Do you know that every day you as a citizen of the United States or Canada are living in great danger? What danger, you might ask? Don’t we have so many dangers in our lives already? Is this somehow a new danger on top of pollution, hurricanes, and wildfires in California?
Well, it would be very difficult to provide you with the straight and simple answer to this question. Here is why. The danger that I am about to reveal to you has existed probably since the 60’s— but didn’t really start manifesting itself until the late 80’s, and has been since exacerbating the issue, year after year… well, not only that, but over the span of 10-15 years, it has acquired the speed of geometrical progression. Don’t mind me with this math term. If you want, I could put it very bluntly and say that things have gotten really out of hand or—more precisely— we’re f**ked. I think at this point it is time to stop the suspense and cut to the chase and reveal the subject of this article. I am talking about recycling and the recycling industry.
When I say “recycling” — what do you picture in your head right away? Probably the recycling bin either in front of your house or apartment (therefore the shape and color could vary in your imagery) and yourself throwing empty plastic or glass bottles and aluminum cans into it— as well as of course those piles of cardboard boxes that we like to place next to the said bins. Am I right about that?
But did you ever imagine that “recycling” could bring a country to the brink of war? Do you think I am exaggerating? Not really… but we’ll get to this, I promise. Let’s take it one step at a time and do it in chronologically reverse order.
Let’s go to the year of 1988, shall we? Some of you were not even born at this time. I’m not going to hold that against you— it’s not your fault… So, what is so remarkable about this year, you might ask? Well, did you know that starting from the year 1988, China had been importing almost half of the world’s plastic waste? Since then the US has sent tons of plastic that was shipped in marine containers to China. And apparently things were working great for everybody for quite some time – US/Canada and some Western European countries were sending “unwanted” waste and plastic every day to China, and as a result of this business, every party involved was making money. And as a byproduct of these transactions, the US and other countries were resolving their environmental issues— or at least were keeping the situation with “waste products” overall and recycling specifically— at a manageable level. And such status quo created the appearance of good stewardship, pertaining to the environmental issues of waste management.
Then came the terrible year of 2017… What was so terrible about it? Well, let it be known that in this year, China all of a sudden decided that they have had it. Please do not forget that not only were the US/Canada very effectively “producing” lots of waste—including plastic each and every day— we really excelled at it. Did you know that people in the US consume more packaged drinks per capita than in any other country—about 350 aluminum cans per person per year, compared to 103 in Sweden, 88 in the United Kingdom, and 14 in France? Despite that we make up 4% of the world’s total population, we produce about 25% of the world’s waste. (Fun statistic, isn’t it? I’ll make sure that we’ll continue having fun with it, I promise—and this article will entertain you, Boy Scout’s honor!) But China, whose economy and industrial growth were pumped by the US, Canada, and Europe was doing “quite well” with production of their own waste over these years, and what seemed to be a bottomless pit all of a sudden got filled… go figure!
While we Americans are good with consuming products and producing trash (each of us produces 4.4 lbs a day to be specific), apparently we are not so good and efficient when it comes to sorting our garbage and singling out what is “recycling stuff” (at least not all of us). The US recycles 31.5% of its waste, making it 7th in the world for recycling. Just to compare— Japan recycles 76% of its plastic, making it top in the world for plastic recycling.
Anyway, getting back to China — no more distractions, I promise. So, again why 2017? In this year, famous Chinese documentary film maker, Jiu Liang Wang made a documentary film that was called “Plastic China.” This film was about the life of a Chinese young girl that lived next to a Chinese recycling plant, revealing the not so glamorous reality of the plastic industry in China. The film got a lot of attention from the world press and media. The Chinese Communist Party had to react somehow. The reaction was swift and drastic—one could even say “sharp as a sword,” as it was dubbed “Operation National Sword.”
So, in September of 2017, China declared to the World Trade Organization that it was banning waste and four different recyclable products including cotton, wastepaper, and recyclable plastic. The result of this was both instantaneous and devastating to the entire recycling industry world-wide. Almost overnight the recycling industry had been brought to a crippling halt. That resulted in the materials recovery facility, materials reclamation facility, and the materials recycling facility or Multi Reuse Facility (MRF, pronounced "murf") across the country diminishing their revenues from $300 per ton to $40 per ton. Now, that is what I call a double edged sword-– not only have they lost their revenue but also waste, including plastic, started to pile up at those MRFs in the US and Canada, threatening to create an environmental crisis across North America.
Yes, that’s right, North America— that includes our Northern neighbors whose recycling situation is not much better than in the US. And it looks like our Canadian brethren are slightly more efficient in producing their garbage per day per capita (4.5 lbs – according to the study of the Conference Board of Canada.) Canada with the difference of the US, was shipping their “recyclables” to the Philippines over the years. As you may realize, recyclables can become a very touchy and/or political subject that can be used by politicians to score some points. This is exactly what happened in the case of the Philippines. Canadians sent the usual shipment of recyclables several years back, and the Philippine government rejected this shipment on the grounds that it was mainly composed of not well-sorted and low quality garbage containing mainly “soiled adult diapers and kitchen trash…” Basically, there is a great chance that the Philippines got what is called a “contaminated” shipment of recyclables. The situation became so colored politically that the Philippine government started demanding Canada to take back their “garbage” or else President Duarte promised to send their fleet and declare war… he was not specific how far his fleet would go, but this was enough of a warning, and he scored a few political points this way. Canada was forced to repatriate a five-year-old shipment of rubbish from the Philippines at its own cost earlier this year. Malaysia followed suit and returned the waste. That prompted Thailand, Vietnam, and other countries to tighten controls to limit the country’s waste imports as well. Contaminated materials — and the resulting burning of hazardous waste — were one factor in the shift. The sharp increase in volume following China’s ban added to the mounting pressure. On top of growing environmental concerns, a political element came into play. China and other Asian countries no longer wanted to be seen as the global junkyard.
Some believe that the Chinese-produced shift in the recycling industry is a blessing in disguise— and a wake-up call that points to a need for better waste-management systems and better/more efficient sorting of recyclables in the first place. If we want to avoid any political, environmental crises, or even wars, that is…