Plastic is a material that’s cheap, versatile, and lightweight. It is also a major source of ocean pollution, which we’re reminded of every time a dead whale washes ashore with 115 plastic cups in its stomach. So, who is most responsible for all this plastic waste, and why?
At first glance, the numbers seem to point the finger at a handful of countries in Asia. A 2015 study named the five biggest contributors, which were Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Philippines, Indonesia, and topping the charts at number 1 by a wide margin, China.
Much of the plastic waste from these countries stemmed from underdeveloped waste management systems. In China, 76% of waste was mismanaged, meaning it was either just dropped as litter or disposed of in dumps or landfills that weren’t well contained and allowed the plastic to escape.
The study concluded that all that mismanaged plastic waste ended up depositing between 1.3 and 3.5 million metric tons of debris in the ocean each year, almost a third of the estimated annual marine plastic waste.
But don’t be so quick to pin all the blame on China. Starting in 1992 China started importing plastic waste from other countries, and it’s bought up a total of about 45% of the post-consumer plastic exported since then, adding about 10 to 13 percent to their domestic waste. Why? Because that plastic can be processed and turn into other goods. Well, some of it can anyway.
Not all plastics are created equal, and some types of plastic are more easily recycled than others. You may have noticed the recycling symbol on your plastic products has a number between 1 and 7 in the middle. Those numbers actually tell you what kind of plastic the product is made from, and some types are easier to recycle than others.
The two most common types of recycled plastic are:
- Polyethylene terephthalate, found in clothes disposable bottles.
- High-density polyethylene, found in detergent bottles, milk jugs, and toys.
Those are numbers one and two, but plastics labeled 3 to 7 can be harder to process. No matter the number China was accepting it all.
Further complicating things is when materials get mixed. Single-use coffee cups, for example, often have a thin coating of polyethylene to make them liquid-proof, which means the materials have to be separated first before they can be recycled.
The process is difficult and expensive, so most waste management facilities just treat the cups as trash. Likewise when single use food containers still have scraps of food or liquid in them, they can’t be processed either and are just discarded.
So since China was buying up nearly half the world’s exported used plastics, and plenty of that was too difficult or impossible to recycle and was subsequently put into inadequate dumps and landfills, then some of the responsibility lies with the exporters.
At 693 million metric tons, The US was the second-biggest seller of plastic to China in 2016. So, even though the USA ranked 20th on the list of biggest marine plastic polluters, that’s only because they weren’t handling all their trash themselves.
At the start of 2018 though, things changed. Citing environmental reasons, China stopped the import of post-consumer plastics completely. The last link in the supply chain just isn’t accepting our low-quality stuff anymore.
Other countries like Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand are buying more plastic, but those countries struggle to manage their waste already. So a lot of that plastic waste will likely find its way to the ocean too. Plus, they can never match the market size of China, so we still have a lot of trash to deal with all of a sudden.
Our waste management systems weren’t ready for this influx of plastic, and much of what we used to send overseas for recycling is heading right to the landfill.
So, what can an individual like you do if you’re worried about plastic finding its way to the ocean and hurting fish and sea turtles and whales? Well lots of things as it turns out.
- You can use less plastic.
- You can recycle more, and be better at recycling too by rinsing your used plastics and being aware of what plastics your local recycling facility can handle.
- And you can demand that manufacturers use more recycled plastics.
Even though the recycling process increases the cost, some companies are planning to make more products with recycled materials because it’s important to their consumers.
- And lastly, just don’t litter. It’s the laziest crime. Do it for turtles.
Are you surprised by how much plastic gets mismanaged? If you have some helpful tips, why don’t you share them down in the comments