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    Where does your plastic go?




    A Guardian investigation has found that hundreds of thousands of tons of US plastic are being shipped every year to poorly regulated developing countries around the globe for the dirty, labor-intensive process of recycling. The consequences for public health and the environment are grim.

    Last year, the equivalent of 68,000 shipping containers of American plastic recycling were exported from the US to developing countries that mismanage more than 70% of their own plastic waste.
    The newest hotspots for handling US plastic recycling are some of the world’s poorest countries, including Bangladesh, Laos, Ethiopia and Senegal, offering cheap labor and limited environmental regulation.
    In some places, like Turkey, a surge in foreign waste shipments is disrupting efforts to handle locally generated plastics.
    These failures in the recycling system are adding to a growing sense of crisis around plastic, a wonder material that has enabled everything from toothbrushes to space helmets but is now found in enormous quantities in the oceans and has even been detected in the human digestive system.

    Reflecting grave concerns around plastic waste, last month, 187 countries signed a treaty giving nations the power to block the import of contaminated or hard-to-recycle plastic trash. A few countries did not sign. One was the US.

    “People don’t know what’s happening to their trash,” said Andrew Spicer, who teaches corporate social responsibility at the University of South Carolina and sits on his state’s recycling advisory board. “They think they’re saving the world. But the international recycling business sees it as a way of making money. There have been no global regulations – just a long, dirty market that allows some companies to take advantage of a world without rules.”

    Where America’s recycling lands
    Plastic only came into mass consumer use in the 1950s, but in the Pacific Garbage Patch it is already thought to be more common than plankton. Officials around the globe have banned particularly egregious plastic pollutants, such as straws and flimsy bags, yet America alone generates 34.5m tons of plastic waste each year, enough to fill Houston’s Astrodome stadium 1,000 times.

    Of the 9% of America’s plastic that the Environmental Protection Agency estimated was recycled in 2015, China and Hong Kong handled more than half: about 1.6m tons of our plastic recycling every year. They developed a vast industry of harvesting and reusing the most valuable plastics to make products that could be sold back to the western world.

    But much of what America sent was contaminated with food or dirt, or it was non-recyclable and simply had to be landfilled in China. Amid growing environmental and health fears, China shut its doors to all but the cleanest plastics in late 2017.

    A red flag to researchers is that many of these countries ranked very poorly on metrics of how well they handle their own plastic waste. A study led by the University of Georgia researcher Jenna Jambeck found that Malaysia, the biggest recipient of US plastic recycling since the China ban, mismanaged 55% of its own plastic waste, meaning it was dumped or inadequately disposed of at sites such as open landfills. Indonesia and Vietnam improperly managed 81% and 86%, respectively.

    “We are trying so desperately to get rid of this stuff that we are looking for new frontiers,” said Jan Dell, an independent engineer, whose organization The Last Beach Cleanup works with investors and environmental groups to reduce plastic pollution. “The path of least resistance is to put it on a ship and send it somewhere else – and the ships are going further and further to find some place to put it,” she said.

    Take Vietnam. Minh Khai, a village on a river delta near Hanoi, is the center of a waste management cottage industry. Rubbish from across the world, inscribed in languages from Arabic to French, lines almost every street in this community of about 1,000 households. Workers in makeshift workshops churn out recycled pellets amid toxic fumes and foul stench from the truckloads of scrap that are transported there every day. Even Minh Khai’s welcome arch, adorned with bright red flags, is flanked by plastic waste on both sides.

    In 2018, the US sent 83,000 tons of plastic recycling to Vietnam. On the ground, America’s footprint is clear: a bag of York Peppermint Patties from Hershey, with US labeling, and an empty bag from a chemical coatings manufacturer in Ohio.

    While the exact health effects of workers’ exposure to plastic recycling operations have not been well studied, the toxic fumes resulting from the burning of plastics or plastic processing can cause respiratory illness. Regular exposure can subject workers and nearby residents to hundreds of toxic substances, including hydrochloric acid, sulfur dioxide, dioxins and heavy metals, the effects of which can include developmental disorders, endocrine disruption, and cancer.

    Once the plastic is sorted by workers, others feed the scrap into grinders before putting it through densifiers that melt and condense the scrap so it can be molded into pellets.

