The Plastic Recycling Crisis We’re Facing Today

Written by Hallie Brennan, Upcycle Santa Fe | April 2018

It was about four years ago I learned my curbside recycling was being shipped overseas; to China, in particular.  Hearing this information for the first time I found it difficult to accept.  It made no sense, and completely changed my mindset about my ‘green’ household, and how I was “doing my part” to save the planet.  Cities across the US have recycling facilities, and for decades we’ve been assuming that’s where the recycling actually happens.  Turns out those facilities are mere collection and sorting agencies, and the recycling doesn’t happen for another 6,000 miles, or so.  To top it all off, since January 2018 all of this has been flipped on its head, and not in a sustainable way.  Truth is, just a tiny fraction of what you place into your curbside bin is honestly recycled.   

First things first, why have we been shipping recyclables to China?  In a nutshell, trade deficit.  You’ve likely noticed the majority of goods in your home have a Made in China stamp or tag.  This has been the norm for decades, and it is because China is the world’s leading producer of exported goods.  What does a country need to create these goods?  Materials.  What’s a cheap material to access?  Recyclables.  One person’s trash is another person’s treasure.  As China transports container ships full of ripe consumer goods to America’s west coast, those container ships do not return to China empty, but instead return full of plastics, paper, and scrap metal; aka, recyclables.  China purchases these materials for extremely inexpensive rates – an accommodation on behalf of the US regarding that trade deficit I mentioned earlier.  Just how much plastic does the world send to China?  In 2016, 800,000 metric tons of plastic waste was exported from the UK, alone.

Second, how’s this affecting the environment?  In the summer of 2017, China announced it no longer wanted to be “the world’s garbage dump”. The foreign waste ban they threatened (which heavily centered on plastics) went into effect January 1, 2018.  So how is China the world’s garbage dump if a recycling facility and garbage dump are two entirely different things?  After all, isn’t “recycling” Green?  A lack of regulation has lead to many Chinese citizens developing their own backyard recycling facilities.  The result is contaminated soils and watersheds.  The 2016 documentary Plastic China, directed by Jiuliang Wang, was banned from China’s internet soon after the film went viral.  The film highlights the humanitarian and environmental crisis unregulated recycling facilities throughout China have bred, and it becomes clear exactly how China became the world’s garbage dump, and why it no longer wants to be.

In addition to the humanitarian and environmental crisis occurring in China, there are alarming statistics from the world’s recycling programs.   A study published in the peer-reviewed journal Science Advances has found 91% of the worlds plastics are not recycled.  Let that sink in for a moment… This study attempted to calculate the entire amount of plastics created in the world, ever.  That calculated number is 8.3 billion metric tons.  From that, 6.3 billion metric tons has become plastic waste in landfills, oceans, or flying around the Earth as litter.  According to the most up-to-date estimates from Euromonitor International’s global packaging trends report, we produce 20,000 plastic bottles every single second.  Less than half the plastic bottles created in a single year are collected for recycling, and of those collected, just 7% are actually recycled.   Now, let’s let that sink in for a moment, as well… From the time we purchase a plastic bottled or wrapped product, consume it, and then recycle it, the chances of that plastic package ending up as wasted litter are far too high. 

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What is being massively revealed to the public is a broken, sub par recycling industry.  Plastic recycling was already not working, and now China has banned a majority of the plastic waste being imported for recycling.  To be specific, the plastic ban includes PET, PE, PVC and PS.  That’s #1, #2, #3, #4 and #6.  Five out of seven types of plastics are no longer recyclable.  These five plastics are also the most common types of plastic found in millions of consumer products.  Water and soda bottles, milk jugs, detergent bottles, plastic packing, shopping bags, toys, cd cases, etc…  This means our landfills, rivers, and oceans are about to get an even bigger hit from our consumer habits.  At this point in time, the plastic you toss into your curbside recycling bin is not going to be recycled.  As if you didn’t already have a reason to cut back on the plastic binge.  

Now don’t go throwing the baby out with the bathwater; solutions do exist.  If you’ve been reading any of our blog posts over the years you know what the solutions are.  A link in this deadly chain must be broken, and that can happen when we start building with Ecobricks and Ubuntu-Blox.  Every single one of the plastics now refused by the recycling industry are absolutely accepted by these alternatives.  Many construction projects have taken off around the world utilizing Ecobricks and Ubuntu-Blox, saving thousands of pounds of plastic from landfills and oceans.  In the United States, the trend has been slow to start due to a hefty dose of bureaucracy regarding alternative building materials, but small outdoor structures such as exterior walls, raised garden beds, dog houses, etc… can be built using these compressed plastic technologies.  Upcycle Santa Fe is currently working towards obtaining the required certification that will allow Ecobricks and Ubuntu-Blox to become permitted insulation materials for large, habitable structures in the U.S.  How can the world’s plastic pollution crisis be altered if post-consumer plastic waste is instead utilized as construction materials?  The seeds for change have already been planted…  

Another solution lies in what many today call Conscious Consumerism; buying with mindfulness and need, rather than excess and greed.  Before turning a blind eye and participating in an already failing recycling system, are we willing to reflect on our own consumer habits and make some changes in our daily lives?  Plastic isn’t going anywhere, like literally for 500 years, but what I mean is plastic production will likely never cease to exist.  We must become conscious with our buying habits and cut back!  Remember that 6.3 billion metric tons of plastic waste I mentioned earlier?  You have some serious incentive, my friend.  Buy bulk, utilize reusable containers, bring your own darn reusable bag, inform yourself to the violent scam of bottled water and stop buying it, for cryin’ out loud.  There is a crisis occurring, and our consumer habits are at the dead center of it.

I encourage you to begin stuffing your own Ecobricks.  Here in Santa Fe we provide an Ecobrick Drop Off collection box.  You may drop your Ecobricks there at any time of the day.  To the many, many more of you outside the city of Santa Fe, I encourage you to research who is collecting Ecobricks in your community.  You just may be surprised by sustainable practices already happening in your neighborhood.  And if no one is collecting Ecobricks in your community yet, I challenge you to be the first, and truly do your part.

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Upcycle Santa Fe Ecobrick Collection drop off box, located at 917 Don Juan Street, Santa Fe, NM, 87501
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