Most Plastic Was Not Recycled But Was Dumped

78% (830,000 tonnes) of the 2018 U.S. plastic waste exports were sent to countries with waste “mismanagement rates” greater than 5%. Mismanagement means the plastic was probably dumped in a river. The actual mismanagement rates in China, India and Vietnam are 78-85%.

Mismanaged “recycled” plastic probably ended up in the ocean. Plastic waste has been exported and counted as “recycled” by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) and the waste and recycling industry for decades.

Just 10 river systems carry 90% of the plastic that ends up in the ocean. Eight of them are in Asia: the Yangtze; Indus; Yellow; Hai He; Ganges; Pearl; Amur; Mekong; and two in Africa – the Nile and the Niger.

China, India and Vietnam are the countries which were taking recycled plastic from the US, Canada and Europe and other countries.

The recycling industry exported 106 million tonnes of plastic waste to China over the past 20 years or more. Nearly 80% of this ended up in landfills in China or was dumped into the ocean. There is about 100 million tonnes of plastic in the oceans.

157,000 large 20-ft (TEU) shipping containers (429 per day) of U.S. plastic waste were sent in 2018 to countries that are overwhelmed with plastic waste and major sources of plastic pollution to the ocean. The actual amount of U.S. plastic waste that ends in countries with poor waste management may be even higher than 78% since countries like Canada and South Korea may reexport U.S. plastic waste.

U.S. plastic waste exports have declined by nearly half between 2015 and 2018 (from a high of 2.05 million metric tonnes to 1.07 million metrics tonnes). The primary reason for the decline is China’s strict scrap import policies which have reduced imports of plastic waste from the U.S. with a reduction of 96% since its peak in 2012. The decline is positive news for the ocean, rivers, ecosystems and the people of the receiving countries and world: less plastic waste was sent to places that do not have secure waste management systems such that all of the plastic waste will be responsibly recycled into new plastic products.

This means US collected plastic. Most of it was exported to China and other countries mainly in Asia. Most of the plastic was not usable. So it got dumped into rivers which is why 90+% of the plastic trash that ends up in the ocean is from a few rivers in Asia.

Only nine percent of plastic has been recycled. Half to 80% of that recycled plastic was just landfilled or dumped in China, India, Vietnam and other countries.

If present trends continue, by 2050, there will be 12 billion metric tons of plastic in landfills. That amount is 35,000 times as heavy as the Empire State Building

16 thoughts on “Most Plastic Was Not Recycled But Was Dumped”

  1. The only solution is the collection (both on land and at sea) and pyrolysis (microwave, plasma arc, etc.) of plastic for the production of synthetic fuels and industrial chemicals.

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  2. re-usable containers are 99+% of what glassware is. so certain circumstances constitute an overwhelming majority of the use cases.

    It is fairly easy to turn glass into other kinds of glass, but it is energy intensive. I think that is just the choice we are faced with. otherwise, glass is almost a facsimile of sand and rock so its fairly safe for the environment as far as contamination and leakage go. Not perfect but certainly better than virtually every other material we have. it is asceptic and unreactive by its very nature, you could not ask for more in a container.

    If we really wanted to get serious about it, glass composites resist breaking at least as good as more durable materials like plastics or wood. Just a matter of having the right energy mix to make that affordable.

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  3. Glass is not very recyclable either, except in certain circumstances (reusable containers). It is relatively low value and prone to getting broken and contaminated with different colours.

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  4. This headline and article is very misleading.

    Yes most exported plastic waste from the USA (3% of total) was not recycled. It was landfilled.

    This article summary misleads by implying that the amount dumped into waterways is massively higher than actual.

    EDIT: And this is mostly relatively short (some medium) term due to China suddenly banning exports. Prices have cratered for recycled plastics. It will take time for the world market to adjust.

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  5. Maybe like 3% of the 3% total exported might. So 9/10,000ths of it.

    Note second link has total ocean plastic at 268,940 tons.

    USA exported 1.07 million metric tonnes in 2018 of 38.5 million total.

    https://www.plasticpollutioncoalition.org/pft/2018/10/4/us-plastic-recycling-rate-projected-to-drop-to-44-in-2018

    So most ended of the exported plastic ended up landfilled (80%) and about 20% was recycled and re-exported, mostly in the form of toys, hairbrushes etc. Some ended up in a river (unknown %).

    Global plastic waste was 275 million tonnes in 2010 https://ourworldindata.org/plastic-pollution

    Of this, 8 million tonnes – 3% of global annual plastics waste – entered the ocean (through multiple outlets, including rivers).

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  6. I think the plastic you are referring to is Polylactic Acid (PLA) and is made from sugarcane. It will compost if temperatures are high enough, is food safe and can be used for degradable medical implants.

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  7. MY wife said for years that “recycling” was a scam and that it was simply dumped somewhere and claimed as “recycled”. I guess she was right.

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  8. I never understand when they talk about cities getting squeezed when commodities dip. Did they think recycling was an unassailable profit machine? That was a foolish assumption if so. recycling is absolutely good for society, even if it is not profitable. No one will pay for a pristine environment dividend at the outlay. little programs that allow that to exist ought to be protected because we value things like that. not because recycling was ever an engine of industry.

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  9. My understanding about these so called “biodegradable” plastics is that they can only degrade on short time scales with a lot of heat and moisture, not unlike that found in ovens or robust composting operations. Otherwise the packaging doesn’t break down for months without intensive composting.

    In say a landfill, they are still unable to brake down due to lack of oxygen and sometimes, lack of sufficient heat. and if they end up in the oceans, its sill an undesirable place for them to inhabit while they slowly breakdown.

    until a suitable enzyme exists to reduce plastic back to monomer, plastic is for most purposes….not recyclable. still necessary in places but we need to not kid ourselves into thinking we ever had something sustainable on our hands.

    I think a re-use model of consumption would be far more preferable but nowhere, least of all profit motivated, convenience, single-use item business models are really ready for that.

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  10. Not to mention the health hazards of micro plastics to humans and other living organisms. There are also plastics that are bio degradable and not to micro plastics that should be incentivized to scale up.

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  11. While my prefferred solution would be plasma recycling, even subsidized as it can consume anything…the pragmatic fix is to limit plastic to just mission critical niches like medical and industrial applications. consumers can and should be happier to use glass or aluminum. its infinitely recycle-able and of no issue to the environment if it ends up slipping through the cracks.

    Of course, this relies on a cheap energy policy.

    What the third world does to their backyard is not the US’s fault but we can limit our own impact of course.

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