Sun, Jun 23, 2019 - Page 7 News List

A look at where US plastic goes exposes grim consequences

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

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

With US plastic landing in countries that have never seen it in such quantities, local residents are crying foul.

In the Philippines, about 120 shipping containers a month are arriving in Manila and an industrial zone in the former US military base at Subic Bay. Records indicate they were filled with plastic scrap shipped from such places as Los Angeles, Georgia and the Port of New York-Newark.

From the Manila port, shipping records and Philippines customs documents show, some of the US plastic was transported to Valenzuela City. The area, on the outskirts of the Philippine capital, is known as “Plastic City” and residents are increasingly concerned about the number of processing factories sprouting in their midst.

“You smell that?” said a shopkeeper, Helen Lota, 47, as she stood in front of her neighborhood convenience store at noon one day last month.

“That’s nothing. It’s worse toward evening. It gets suffocating,” she said.

“There are times it’s really hard to breathe. Many of us here are getting sick,” Lota said. “I had my daughter’s cough checked in the hospital, but the X-ray is clear. The coughing must be caused by the smell.”

Noticing Lota complaining about the plastic problem, passers-by stopped to chime in.

“My mother’s cough won’t go away, probably because of the smell,” said Renante Bito, 38.

Yet recycling is also one of the area’s biggest income sources.

Officials and residents interviewed by the Guardian said that they had assumed the plastic being processed in their town was the Philippines’ own waste. None realized that some of it was being shipped from the US.

Representatives for the factories receiving US waste declined to be interviewed.

In Turkey, US plastic imports might be putting an entire profession at risk. Since China closed its doors, the amount of plastic recycling Turkey takes in from abroad has soared, from 144,200 tonnes to 398,300 tonnes in two years.


Each month, about 10 ships pull into the ports of Istanbul and Adana, carrying about 1,814 tonnes of cheap US scrap plastic that is no longer wanted by China. Most of it comes from the US ports of Georgia, Charleston, Baltimore and New York. Some of it is described in shipping records as “Walmart film scrap,” the clear cling wrap used to secure huge pallets of products sold by Walmart.

Walmart declined to comment on the issue.

These ships join dozens of others from the UK and other European countries.

Their arrival is closely watched by Turkey’s scrap pickers, who number in the hundreds of thousands and travel the streets collecting scraps from houses and businesses to resell to factories for manufacturing into products such as plastic bags.

Now, the scrap pickers say, the factories are buying cheaper and cleaner plastic from the foreign recycling coming in on ships. Piles of their unsold, locally collected plastic are building up in urban storage yards. They have organized a campaign to stop the flood of foreign plastic, getting friends who work in the port to take videos of materials being offloaded and conducting their own ad hoc investigations.

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