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What Does America Do With Recycled Plastic?

India just banned imported scraps of plastic, leaving countries like the U.S. with limited overseas options for where to send their plastic waste.
Workers sort recycling material at the Waste Management Material Recovery Facility in Elkridge, Maryland, on June 28th, 2018.

Workers sort recycling material at the Waste Management Material Recovery Facility in Elkridge, Maryland, on June 28th, 2018.

The Indian government announced a ban on plastic waste imports on Wednesday. This follows China's import prohibition in 2017, leaving Western countries with dwindling markets interested in their millions of tons of plastic.

Between 1988 and 2016, the United States exported 26.7 million tons of plastic. For over 25 years, the U.S. and many other countries relied on China to take most of that in. When China's ban went into effect last year, it left the U.S. to question what to do with its roughly 68 million tons of recycling now generated annually. According to a 2018 study published in Scientific Advances, China took in 45 percent of the world's scrap plastic between 1988 and 2016, and the ban will have displaced 111 million metric tons of plastic waste globally by 2030.

If you thought throwing that water bottle in the recycling bin immediately put it on a happy journey to become a cozy sweatshirt made of recycled plastic, you may be disappointed to learn that the path is not so simple.

For curbside recycling, a private company typically hauls collected recyclables to a plant to sort out "marketable" goods that companies or governments can sell to domestic or overseas processors, according to the New York Times. At a plastic processor, for instance, plastics are melted and formed into small pellets or spun into fibers, which are bundled and sold to companies to create products like clothing, carpets, and sleeping bags. U.S. authorities have often found it easier and more cost-effective to send marketable recyclables to processors out of the country. In the second quarter of 2018, the U.S. exported the largest amount of its marketable plastic to Malaysia, followed by Thailand, Vietnam, and India. Throughout 2018, India brought in 294 million pounds of scrap plastic from the U.S.

While some states and cities prevent unmarketable materials from going to the dump, others have granted waivers allowing them to end up in landfills. In addition, recycling loads are often "contaminated" by products that should not be recycled. This can lower the market value of other recyclables in the load or even cause otherwise recyclable materials to end up in landfills. Even just tying your recyclables up in a plastic bag can put your load en route to the landfill.

The writers of the 2018 study encourage top exporters of plastic to use these recent bans as an opportunity to develop their domestic recycling processing industries. "If domestic recycling of plastic waste is not possible, then this constraint reinforces the motivation to reduce use and redesign plastic packaging and products so that they retain their value and are more recyclable in domestic markets," the researchers write.