For decades, barges of recyclables slowly dragged across the Pacific, acting as overrun vessels of the United States’ environmental hope. This system of exporting the national problem of plastic waste to China was effective and cheap, and kept the issue of overrun landfills out of the public eye. In this exchange, the same shipping containers used to transport Chinese wares across the world were returned with heavy bales of recyclable goods, a polite term for Western trash. But over the past two years, this method of handling—and not handling—the consequences of plastic overconsumption has proven ineffective, as China has taken a significant stand against the influx of waste from the Global North.
Nearly two years after China’s formal institution of its “National Sword” policy, recycling centers across the country and globe are still struggling to recover from what can be seen as an industry collapse. The policy bans Chinese importation of all recycled materials that do not meet a stringent 99.5 percent purity standard, closing off a major market for plastic from the Global North. Ever since China joined the World Trade Organization in 2001, it has been the largest importer of scrap to remake into manufacturable goods. But the country’s recent economic growth has decreased its reliance on cheap raw materials, and China has developed to become an exporter of goods (and waste) instead of a market to be exported to. With an average annual GDP growth of 9.39 percent, China has become the second largest economy in the world, and now can afford to stop imports of contaminated plastics in the name of development.
At its core, recycling is a practice of waste exportation by the rich. And as the list of recipients willing to take on that waste decreases, foreign nations—chiefly of the Global North—are forced to rethink where the contents of blue bins should go.
Prior to the development of the modern recycling industry during the 1970s, reuse centers acted as the dominant spaces of waste reduction, employing and promoting the practice of reuse. This unglamorous exchange was centered around the repairing of material goods like bikes, toys, and household appliances, allowing experts to focus on fixing objects that already existed instead of creating new ones. In theory, reuse has far more effective long-term consequences than recycling, as current technology requires more energy to melt down and refigure previously constructed plastic items than it does to create something new. But with the increasing influx of disposable goods and growing support for mainstream environmentalism post-1970 Earth Day, community centers and repair shops waned in popularity, and recycling rose as a seemingly viable solution to the consumerist mentality.
As a concept and catchphrase, “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” was born out of the environmentalist surge that followed the first Earth Day, a mass movement of support inspired by the teach-ins held to educate American citizens about the Vietnam War. When Congress passed the 1976 Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, this language was codified and the prospect of environmental solutions existing “out of sight, out of mind” through recycling was born. Recycling centers were built across the United States, promoting a positive, environmentalist image despite often being deeply unequal sites of intense manual labor that disproportionately employed people of color, cementing the foundation of recycling as an imposition of waste by the rich. This new mode of waste production and management created an invisible market for economic exploitation by wealthy communities, a system that was later implemented on the international scale. Local plants were unable to sort and repurpose the 300 million annual tons of recyclables sent in by the masses, and a new market became crucial for the success of the nascent recycling industry. The simultaneous rapid industrialization of countries like China required mass importation of cheap raw materials like paper and plastic starting in the 1980s, and created the recycling industry as it exists today. This exportation of waste claimed to give new life to old objects, but primarily served to satiate the social/moral construct of American civic responsibility to environmental causes.
Recycling as a movement relies on the individual not only as a civilian but also as a consumer, offering a solution to environmental crises without calling for a radical reduction of waste or lifestyle alteration. Corporations and ad campaigns that target upper-middle class, white environmentalists perpetuate the idea of individual responsibility over collective action, and never point to blame to the manufacturers and industries that caused (and have the capacity to solve) climate change. This absence of collective responsibility only worsens environmental inequality, as it allows those with wealth and power to remove themselves from the harsh realities of sludge and grey plastic-polluted water that those living and working near recycling centers face.
Instead, many Americans choose to soothe their guilty consciences by becoming aspirational recyclers: tossing all items into the blue bin with the distant hope that they can and will be transformed into something new and repurposed by someone else.
This removal of the individual from the act of repurposing does not mitigate the harmful effects of wasteful consumer habits, as it creates an invisible economy for recyclables that devolved into an imposition of waste by the Global North onto the Global South. In an interview with the College Hill Independent, Thomas Pringle, a PhD candidate in the department of Modern Culture and Media at Brown University stated, “Recycling habits are a stage in the process of consuming disposable goods produced by corporations. Your relationship to the product is as a consumer and not a producer; the use of the product is your own but the design of the product is not.” In other words, the system founded on excessive consumption and waste still exists, despite the minor actions taken by individual people. Recycling does not address the issue of excessive production either, as approximately 300 million tons of virgin (unrecycled) plastic is produced every year, and that number is only growing. And now, with the National Sword policy, no one is pretending to want it anymore.
For years, the Global North has exported contaminated recyclables as a quick means of diverting waste from local landfills. Even before the implementation of National Sword, only nine percent of all plastic materials were actually recycled. This is largely due to the need for consumer convenience, as single-stream recycling—the combination of all recyclable materials into one disposal bin—became ubiquitous, spreading the contamination of recyclables in this process. This combination of liquid-stained bottles, poorly sorted plastic bags, and brightly colored paper made the physical processing of recycling difficult for China to properly conduct. Often, those who worked in recycling plants suffered the brutal consequences of this strenuous and often fruitless task. As Chinese industrialization became less reliant on cheap raw materials, it became nonsensical for the country to remain a dumping ground for other countries, both from an economic and power standpoint. Shortly before National Sword was put in place, a film entitled Plastic China depicted the terrible conditions of those living among the muck, painting the country as a desolate wasteland of Western production. This image, before being quickly censored by the Chinese government, became part of the narrative of the recycling industry, and one that the country intended to separate itself from with the implementation of stricter importation standards.
