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You have been lied to about plastic recycling

Where the plastic in our oceans really comes from

By Joséphine Bourrinet

Photo courtesy of Ivan Radic via Flickr


What do you believe happens when you put your recyclable plastic waste into a blue bin?


I was taught that it goes to a waste sorting centre where workers sort the materials by types—plastic, cardboard, metal, etc—these are then sent to the nearest facilities that could recycle them. Following this worthwhile effort, and some chemical restoration, this plastic is ready to be put back into circulation and be used to manufacture new products. There may have been some waste here and there, some parts that could not be recycled because of contamination or improper household waste sorting—a phenomenon commonly known as ‘wish-cycling’—that ended up in local landfills. But all things considered, the plastic waste that did qualify for recycling would find its route back into the market.


With my ethical concerns appeased, I would happily sort my waste out while lauding David Attenborough as I see him tackle the plastics in the pacific oceans that strangulate dolphins and turtles. I sit, pleased, knowing that my microplastics and unwashed tin cans are not polluting these slowly disappearing creatures. That bottle of Head&Shoulders I saw suffocating a penguin cannot be the one I so ceremoniously put into the ‘recyclable’ bin, right?


Indeed, the common narrative is that this is plastic generated by South-East Asian countries, either because they do not realise the harmfulness of plastic pollution—a typically paternalistic western talking point—or because they do not have the means to put in place the costly infrastructures to recycle the high volumes of plastic they produce. This last bit is unfortunately true, according to the report ‘Plastic Waste: a ticking time bomb’, presented to the French government in December 2020, and which I will use as the main reference for this article, the greater part of plastic pollution is produced by very few countries, specifically South-East Asian and Pacific countries. This is mitigated, however, by the fact that most of the plastic production takes place in this region: 51% of the world’s plastic was produced in Asia in 2018. That’s 183 million tons of plastic, of which 108 million was manufactured in China. I will not even bother trying to calculate how many Empire State Buildings this plastic waste would be equal to.


Up to 25% of marine plastic contamination stems from leaks within the waste management of South-East Asia and Pacific countries, while the remaining 75% are caused by non-existent local waste collection programs. Obviously, this observation leaves out why plastic production—and subsequent waste, occurs mainly in this area of the world, and the salient responsibility of Western countries in the ginormous production of plastic waste there—but this is not what I want to discuss today, because the penguin is choking right now and I want to know if that’s my shampoo bottle!


What I will highlight, however, is a disturbing paradox we face: on the one hand, the World Bank estimates that the volume of waste in the South-Eastern Asian/Pacific region will have doubled in size by 2050. On the other hand, the French report’s assessment of the current situation is that it is ’unrealistic to believe that setting up a waste management system alone will be enough to end the problem of plastic pollution‘. Indeed, to do so would require hooking up more than a million households per week to a waste management unit for 20 years—and that is for our current rate of plastic production, not the 2050 rate! Basically, this report declares that no amount of human intervention can mitigate the monstrous amount of plastic pollution that is being produced today, nor tomorrow, nor in 2050, taking into account the rate of current and future production. Macroplastics, the name given to plastic waste bigger than 5mm, will keep accumulating in the oceans, on beaches, everywhere. Micro and nanoplastics, the effects of which are still unclear (although some studies have flagged up alarming effects on ecological systems and human health) will increasingly contaminate our food, soil and habitats.


Usually, at this point of reading an alarmist article like mine, I like to remember all the ‘Western saviour’ yachts that come to collect some of the waste making up the ‘seventh continent of plastic’ in the Pacific Ocean. I find comfort in the beach cleanings being organised all around the world, including here in Aberdeen: at least some of us are willing to bring relief to the overflowing plastic waste management system in Asia and take it upon ourselves to recycle it! I can believe that at least when I put my plastic waste into a blue bin, I do not add to this seventh continent. Ultimately, we have to address the biggest lie we have been told in The West, that it really was my shampoo bottle that choked out Happy Feet…


In 2016, the UK exported more than 300,000 tons of plastic waste to China. France exported just over 400,000, and the US 800,000. 12% of ‘Chinese’ plastic waste was actually imported from the rest of the world, the biggest culprits being Japan, the US, Germany, Belgium, France and the UK. China initially benefitted from plastic waste importation, as they used it to fuel their booming resin industry. However, by 2017, China possessed the necessary infrastructure to manufacture plastic from scratch and banned the importation of non-industrial plastic waste. The result? New green policies were enacted in Western countries to immediately build state-of-the-art plastic waste recycling infrastructure, creating tens of thousands of new jobs, boosting economic growth and skyrocketing sustainability innovation here, at home.


Just kidding, we sent the waste to other South-East Asian countries instead—the very same countries which lack the infrastructure needed to manage their own plastic waste production.

This is a sad truth: we keep picturing the countries in the Southern Hemisphere as the ‘bad guys’ of recycling and waste management, all while getting ourselves off the hook by shipping away our waste—which is truly gargantuan when examined per capita, for them to process. Like magic, all the waste we send away to the other side of the planet vanishes from our records, while it cleverly tarnishes the reputation of the global south. On our pedestal, we rue their inability to handle all that trash—while we are the ones who effectively trash them.


By ‘we’, I mean you, me, everyone who recycles and does not recycle. Indeed, the report points out that the higher the recycling rate in our country is, the higher the chance of our waste ending up in the oceans. Plastic waste exportation itself causes pollution: 5% of exported plastic waste leaks into the environment. For the UK alone, that represents 15,000 tons of plastic per year that end up in our ecosystem.


The report does emphasise that waste exportation is not unilateral: Asian countries do export some waste to Western countries, and they import plastic waste from other Southern hemispheric countries. Unfortunately, there is a grey area surrounding this phenomenon, the flux of waste is hard to quantify as there is little data on it, perhaps surprising when you consider the large multi-national industries build around this trade. What is certain, however, is that as long as this trade keeps happening, plastics will keep poisoning our oceans, harming our health and the ecosystem. Even the ones we so thoughtlessly ditch in the blue bin.


I am not telling people to go all out and completely quit sorting out their waste, as it does significantly improve the chance of it being recycled. But the takeaway from this is that it is not enough—and that we must stop blaming foreign countries for their lack of action and take responsibility for our inaction. Not only must we build more efficient recycling plants, but we must also reduce plastic production. Half of the plastics being made annually are for packaging purposes: packaging our food, our shampoo, and for Amazon deliveries. Policies are slow to be implemented and rarely are they enough. If we want to protect turtles and penguins from premature death, we must become more responsible with our use, and not assume that the blue bin is a magic hat that makes pollution disappear.