What Happens To Recycled Plastic The Truth About Your Recycled Plastic
By Sarah Barrezueta
In the past year, you’ve heard a lot about rising sea levels and natural disasters caused by the earth’s increase in temperature. Climate Change is real and in full effect. But what’ve you heard about different types of plastics and their effects on the environment? Specifically, scrap plastics and their exportation from one country to another?
If you are like most Americans, you know about climate change and the detrimental effects it’s having on our world. You’re doing your best swapping out single-use plastics for eco-friendly alternatives – and have even tried composting! There’s a lot to consider and ever changing information.
We at Ocean Blue Project get it.
One way to help plastic from entering the ocean is by recycling, a process that converts waste into reusable materials. Once a plastic is recycled it can be reused. In fact, there is an enormous industry devoted to making plastics reusable. It’s an industry that the US is taking full advantage of – and not always in a good way.
But you can help.
So let’s take a deeper dive into plastics and everything you need to know about how they are affecting our oceans and the environment.
Not All Plastics Are Created Equal
Plastic is everywhere. We use different forms of plastic everyday, in all areas of our lives. The use of plastic has become so common that getting products in glass seems like a luxury. Most of us aren’t even aware of how much plastic we are actually consuming. For example, your daily habit of brushing your teeth creates plastic waste. From the plastic toothbrush to the plastic toothpaste tube, you have participated in making plastic debris that will end up in the ocean.
But wait, why is using plastic bad? Isn’t plastic recycled?
Yes and no. Some plastics are recyclable and can be repurposed. We call these types of plastics scrap plastic. Scrap plastics go through a few different processes to give them the ability to be reused for other products. For example, when you see a product that says it’s made from reusable plastic, that’s scrap plastic.
But, single-use plastics like a plastic straw, child’s toy, or candy wrapper cannot be recycled. Instead, these plastics will continue to get smaller and smaller over time until they become microplastics. Microplastics are extremely small pieces of plastic debris in the environment from the disposal and breakdown waste.
Unfortunately, even though there are companies and laws in place when it comes to recycling, we are wasting more than reusing.
According to the UN Environment, only 9% of all plastic waste ever produced has been recycled. About 12% has been incinerated, while the rest – 79% – has accumulated in landfills, dumps, or the natural environment.
Since most debris and litter find its way to the ocean via rivers, runoff, or dumping, these microplastics can be found all over our environment.
A major problem with microplastics compared to scrap plastics is they never go away. Microplastics wreak havoc on our marine life. Fish can mistake the microplastic as food and eat it. This cycle of plastic consumption will continue among marine life up the food chain. The result? You are served a surf and turf meal with hints of plastic.
Now that you know the difference in plastics let’s talk about how scrap plastics get exported and used.
Do You Want Our Plastic?
Some countries take their scrap plastics and export them to other countries to be reused. The exportation of scrap plastic is a huge business and in theory seems like a great idea. A country can export their reusable scrap plastic to another country that will use it for their recycling needs. So it’s kind of like the old saying, one man’s junk is another man’s treasure.
Once overseas, it is up to the country that has the scrap plastic to responsibly reuse it. And not everyone is thinking about our oceans and planet when they are disposing of plastic. This causes the unwanted exported plastic to end up in landfills, rivers, and eventually the ocean.
Plus, a lot of the rules about exportation and importation of plastics have loopholes. And some of the more wealthy countries are taking advantage of less developed countries. How? The wealthy countries are exporting their unwanted scrap plastics to these poorer countries. Over time there has been public outcry among poorer countries due to the hazardous waste being imported. The result of this social unrest gave birth to the Basel Convention.
The Basel Convention is an international treaty made to reduce the movement of hazardous waste between nations. Specifically, this treaty was meant to help cut off the exportation of hazardous waste from richer countries to poorer ones. The treaty was created in 1989 and put into effect in 1992.
While the Basel Convention has made great strides in curbing the amount of hazardous waste sent amongst countries, there is a great deal to be done. And some countries have stopped the importation of scrap plastic altogether.
In 2018 China passed a law saying they would no longer accept scrap plastic shipments. One of the biggest reasons China stopped this import was due to the amount of unwanted plastic it would receive.
Since China was one of the biggest importers, this left a lot of countries scrambling to find a new place to ship their unwanted plastic.
In fact, to help reduce the exportation of unwanted plastics new rules were imposed. As recent as 2020, the Basel Convention made new rules for its 180 participating nations in regards to the shipping of scrap plastics.
Unfortunately, the USA is not one of those 180 nations.
It should be noted that every country imports or exports scrap plastics. Some are regulated and recycled responsibly. Others might try to hide or destroy the evidence of non-usable plastic. One way to destroy the unwanted plastic is by burning it. This results in more toxic chemicals being emitted to the environment. Which then poison our rivers and oceans, as well as killing wildlife that relies on these natural resources.
