At a White House event last Monday designed to highlight his administration's environmental record, President Donald Trump and cabinet officials praised the administration's efforts to combat plastic pollution in the oceans, while blaming a handful of Asian nations as the main sources of the debris. "Sixty percent of the world's marine litter comes from six Asian countries," Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler said from the White House. "We have the technology and the expertise to help these nations."
The next day, Indonesia rejected dozens of shipping containers full of waste exported by wealthy nations—including the United States—after inspections revealed the containers were contaminated with plastics, diapers, used electronics, and other hazardous wastes. Indonesia is hardly the first country to crack down on contaminated imports: China, once the largest importer of plastic scrap, upended the (largely overlooked) global trade of plastic waste last year when it stopped buying shipments of recyclables that weren't at least 99.5 percent pure. Paper, plastics, and other recyclable materials began piling up in waste management centers and landfills in the U.S. and other western nations, exposing the shortcomings of our own waste systems.
Globally, half of the world's plastic scrap is traded on the international market. The U.S. exports about a third of its recyclables every year, and once they're shipped abroad, they're classified as recycled, but there's no guarantee that all of plastic scrap actually makes it into new materials. The vast majority—78 percent—of the U.S.'s plastic waste exports go to countries with poor waste management systems such as Malaysia, where Greenpeace documented reports of illegal dumping and burning of materials meant to be recycled. "The actual amount of U.S. plastic waste that ends in countries with poor waste management may be even higher than 78 percent," according to the Plastic Pollution Coalition, "since countries like Canada and South Korea may reexport U.S. plastic waste."
"This is a classic example of this idea that you can externalize your environmental footprint by moving the problem somewhere else," says George Leonard, chief scientist at the non-profit advocacy group Ocean Conservancy.
The first global assessment of plastic waste, which came out in 2015, found that more than eight million metric tons of plastic trash flows into our oceans every year, which Leonard says is roughly "equivalent to one garbage truck per minute, somewhere around the world, dumping plastics into the ocean." A half dozen Asian countries, including China, Indonesia, and the Philippines, appear to be the source of roughly half of the marine debris entering the oceans every year, according to the Ocean Conservancy.
But not all of the trash may originate within their country limits. China, for example, was the biggest contributor to marine trash in 2015, according to the global assessment, but it was also the biggest importer of plastic waste. Some 10 to 11 percent of its total plastic waste was imported from around the world. Until 2018, about half of U.S. plastic scrap exports went to China. That means that some of the debris flowing into the ocean via China, or any other Asian country importing our trash, may well have originated in the U.S.
Researchers are only now beginning to quantify how much of the waste transported between western nations and eastern recyclers winds up in the ocean. Those numbers aren't available to the public just yet, but Leonard argues that we don't need them to know that the U.S. could be doing better.
"I don't think we necessarily have to have those revised numbers to argue that the United States needs to do its part in this global problem," he says. "While it was true there were half a dozen Southeast Asian countries that were driving about 50 percent of the inputs, the United States was No. 20 on the list," of nearly 200 countries. In other words, the U.S. may not have been in the top 10, but it wasn't at the bottom of the list either.
The problem in many of the Asian countries that topped the list is often a lack of basic waste management infrastructure, Leonard says—the kind we take for granted here in the U.S. Globally, more investments in trash collection could help reduce the amount of plastic waste that leaks into the environment, but if plastic production continues to increase, waste management systems will continue to be overwhelmed. According to Leonard, bans on plastic bags, straws, and other single-use plastics are a critical tool for policymakers to reduce the overload.
A final key to reducing ocean waste is recycling. "And by recycling," Leonard says, "we mean real recycling—not just transporting materials somewhere else, and then considering us having done our part."
Right now, it's cheap to make plastic, but more difficult and expensive to recycle it. For one thing, the type of plastics used in consumer goods varies by several factors including chemical composition, color, and transparency, and not every variety can mix, which means plastics need to be carefully sorted in order to be reused. The most accurate way to do that is still by hand, which is why so much of our waste is shipped abroad to other countries where labor is cheaper.
Just 10 percent of plastic around the globe winds up being recycled, according to Leonard, and just 10 percent of that has been recycled more than once. "In some respects, recycling is, at present, at the global level, essentially a kind of a way stop on the way to the landfill," he says.
Policies mandating that plastics be recycled and redesigning plastics so that it's easier to do so could help make the process more economical, within the U.S. and abroad. "As an ocean organization, we typically think about the problems in the ocean, and we think about the solutions as lying in the ocean. But when we really grappled with this, " Leonard says, "we recognized that the solution to the ocean plastic problem actually lies on land."