. As John Hocevar, Oceans campaign director for Greenpeace USA, said in a recent interview that, “Instead of taking responsibility for their own waste, US companies are exploiting developing countries that lack the regulation to protect themselves.”

The bad news is that the United States shipped a lot less plastic waste to Asia than it did last year. Overall, waste companies shipped only 666,760 metric tons of plastic waste out of the country for the first six months of 2018 compared to 949,789 metric tons this year. This is not for lack of trying or because the U.S. has suddenly become more efficient in its processing of plastic waste. Less plastic waste is going overseas because of increasing restrictions in accepting waste into Asia.

As just one example, in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia’s capital, major plastic processing factories in Banting had to shut down because of too high a level of air and water pollution coming rom the factories. The country has since added a major import tax on plastic coming into the country. It has also toughened regulations for operating permits on waste recyclers there.

In Vietnam, the government in May temporarily banned all imports of plastic waste coming from overseas. Two of its major ports had become overloaded with waste.

Thailand, which used to accept a lot of waste and has seen its imports increase by much this year, is for the first time considering a complete ban on any such imports.

The result is that the waste is mostly just piling up in the United States, with increasing problems there as well. In San Diego, the city is looking at a potential new charge of $1.1 million from its waste contractor to take the recycling. Vermont may even start charging residents to recycle their waste, pushing the increased cost of recycling back up the value chain. Worse still, some areas of the country have completed suspended their recycling campaigns.

Some states and counties across the United States are considering increasing property taxes to help deal with the recycling crisis. One use for such taxes would be to develop new recycling facilities which operate more efficiently. Another use, far less good to think about, is to apply the collected taxes to “buy down” the value of the plastics to be shipped overseas, so it is easier to find places to sell the waste.

What is happening globally is that both developed countries like the United States and developing ones such as Malaysia are finding that plastic scrap waste has shifted dramatically in its economic value. In just a few years it has moved from being of major economic value to becoming a cost to the local economy.

The real solution for all is to just produce products which leave less waste when they’ve been opened or consumed. Increased education for consumers and manufacturers may help, as might taxation on particularly waste-rich products, to encourage producing less waste. But something has to happen or we will all find ourselves soon drowning in waste.