Tag Archives: plastic garbage

The Global Flows of Dirty Recyclables

For decades, America and much of the developed world threw their used plastic bottles, soda cans and junk mail in one bin. The trash industry then shipped much of that thousands of miles to China, the world’s biggest consumer of scrap material, to be sorted and turned into new products.  That changed last year when China banned imports of mixed paper and plastic and heavily restricted other scrap. Beijing said it wants to stimulate domestic garbage collection and end the flow of foreign trash it sees as an environmental and health hazard. Since then, India, Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia—other popular markets for the West’s trash—have implemented their own restrictions…China’s 2018 restrictions on a variety of waste imports radically changed global flows of plastics, including polyethylene, a popular type used in shopping bags and shampoo bottles.

 
For years, the world’s bottles and boxes made their way to China on ships that offered deep discounts to avoid returning empty after dropping off cargo in the U.S. and other countries. Since 1992, China has imported 45% of the world’s plastic waste, according to data published in 2019 in the journal Science Advances. “It was a great relationship, where we bought their goods and sent them back the empty boxes,” says Brent Bell, vice president of recycling for Houston-based Waste Management, the largest waste management company in the U.S. In 2018, China instituted a ban on 24 categories of waste—including, for example, plastic clamshell containers, soda and shampoo bottles, and junk mail. It said foreign garbage was “provoking a public outcry.”

China accepted dirty and mixed recyclables because it had low-wage workers to sort out unwanted material, often by hand. That gave American contractors little incentive to weed out food scraps, plastic bags and nonrecyclable junk stateside. After China rejected imports, a flood of trash was rerouted to countries such as India, Indonesia and Malaysia. Many of those places now say they are overwhelmed and have imposed their own restrictions on paper or plastic imports. The countries also want to focus on developing their own waste collection industries.

Malaysia in May 2019 began sending back 60 containers of imported trash to the U.S. and other countries, complaining it had become a dumping ground for rich countries. The containers were meant to contain plastic scrap but were contaminated with other items such as cables and electronic waste. A government spokeswoman said more containers will be returned as Malaysia ramps up inspections.

Japan, which historically sent most of its plastic exports to China, had been redirecting trash to Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam after China’s ban. But when those countries began turning dirty recycling away, Japanese collectors started stockpiling, in hopes a new market would arise. Over the past year, Japan has amassed 500,000 tons of plastic waste, according to Hiroaki Kaneko, deputy director of recycling at the environment ministry. Japan, the second-biggest exporter of plastic waste behind the U.S., is trying to stimulate domestic processing by earmarking billions of yen to subsidize plastic recycling machinery for private companies.

The U.K. is burning more of its trash, including dirty or low-value recycling. Attitudes toward incineration vary greatly by country. In the U.S., where space is plentiful, it has long been cheaper to send materials to landfills, and incineration has remained unpopular. Across much of Europe, by contrast, trash burned for energy has been popular for years. ….“The China ban has highlighted that we can no longer export our problem,” said managing director Bill Swan. Paper Round’s buyers have much higher standards now, he said, such as checking moisture levels, which can decrease the quality of paper.

Excerpts from Saabira Chaudhuri, Recycling Rethink: What to Do With Trash Now That China Won’t Take It, WSJ, Dec. 21, 2019

Sunlight Can Make Plastics Disappear

Numerous international governmental agencies that steer policy assume that polystyrene, a sort of plastic  persists in the environment for millennia. 

Styrofoam Cup

In their research paper published in the Journal of  Environmental Science and Technology Letters, scientists show the  that polystyrene is completely photochemically oxidized to carbon dioxide and partially photochemically oxidized to dissolved organic carbon. Lifetimes of complete and partial photochemical oxidation are estimated to occur on centennial and decadal time scales, respectively. These lifetimes are orders of magnitude faster than biological respiration of polystyrene and thus challenge the prevailing assumption that polystyrene persists in the environment for millennia. 