    As countries like Vietnam, Malaysia and Thailand banned imports, records show the plastic waste fanning out to a host of new countries. Shipments began making their way to Cambodia, Laos, Ghana, Ethiopia, Kenya and Senegal, which had previously handled virtually no US plastic.

    The Guardian found that each month throughout the second half of 2018, container ships ferried about 260 tons of US plastic scrap into one of the most dystopian, plastic-covered places of all: the Cambodian seaside town of Sihanoukville, where, in some areas, almost every inch of the ocean is covered with floating plastic and the beach is nothing but a glinting carpet of polymers.

    Cambodia’s waste problem is believed to stem from its own use of plastic and a lack of any system for dealing with it. No one interviewed in Sihanoukville had any idea that plastic recycling was being exported from the United States, and what happened to the plastic after it arrived is unclear.

    Experts estimate that 20% to 70% of plastic entering recycling facilities around the globe is discarded because it is unusable – so any plastic being recycled at Sihanoukville would inevitably result in more waste there.

    How plastic waste fuels a global business
    How does your plastic get from your curbside to a village in south-east Asia? Through a trading network that crosses oceans and traverses continents. It’s a network that is complex, at times nefarious, and in which few consumers understand their role. Now, that network is at a breaking point.

    Plastic’s first stop on its months-long journey is a recycling facility where it is sorted into bales based on its type – soda bottles, milk jugs and clamshell-style containers, for instance, are all made of subtly different kinds – and readied for sale.

    Waste plastic is a commodity, and recycling brokers search across the US and abroad for buyers who will want to melt the plastic down, turn it into pellets, and make those pellets into something new.

    In the past, it made economic sense to ship the plastic to Asia, because shipping companies that transport China’s manufactured goods to the US end up with thousands of empty shipping containers to carry back. In the absence of American goods to fill them, the companies have been willing to ship out America’s recycling at rock-bottom rates.

    Steve Wong, a Hong Kong-based businessman, is one of the middlemen who connects your recycling with international buyers. “At one time, I was one of the biggest exporters in the world,” he said, worth millions. Now, Wong said, his company, the Hong-Kong based Fukutomi Recycling, was deep in debt.

    Wong’s problem is hardly a lack of supply. Each month the equivalent of thousands of shipping containers worth of recyclable plastics, which used to be exported, are piling up all over the United States. Nor is his worry a shortage of demand for plastic. It is desperately needed by factories in China for manufacturing into myriad new products – from toys and picture frames to garden gazebos.

    What is nearly killing his business is the fact that many countries have soured on the recycling industry, after unscrupulous operators set up shop, operating as cheaply as possible, with no regard for the environment or local residents.

    “In our industry, if you do it properly, you save the environment,” Wong said. “If you do it improperly, you destroy the environment.”

    In the Philippines, about 120 shipping containers a month are arriving in Manila and an industrial zone in the former US military base at Subic Bay. Records indicate they were filled with plastic scrap shipped from such places as Los Angeles, Georgia and the Port of New York-Newark.

    In Turkey, US plastic imports may be putting an entire profession at risk. Since China closed its doors, the amount of plastic recycling Turkey takes in from abroad has soared, from 159,000 to 439,000 tons in two years.

    “The impact of the shift in plastic trade to south-east Asian countries has been staggering – contaminated water supplies, crop death, respiratory illness from exposure to burning plastic, and the rise of organized crime abound in areas most exposed to the flood of new imports,” the report found.

    “These countries and their people are shouldering the economic, social and environmental costs of that pollution, possibly for generations to come.”

    For many experts, the most frightening example of how an out-of-control recycling industry can overwhelm a country is Malaysia. Immediately following the China ban, it became the go-to destination for US plastic and is still paying the price.

    In the first 10 months of 2018, the US exported 192,000 metric tons of plastic waste to Malaysia for recycling. Some of the factories had licenses to process foreign waste. Some only had licenses to deal with Malaysian plastic waste but secretly processed foreign waste. Often, such “processing” actually meant illegally burning plastic, with the toxic fumes inhaled by Malaysians living near unlicensed factories and dump sites.

    In October, the Malaysian government announced plans to immediately stop issuing new permits for importing plastic waste, and to end all plastic waste importing within three years. Even so, thousands of tons of junk plastic remain heaped on the landscape, left behind by unscrupulous business operations.
    Last edited by CSSWorld; 17th June 2019 at 02:25 PM. Reason: picture insertion

 

 

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