New investigation shows the majority of 'recycled' U.S. plastics are dumped in landfills or burned
A large part of the global problem of industrial waste and pollution, from fossil fuels to plastics, is that we have not just dragged our feet in implementing recycling programs and greener alternatives, we have dragged our feet in developing the infrastructure needed to begin true recycling programs and greener alternatives. Up until 2013, the United States shipped its plastic recycling to China, a cheaper alternative to creating the kind of recycling infrastructure needed to do it here. Then China began their Green Fence Policy, which cut down drastically on how much plastics they would be importing for recycling. Specifically, it shut out the low-grade plastics the United States and other “developed countries” have been drowning in.
This left the United States scrambling to figure out how to quickly find cheap alternatives, with hopes that the need for industrial recycling at home might incentivize our fearless capitalist class to create new economic opportunities. In the meanwhile, much of the plastic we are throwing into our recycling bins was reportedly being thrown into landfills. According to an investigation by The Guardian, as of 2019, the United States is still able to export around one-half of its plastics to countries like China, Vietnam, Turkey, Malaysia, and Senegal. The rest is left to U.S. municipalities to figure out how to recycle.
This is the problem, as the only way recycling gets done these days is if there is someone on the other end that wants that recycled good for their own manufacturing needs. Unfortunately, no one wants cheap plastic recycling products like “clamshell-style food packaging, black plastic trays, take-out containers and cold drink cups.” These items are termed “mixed plastics,” and most recycling operations in the United States now spend their time separating those items out from plastics like water bottles and milk containers. The rest, and that’s a lot, goes into a landfill or gets burned in incinerators, as the “invisible hand” of the market doesn’t find those plastics cost effective. The “mixed plastics” waste bin is treated like any other garbage.
So while we have idiotic Republican overreach forcing cities to continue to use disposable plastic bags and a few companies trying to shrink their environmental waste footprint, we are still dealing with bigger infrastructural issues, something that could be addressed if we had a government led by officials interested in, say, creating a much-needed multi-trillion dollar infrastructure program, and maybe some kind of environmental package that would dovetail perfectly with infrastructure spending. Let’s call that a Green Deal, or something “New” like that.