While there have been environmental watchdogs and agreements passed, offenders still find loopholes.
Some of the biggest offenders in exporting scrap plastics are the world’s wealthiest countries. And the US is definitely on the naughty list.
Currently, the US is not part of the Basel Agreement. In order for the US to be a part of the agreement, Congress would have to pass legislation. Which could prove difficult since exporting scrap plastics is a thriving business for the US. Plus in the past there has been a lot of financial incentive NOT to pass legislation. But more on that later.
In the past year, a lot of the scrap plastic from the US has been shipped to Malaysia, a country with a booming recycling industry. While Malaysia has strict rules on what plastics can be recycled and imported, this doesn’t stop illegal trafficking. The reason? Once plastic goes into international waters, both sides can claim they weren’t aware of the unwanted scrap plastic in the shipment.
There can be a few scenarios to where the noncompliant plastic ends up.
- The country rejects the noncompliant import of plastic and ships it back to the original country. However, this can be tricky because the scrap plastic company could try to unload the unwanted plastic to another country.
- The country importing the scrap plastic unknowingly accepts the noncompliant plastic. But once noticed the plastic cannot be recycled, it will end up in a landfill, burned in a field, or eventually in the ocean due to leakage.
Of course the company where the original scrap plastic came from can say that they were not aware of the unwanted plastic in the shipment. So in the end no one is really held accountable. This is problematic on a global scale since plastic is ruining our environment.
It gets worse. It was noted that in January, there was a rise of 3 million tons of plastic from the US to poorer countries. Some speculate that this could be due to the rise in protective gear against the Covid 19 virus.
While the numbers are staggering and upsetting, more and more people are starting to pay attention.
Even previous opposers to the Basel Convention are rethinking their position. Adina Adler, the vice president of advocacy at the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries recently spoke to the press about this issue. She said that the position of whether or not the group will support the Basel Convention is under internal review. This is huge.
If Scrap Recycling Industries put pressure on Congress to be part of the Basel Convention we would see a dramatic change in exports. It would make companies based in the US be responsible for their plastic standards and recycling practices.
Another way for the US to end single-use plastic waste is recycling; mainly by updating and enforcing bottle laws.
Some States are Better Than Others
While we don’t want to pick favorites, it’s no secret that some states are better at recycling than others. States that offer bottle deposits do much better with eliminating plastic waste than states that don’t have these incentives.
What is a bottle deposit? A bottle deposit means that you get an extra charge on the bottle of the beverage at the time you buy it. This charge can be refunded to you once you return the beverage’s bottle to a participating facility. The idea behind it is to get people to recycle their reusable bottles. And there are great recycling return rates for states using these bottle deposit laws.
There are ten states in all that impose the bottle deposit fee including:
- New York
However, all of these states have differing bottle fees, and a different range of what bottles are recyclable. This causes a difference in recycling rates amongst the states. Overall, there seems to be a direct connection between recycling rates and a higher bottle fee.
According to Container Recycling Institute (CRI), there are quite a few benefits of bottle bills, such as;
- Supplying recyclable materials for a high-demand market
- Conserving energy, natural resources and landfill space
- Creating new businesses and green jobs
- Reducing waste disposal costs and litter.
So why isn’t everyone doing it? Greed.
The U.S. Public Interest Research Group found that the beverage industry spent about $14 million in campaign contributions. These efforts were aimed at defeating a national bottle bill between 1989 and 1994. In addition, the Senate members who voted against national bottle bills would get more PAC money from big beverage companies.
This is why it is so important for every citizen to help fight against those trying to kill our environment. You can help stop the clock on the damage done by partnering with Ocean Blue Project.
Are You Part of the Solution?
There is hope. But only if you help.
During this season of giving, one of the most impactful gifts you can give is to save our oceans. You can do this by helping Ocean Blue Project in our mission of removing one million pounds of plastic in the ocean. By giving a charitable donation to Ocean Blue Project you will help clean and preserve our ocean for generations to come.
It truly is a gift that keeps on giving.
When giving to Ocean Blue Project you become part of a global society that significantly reduces plastic debris in our ocean. But in order for you to make a difference for our oceans and the planet, you need to act now.
The ocean and marine life can’t wait any longer. Their survival depends on you and what you do next.
With Ocean Blue Project you will have the satisfaction of knowing that you helped save the ocean and will give it the future that it deserves. In fact, every dollar equals a pound of plastic removed from the ocean. Think of all the plastic you can remove with your charitable gift.
You have the power to save the ocean. Will you?
Author Bio: Sarah Barrezueta is a California based copywriter committed to creating positive change in her community and the world. When she is not working, Sarah loves spending time with her husband, chasing her curious toddler, and cuddling her rescue dog- who looks surprisingly like Richard Dreyfuss.