Recyclable Plastics: Where Are They Actually Going?

by Savanna Gordon

In our consumer society, it is nearly impossible to avoid plastic waste. Luckily, we have recycling services that pick up our plastic waste and repurpose it, right? Not exactly. According to Earth Day Network, one million plastic bottles are being purchased per minute, and less than half of them are being recycled. With the high rate of demand for plastic products, it is inevitable that we hit a capacity for our ability to recycle them at the end of their use. Unfortunately, many plastic products are only used for a small amount of time before they are discarded. As typical consumers, we put our recycling out and it is picked up by a trash service and vanishes before we are awake the next morning. The dreadful reality is that most of our plastics end up piling up in an already overflowing landfill, and never breaking down.

For the last 25 years, China has been the world’s top importer of plastic waste and has recently stopped accepting it, leaving nations without any demand for the large supply. China has taken over half of the worlds exports of recyclable waste, but had to halt their imports to protect public and environmental health.

China has been the center of the global recycling trade because they had such a high demand for the resource, however, due to excessive contamination levels, they passed the National Sword Policy in January 2018, banning the import of plastic waste.  According to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, an estimated 111 million metric tons of plastic will be displaced because of China’s new law.

The regulations for recycled materials have not been met in the United States, with high levels of contamination and hazardous materials in recyclables, leaving China with no options other than cutting off all imports to protect their country. This is a massive crisis for the United States, as the recycling companies continue picking up plastics and sorting them for redistribution, but end up having to store them and endure a huge financial burden because there is nobody purchasing it. Many states have cut down on the types of recycling they pick up curbside, and the rest is sent to a landfill.

Massive amounts of plastics are still being used and thrown away, and there are serious environmental repercussions. Virtually every piece of plastic that was ever made still exists in some shape or form, according to Earth Day Network, and they end up blowing onto land and into the ocean, harming the earth and its wildlife.

Instructor of the University of Oregon’s Urban Farm Class, Jean Marie Spiker, shared some insight on the current plastic crisis. Spilker commented on China’s new policy banning plastic imports: “For the enlightened consumer, it is a great opportunity to think about what recycling really is. Back in the day when I was involved in recycling, they had the 3 R’s, ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’, it was meant to be taken in that order. You always reduce first, then reuse, and recycling was your last option. This is an important time for us to consider rethinking our purchases.” Consumers are not conscientious about where their products go at the end of their life, and that type of thinking has negative side effects because it gives people permission to buy as much plastic as they want because they believe they are recycling it.

Currently, only 9% of plastics are actually recycled, and if this trend continues, there will be 12 billion metric tons of plastic in landfills by 2050, according to National Geographic. It is overwhelming on an individual level to try to tackle this global crisis, however, there are local and individual incentives to participate in. According to Oregon’s Department of Environmental Quality, Oregon is one of the leading states in the US as far as what they will accept for their 10 cent and beverage containers. Jean Marie Spilker highlighted, “Right about the time that China stopped accepting our plastic, Oregon expanded their bottle bill to include containers that weren’t on it previously. Even if we don’t want to bother getting our 10 cents back, many people in the community will,” referring to the community in Eugene, Oregon.

Local recycling plants in Portland are buying high quality plastics and making products locally, adjusting their sorting practices and finding new markets for plastic waste. The greater Portland area is implementing grant programs for private-sector projects to strengthen their recycling infrastructure and keep recycling programs resilient during this time, according to Oregon Metro. Systemic efforts in Oregon are a great example of what other states can also do on a local scale to reduce plastic waste and help manage and reuse plastics. Individually, people should focus on reducing and reusing their products. By investing in reusable bottles, buying quality plastics that can be repurposed, and being aware of our plastic consumption, we can all collectively lessen our ecological footprint.

Society's reliance on plastic is making landfills and our environment explode at the seams and there needs to be a shift in the way we are producing and consuming goods. “There needs to be a lot more education on the subject of what is recyclable. A lot of people don’t understand what is recyclable, and what a huge problem this is,” said Spilker. The initiatives to find solutions for our plastic waste disposal are a huge step in the right direction, however, the system needs to be changed from the top down.