The U.S.'s largest trash hauler has stopped exporting plastic waste to other countries
Magda Ehlers

When you put your plastic cup into the recycling bin, you probably think it's headed to a nearby facility where it'll be broken down and then turned into another cup which you will eventually put into the recycling bin. But the process of recycling isn't as clean as we thought. Only 9.1% of plastics in the U.S. are recycled, and our recycling infrastructure is overwhelmed by that amount. Some recyclable plastic is sent to our landfills, while other recyclable plastic – one million tons, to be exact – are sent overseas. Yes, we're exporting trash.

In 2019, Waste Management, the U.S.'s largest trash hauler, said it sent almost one-quarter of its plastic recyclables overseas. Now, they've ended the practice, altogether. "In response to concerns about plastic in the environment, Waste Management is not shipping plastics collected on its residential recycling routes and processed in its single stream material recovery facilities to locations outside North America. The company is working to help establish responsible domestic markets for recycling and beneficial use of these materials," Waste Management said in a statement.

The change is a response to a recent outcry against the mess. Our plastics were out of sight, out of mind, until reports came in that wealthier countries were shipping low-grade recyclables to other, poorer countries.

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The U.S. had been shipping recycling to China, but in 2017, the country stopped buying and processing foreign trash. The plastics still had to go somewhere. And so, Malaysia became the world's largest importer of plastic trash, receiving recyclables from Europe, Japan, and, of course, the U.S. Thailand and Vietnam also began accepting our trash. In 2018, the amount of plastic sent from the U.S. to Malaysia doubled. A report from the Plastic Pollution Coalition stated that the U.S. was exporting 429 shipping containers per day, while most countries receiving the waste weren't equipped to handle the volume.

Plastic might have made its way to Malaysia, but it didn't make its way into the recycling facility. Some of the waste went to illegal recycling facilities. The plastic that couldn't be processed would get burned improperly, which would release toxic fumes into the air. Burning plastic releases chemicals that can cause respiratory ailments and can even be carcinogenic.

In May, Malaysia simply started sending plastic recycling back to the countries that shipped it there in the first place, as they no longer wanted to be the world's landfill.

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Waste Management's new policy went into effect in August, but was recently confirmed by Greenpeace. "Companies should not be exporting plastic waste for other countries to clean up our mess," John Hocevar, Greenpeace USA's oceans campaign director, said in a statement. "The U.S. is offloading plastic onto countries with poor waste management in hopes of pushing our pollution crisis out of sight, but this only shifts the burden to others that lack the capacity to deal with it."

According to the World Economic Forum, plastic production is expected to double in the next 20 years. It's going to continue to be a problem unless we cut down our use. In the meantime, hopefully, this policy change will clean things up, and your plastic cup will end up back in your hands as a different cup, instead of ending up in a shipping container.

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