Excerpt from Collin P. Ward et al, Sunlight Converts Polystyrene to Carbon Dioxide and Dissolved Organic Carbon, Journal of Environmental Science and Technology Letters, October 10, 2019

From Streets into Drains into Seas: Cigarette Butts

Cigarette butts, the most littered items in the world, are posing an intractable trash problem for regulators and tobacco companies: Throwing them on the ground is a firmly entrenched habit for many smokers.  Regulators are taking a tougher stance on cigarette filter pollution amid concerns about the environmental impact of single-use plastic. Butts for decades have been made from cellulose acetate, a form of plastic, which takes years to break down. Studies show that butts—which often wash from sidewalks into drains and then waterways—can be toxic to fish.

About 65% of cigarettes smoked in the U.S. are littered, according to Keep America Beautiful, a nonprofit whose cigarette litter prevention program is funded by the tobacco industry.  “That whole habit is so ingrained it becomes part of the ritual of taking the cigarette out of the pack, lighting it, smoking it, putting it on the ground,” said Christopher Proctor, chief scientific officer at British American Tobacco (BAT), whose cigarette brands include Kent, Newport and Camel. “Changing ingrained behavior is a really difficult thing to do.”

The European Union in May adopted new rules under which members must pass laws within two years requiring tobacco companies to fund the cleanup of filter litter as part of a broader crackdown on single-use plastics. A bill proposing banning filters has made its way through the California Senate and will be heard by the lower house next year.  In response, BAT and Japan Tobacco Inc. are testing biodegradable filters, while Philip Morris International Inc. is assessing the appetite for portable ashtrays. Companies also are tapping behavioral psychologists to understand what propels smokers to litter, hoping to forestall stricter regulation…

he World Health Organization says that when filters do break down they leach out some of the 7,000 chemicals contained in cigarettes, many of which are environmentally toxic.

Excerpts from Saabira Chaudhuri, The World’s Most Littered Item Comes Under Fire, WSJ, July 31, 2019

When Plastic Reached the Himalayas: India’s War on Single-Use Plastics

The daily plastic waste generated by the average Indian—while much lower than the average American—climbed 69% between 2015 and 2018, according to government estimates. Across the country, dumps are overflowing and drains are clogging with plastic, while cows—considered sacred—are getting sick after eating packaging….To get a grip, India has instituted some of the world’s strictest rules on single-use plastic, forcing companies to collect packaging that is often left as litter.
 

Nonrecyclable packaging is a problem globally, but particularly acute in countries with poor waste management. Many Indian households lack regular collection services so they burn trash or dump it on the side of the road. Much of the waste ends up in waterways. Of plastic found in the world’s oceans, 90% is traced to 10 rivers, according to a 2017 study published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology. Eight of the rivers are in Asia and two flow through India.

Single-Serve Pouches

In emerging markets, products like shampoo and detergent are often sold in single-serve pouches similar to the ketchup packets that come with an order of fries. The resilient “multilayer” pouches protect against extreme temperatures and contamination, and, most important, are affordable for poor consumers. Single-serve packets make up over 80% of shampoo sales in India, Indonesia and the Philippines, according to Euromonitor….This type of packaging combines different types of plastic with materials like aluminum. That makes it nonrecyclable and of no interest to India’s waste pickers who trawl through trash looking for recyclables to sell.  Three years ago, India’s government said it would ban multilayer packaging by 2018, setting off alarm bells through the industry…

A consortium—including Nestlé, Pepsi and Mentos-maker Perfetti Van Melle SpA—tried for months to develop a recyclable alternative. After little success, they decided on a different approach.  Through street plays and workshops, the companies trained 1,500 waste pickers across eight cities to identify and collect multilayer packaging, paying them for what they brought in.  The pilot program amassed 680 metric tons of material in three months. In March 2018, New Delhi changed the law to allow the sale of multilayer packaging. The caveat is that companies must collect back the equivalent volume of what they sell and find other uses for it, like sending it to cement plants as fuel…

Despite such efforts, some government officials have accused companies of moving too slowly. E. Ravendiran of the Maharashtra Pollution Control Board says companies only swung into action after being threatened with bans or having to pay a deposit on multilayer packaging sold. Executives say the target of collecting 100% of multilayer plastic by 2020 is unrealistic and that details on how the rule will be implemented are scarce.

