Art by Dorothy Zhang.
The threat of plastic pollution has become more widely acknowledged in recent years. Schools have begun to teach children about the importance of keeping the environment clean, particularly by picking up plastic trash, and making sure to recycle plastic waste.
Young children are introduced to the phrase “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle”: reduce plastic use, reuse plastic, and recycle plastic, all in order to cut down on plastic pollution. However, not much action has been taken in order to significantly reduce the use of plastic in everyday life, for example, many plastic items are still non-reusable, such as plastic food and clothing packaging. Therefore, “recycle” is often emphasized the most. Most public spaces have separate recycling bins for plastic trash, and people are encouraged to separate their plastic waste from other types of waste. The concept of recycling seems to allow people to let out a breath of relief. After all, it’s offered as a seemingly perfect solution to the US’s large plastic consumption. In theory, the amount of plastic waste would be greatly reduced by recycling, because the reuse of the same plastics over and over would eliminate the need for new plastic to be produced. Despite this, plastic pollution is still affecting the environment in significant ways. What is really happening to all the plastic produced by the United States?
Firstly, much of the plastic thrown in recycling bins does not end up getting recycled. Various issues can cause them to be non-recyclable, such as contamination from rotten food, or non-plastic materials getting mixed in. Moreover, not all plastics are recyclable, and many people are not educated enough to know which materials are recyclable and which ones are not, and still more do not care enough to go to the effort of separating recyclables from non-recyclables. According to the National Waste & Recycling Association, about 25 percent of what ends up in the blue bins is contaminated, and therefore non-recyclable. These non-recyclables end up getting discarded in landfills, polluting the land nearby, and can cause large batches of plastic to not be recycled. However, this problem never seems to reach the people of the US, because the plastic is often sent to other countries, rather than being kept at home.
The US has been shipping millions of tons of waste to poorer countries, specifically China, for years. In 2016, the U.S. exported about 16 million tons of plastic, paper, and metals to China. The plastic is supposed to be recycled into new products, but unfortunately, a lot of this waste was actually not recyclable, and ends up in landfills, polluting the environment nearby. However, China recently implemented a new law, called the Sword policy, that bans the imports of most plastics that aren’t new. With the new law, the US lost one of its biggest markets for plastic waste. Now, with nowhere to send the waste, the most pressing issue is figuring out how to manage plastic waste within the country. The problem of citizens’ improper recycling habits becomes more prevalent when the waste actually has to be dealt with domestically. The US has no developed domestic recycling infrastructure due to its dependence on China, so much of the plastic waste produced had to be discarded rather than recycled. The process of recycling is also expensive, and many areas do not have the funding to cover the expenses, so they must turn to cheaper alternatives, disregarding the harm they may cause to the environment.
Despite recent efforts to reduce plastic pollution, the amount of plastic waste generated by the US continues to rise each year. With the loss of the biggest foreign market for plastic waste, the US will soon have to face the consequences of its enormous plastic waste output. However, it is not too late to make changes. If citizens are able to reduce the amount of plastic they use, reuse the plastic they must use, and properly recycle plastic waste to their greatest abilities, and if states are able to secure more funding for recycling industries, the tide could be turned for the better.