can plastics be reycled

China is no longer buying our plastic – what does that mean for our recycling?

The Problem:  The world produces over 400 million tons of plastic every year.  More than one trillion plastic bags are thrown away worldwide every year.  China is no longer buying our recycled plastic, or any other wealthy country’s plastic either. Every year about 7 million tons went to China to be recycled into new products. Now all that plastic is getting shipped to countries that do not have the ability to recycle it or even dispose of it. At the best of times, only 9% of the nine billion tons of plastic that has ever been produced has been recycled into new products. (Source: UN Environment Programme, “Single-Use Plastics:  A Roadmap for Sustainability” 2018)

In 2018 China took in less than 1% of its 2016 total.  It no longer accepts 24 different recycling materials like plastic and mixed paper.  The new rules are strict and too difficult for most American cities to meet.  China is not just being mean or arbitrary.  It was discovered that the non-recyclable plastic that went to China was being dumped in waterways and canyons polluting farmland. Vietnam, Thailand and Malaysia have picked up some of the slack but they are not well-equipped to handle the waste management and Vietnam, for one, has reached a cap on how much it can accept and cannot take in any more plastic for a year.

The Results:  The trade war with China has not helped the situation, and no one thinks China will lift the ban on plastic any time soon.  Many U.S. towns and cities stopped accepting plastic containers for things like beauty products and yogurt and many consumers became confused. Some places have stopped recycling altogether. There is no real domestic market for U.S. recyclables.   Plastics, paper and glass are all being dumped in U.S. landfills or being burned in huge volumes.  Burning creates different dangers of toxic pollution being released into the air that will create high rates of asthma and cancers.  After the progress that has been made getting Americans to be more vigilant about recycling, this is a major setback.

Possible Solutions:   As of last spring, 2019, a big debate began about whether the U.S. should try to improve our own recycling abilities or focus on reducing our use of plastics.  Everyone seems to agree that the whole recycling system needs to be overhauled to avoid more damage to the environment. Until that happens, however, the silver lining to this crisis may be that Americans wean themselves from their dependence on plastic and manufacturers comply by using biodegradable materials for packaging.

In the meantime, consumers should check with their individual municipalities or recycler to see if they have changed what can be put into the recycling bins.  For items no longer being accepted, especially plastic, TRY TO STOP USING THEM!  The world might have to pledge to reduce the amount of waste it’s creating in order to save our planet.

Earth 911 has produced this list of ideas to avoid using plastic:

  • For food and beverage, purchase in bulk and use reusable glass, stainless steel or ceramic containers whenever possible.
  • Buy food packaged in paper, cardboard or glass.
  • Make your own bread and buy produce fresh instead of frozen.
  • Package leftovers in ceramic or glass containers.
  • Wrap foods at home in paper or aluminum foil — skip the Ziploc.
  • Carry a glass or stainless-steel reusable water bottle.
  • Avoid Styrofoam takeout containers — bring your own reusable containers to put the food in.
  • Use reusable cloth or canvas grocery and produce bags at the store.
  • When ordering drinks, ask for no straw.
  • Use reusable dishes and cutlery for picnics and parties.
  • Make your own household cleaners and detergents.
  • Use recycled cardboard, craft paper, cellulose wadding or compostable cornstarch peanuts for packaging purposes.
  • Use hemp or cotton shower curtains.
  • Use cloth diapers.
  • Try reusable feminine hygiene products, such as menstrual cups, reusable pads or special “period-proof” underwear.
  • Buy used or wooden toys.
  • Compost as much of your waste as possible to reduce the use of plastic trash bags.

Your state will probably have a similar guide to what Maine has, which is very helpful and comprehensive.

Here are some other ASE articles about recycling:

Non-recyclable K-cups


Living Green

Alternatives to plastic food storage baggies

Shopping without single use plastic bag

Recycle everything