Hassan, a former waste picker who manages a small team of waste collectors in Bangalore, says pickers aren’t financially motivated to bend down hundreds of times to collect a kilogram of multilayer plastic from piles of mixed waste or just off the street. Saahas pays him 27 rupees (around 39 U.S. cents) for one kilogram of plastic bottles, compared with just 4 rupees for one kilogram of multilayer packaging, which is much harder to collect.

Excerpts,  Saabira Chaudhu India Saddles Consumer-Goods Makers With Fixing Plastic Trash Problem, WSJ, July 5, 2019

Melted Plastic on the Shores: Madeira Island

‘Plasticrusts’ are see on the surface of rocks in Madeira island, Portugal. Researchers say they may have identified a new kind of plastic pollution in the sea, and they’re calling it “plasticrust.” Scientists working on Madeira, a volcanic Portuguese island off northwest Africa, have found small patches of what look like melted plastic encrusted on rocks along the shoreline. 

Excerpts from Scientists on Madeira see new ‘plasticrust’ sea pollution, Associated Press,
June 25, 2019

Keep it in Your Backyard Please! The Revolution against Recyclable Plastics

There is no point collecting recyclable waste unless someone is willing to buy it and actually do the recycling. Until late 2017 China was the world’s biggest importer of scrap by far.  All this came to a halt when the Chinese government banned the import of all but the purest scrap material in 2017, killing a trade worth $24bn a year. Waste dealers in the rich world had to scramble to find new buyers. South-East Asia soon emerged as the pre-eminent destination for foreign waste. Unfortunately, the region’s recycling industry is much smaller than China’s; its processing plants were quickly overwhelmed. Plastics from America and Europe have piled up in landfills. Lots of toxic rubbish has simply been torched.

South-East Asian governments are not pleased. They have begun to ban or crimp imports themselves, abruptly diminishing a booming business. On May 28th, 2919 Yeo Bee Yin, Malaysia’s environment minister, complaining that “garbage [was] being traded under the pretext of recycling”, announced that her government would be sending back 3,000 tonnes of foreign plastic. Much of it was of poor quality, she noted, and hence unrecyclable.  Thailand plans to ban plastic-waste imports by 2021. Vietnam’s government has similar ideas. Kate O’Neill of the University of California, Berkeley, reckons these bans are motivated not only by environmental concerns but also by pride: Asia does not want to be the world’s dumping ground.  Rodrigo Duterte, the president of the Philippines, recently threatened to go to war with Canada if it did not take back a shipment of plastic scrap. Canada agreed to take it away…

Excerpts from South-East Asian countries are banning imports of waste for recycling, Economist, June 15, 2019

Trash Islands

According to a three-year study published in Scientific Reports on March 23, 2018, the mass known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is about 1.6 million square kilometers in size — up to 16 times bigger than previous estimates. That makes it more than double the size of Texas.  Ghost nets, or discarded fishing nets, make up almost half the 80,000 metric tons of garbage floating at sea, and researchers believe that around 20% of the total volume of trash is debris from the 2011 Japanese tsunami.

The study — conducted by an international team of scientists with The Ocean Cleanup Foundation, six universities and an aerial sensor company — utilized two aircraft surveys and 30 vessels to cross the debris field.

Along with nets to survey and collect trash, researchers used two six-meter-wide devices to measure medium to large-sized objects. An aircraft was also fitted with advanced sensors to collect 3D scans of the ocean garbage. They ended up collecting a total of 1.2 million plastic samples and scanned more than 300 square kilometers of ocean surface.  The bulk of the pile is made up of larger objects while only 8% of the mass is microplastics, or pieces smaller than 5 millimeters in size.

The patch is so big that last fall environmentalists called on the United Nations to declare the Great Pacific Garbage Patch a country, called “The Trash Isles,” complete with its own passport and currency, called debris…Research scientist Britta Denise Hardesty, who wasn’t involved in this study, said while discarded nets may make up almost half of the findings, the problem may be more nuanced.  It’s estimated 640,000 tons of fishing gear is lost to the marine environment each year.

Excerpts from A massive garbage patch in the middle of the Pacific Ocean is now three times the size of France, CNN, Mar. 24, 2018