In the wake of National Sword, towns and cities across the world have struggled to find new markets to help maintain old consumption habits, choosing to address the symptoms instead of treating the source. Prior to the ban, the United States and the European Union shipped 70 and 95 percent, respectively, of plastics collected for recycling to China. In 2018, the Australian recycling industry struggled to find a permanent solution for the 1.3 million tons of recyclable waste that it previously would have sent to China. With Chinese imports plummeting by 99 percent, this global waste has made its way to landfills and incinerators, sometimes venturing all the way to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and other debris collections scattered among the five ocean gyres.
In response to China’s new policy, the United States and other Northern countries attempted to maintain their previous exportation strategy, seeking markets in countries with no regulatory procedures for environmentally conscious recycling processing. Many countries turned toward Southeast Asian countries in hopes that their initiatives for industrialization would provide a market for Western plastic. Recyclable exports from the United States to Thailand jumped nearly 7,000 percent in the year following the ban. Soon after this transfer, Vietnam and Malaysia began enforcing policies similar to China’s in an attempt to limit the inundation of waste and issues with contamination. Both the National Sword policy and the response by the Global North represent a shift not in imperialistic recycling practices but in the places and people on whom they are being imposed.
Across the United States, states and cities have established systems of handling this backlogging of recycled materials without any apparent success. Cities like New York, San Francisco, and Portland, Oregon have sought alternate markets and expanding local recycling operations, sometimes making small-scale changes to their recycling collection processes. Small towns and rural recycling operations have been hit the hardest economically by the disappearance of this market for recyclables, as many lack the resources to process the increased amount of waste. The recycling programs in areas like Douglas County, Oregon, and Hancock, Maine, were permanently shut down in early 2019, while other cities like Sacramento, California suspended collection of plastic numbers three through seven (low-density polyethylene, polypropylene, polystyrene, BPA, polycarbonate and LEXAN). Now everything from baby bottles to shrink wrap to takeout containers to potato chip bags must go in the trash.
In some ways, China’s importation ban exposed structural flaws in the recycling system, underscoring the issue of aspirational recycling habits built on continued production of disposable goods and inactive approaches to rampant consumerism.
This slew of ineffective long-term solutions suggests the possibility that recycling as we know it may not be the remedy to waste, and that perhaps it is time to explore other options. As Pringle told the Independent, “From an environmental perspective, the problem is economic growth propelled by corporations producing disposable goods for profit based on the extraction of natural resources.” The fundamental issue with recycling as a solution to waste diversion is that it continues the cycle of plastic production, without challenging daily consumption habits. Recognizing that recycling in its current form cannot effectively divert waste from landfills, officials recommend measures that reduce consumerism and place the responsibility back on producers.
California, a state that exported most recyclable plastic prior to the 2018 ban, has turned to practical measures that focus less on overhauling the entire capitalist structure and more on immediate waste diversion. Local jurisdiction determines local best practices, under the regulation of CalRecycle, a government agency that oversees the state’s waste management programs. CalRecycle Public Information Officer Lance Klug told the Independent that the statewide goal is meet the landfill diversion standards set before 2018, and to increase the amount of waste diverted over time. The department itself is working towards a more holistic approach moving forward, supporting policy that “moves California away from a single-use disposable society to one that focuses on the need for product reuse and extended producer responsibility.” That is, broadly taking action that shifts the focus from recycling to reuse and reduction, and taking the responsibility out of the hands of the well-intentioned citizen-consumers and placing it back on the manufacturers. Following this model, it will be the producers’ responsibility to limit production of single-use goods and ensure that plastics are being properly recycled, enforced by a fine. For now, local pilot programs which seek to transform single-stream recycling into dual-stream to reduce the contamination of paper, material restrictions such as plastic bag charges, and independent recovery of paint and mattresses by private corporations have all proven to be effective methods of diverting landfill waste. Klug describes California as being in a period of transition, since the state “can no longer export waste and expect it to be a viable path.”
But beyond the limitation of exported waste, the entire structure of disposable consumerism must be challenged in order to affect meaningful change. While moving towards a more sustainable mode of production is a step in the right direction, the simplest and most effective solution is an overall reduction of goods produced. The culture of consumption is not only an environmental issue but one deeply rooted in inequality, and is founded on one’s ability to impose waste on another. Perhaps the solution is to collectively reduce the resources we consume and extract, or to reopen repair shops and to reinvest in local communities. Maybe it is a combination of all of the above. However we move forward, we must recognize that our waste goes somewhere and affects someone, and with this knowledge, aspire to be better than just recyclers.
ANABELLE JOHNSTON B‘23 aspires to end rampant consumerism. And also acquire a pet cat.