Sat, Jun 22, 2019 - Page 9 News List

Where does all the plastic go? The US’ dirty secret — Part I

A ‘Guardian’ report from 11 countries tracks how US waste makes its way across the world and overwhelms the poorest nations

By Erin McCormick, Bennett Murray, Carmela Fonbuena, Leonie Kij  /  The Guardian

Illustration: Tania Chou

What happens to plastic after it is dropped in a recycling bin?

According to promotional materials from the US’ plastics industry, it is whisked off to a factory where it is seamlessly transformed into something new.

This is not the experience of Nguyen Thi Hong Tham, a 60-year-old Vietnamese mother of seven, living amid piles of grimy US plastic on the outskirts of Hanoi.

Outside her home, the sun beats down on a Cheetos bag, aisle markers from a Walmart store and a plastic bag from ShopRite, a chain of supermarkets in New Jersey, bearing a message urging people to recycle it.

Tham is paid the equivalent of US$6.50 a day to strip off the nonrecyclable elements and sort what remains: translucent plastic in one pile, opaque in another.

A Guardian investigation has found that hundreds of thousands of tonnes of US plastic are being shipped every year to poorly regulated developing nations for the dirty, labor-intensive process of recycling. The consequences for public health and the environment are grim.

A team of Guardian reporters in 11 nations has found that:

‧Last year, the equivalent of 68,000 shipping containers of US plastic recycling were exported to developing countries that mismanage more than 70 percent of their own plastic waste.

‧The newest hot spots for handling US plastic recycling are some of the world’s poorest countries, including Bangladesh, Laos, Ethiopia and Senegal, offering cheap labor and limited environmental regulation.

‧In some places, such as Turkey, a surge in foreign waste shipments is disrupting efforts to handle locally generated plastics.

‧ With these nations overwhelmed, thousands of tonnes of waste plastic are stranded at home in the US.

These failures in the recycling system are adding to a growing sense of crisis around plastic, a wonder material that has enabled everything from toothbrushes to space helmets, but is now found in enormous quantities in the oceans and has even been detected in the human digestive system.

Reflecting grave concerns around plastic waste, 187 countries last month signed a treaty giving nations the power to block the import of contaminated or hard-to-recycle plastic trash.

A few countries did not sign. One was the US.

A new Guardian series, United States of Plastic, is to scrutinize the plastic crisis engulfing the US and the world, publishing several more stories this week and continuing for the rest of this year.

“People don’t know what’s happening to their trash,” said Andrew Spicer, who teaches corporate social responsibility at the University of South Carolina and sits on his state’s recycling advisory board.

“They think they’re saving the world, but the international recycling business sees it as a way of making money. There have been no global regulations — just a long, dirty market that allows some companies to take advantage of a world without rules,” he said.


Plastic only came into mass consumer use in the 1950s, but in the Pacific Garbage Patch it is already thought to be more common than plankton.

Officials around the globe have banned particularly egregious plastic pollutants, such as straws and flimsy bags, yet the US alone generates 31.3 million tonnes of plastic waste each year, enough to fill Houston’s Astrodome stadium 1,000 times.

Of the 9 percent of US plastic that the US Environmental Protection Agency estimated was recycled in 2015, China and Hong Kong handled more than half: about 1.5 million tonnes of US plastic recycling every year.

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