The items we throw in the trash or in the recycling bin seem to go “away” – picked up off our curbs weekly and immediately put out of our minds. But there is no “away.” The trash we discard often comes back into our lives – sometimes as a product made with recycled material, but more often as plastic litter in a beach or park, or pollution from an incinerator.
For decades, the U.S. sent much of its plastic waste “away” to countries overseas, where it was hand-sorted and haphazardly dumped. In 2016, the U.S. exported almost 700,000 tons of plastic a year to China. Eventually, however, the pollution and health impacts of all this waste outweighed China’s desire for cheap raw materials, and in 2017, the Chinese government announced it was banning the import of almost all types of waste material. In 2018, China took in less than 1% of its 2016 total of plastic trash imports.
This could have prompted a national reckoning with how to deal with all the waste we create. Every day, the average American produces almost five pounds of trash – that’s 12% of the planet's trash, created by just 4% of its population. Only a third of our garbage is recycled or composted. And a significant share of it is nearly-worthless, hard-to-recycle plastic.
Instead of focusing attention on how to solve our own trash problem here at home, exporters simply changed tack and began targeting Southeast Asian and African countries as destinations for the plastic waste nobody else wants. Many of these countries then issued bans on importing waste as well, setting up the predicament we currently face: America produces more waste than we can manage, but manage it we must.
Thankfully, there are solutions to our trash issues that don’t involve cargo ships. Our new report, Trash in America, looks at the dangers of the current system and the opportunities for reducing the amount of waste we produce and rethinking the way we manage it.
One strategy to increase the sustainability of our products is to make manufacturers responsible for collecting and recycling them after they’ve been used. Ten states currently use this producer responsibility system to repay consumers for returned bottles through a container deposit law, or “bottle bill.” Expanding that program to cover packaging waste, as has been done successfully in Europe and Canada, would encourage manufacturers to make their products more recyclable.
Another strategy is simply to restrict single-use plastic products that are used for seconds and become waste for centuries. Single-use plastic containers, bags and utensils are overrepresented in roadside litter and ocean-bound trash and require large amounts of energy and fossil fuels to make. Although light and easy to overlook, plastic waste adds up: New York used 23 billion plastic bags each year before implementing a bag ban in 2020. More states and cities should ban these products, which can all be replaced with sustainable alternatives.
These bans are a small but vital step towards building a circular economy, where everything is designed to be reused or recycled. America’s current trash system, in contrast, is a linear model of extraction and disposal that relies on overseas labor and dumping grounds that no longer exist. We can fix that system by moving towards a society that uses more sustainably-made products and creates less single-use plastic waste.
Sending our trash “away” to countries halfway around the world for sorting and disposal is no longer an option. Neither is constructing more landfills and incinerators at home - at least not if we want to protect our environment and our health. The tools to build a zero-waste future exist. It’s time we used them.
Photo courtesy of John Bumstead