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