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China’s plastics ban reverberates in Sullivan

Since 1992, 45% of the plastic recycling materials generated by the planet and about 70% of the recyclable plastic waste generated in the United States have been sent to China. But collecting recyclables is a dirty business, especially now that many municipalities have turned to single-stream recycling operations; plastic recyclables are often delivered mixed with food, clothing, single-use plastics and other contaminants that must be sorted out of the stream. All of this requires energy, and the process of recycling plastics into usable material creates its own pollution footprint.

As living standards improve in China, authorities there decided to take a serious step to improve the environment, and that meant banning the import of plastic recyclables. The ban took effect in January. In the wake of the ban, American recyclable dealers began shipping much more material to Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam. It should come as no surprise that Thailand will soon impose a ban, and the other countries may not be far behind.

The global situation was brought home to Sullivan County on November 1 when Krissy Walsh, representing Thompson Sanitation, turned out to a meeting of the Sullivan County Public Works Committee to address the county legislature about the cost of recycling. She recognized that the door to China is now “closed” regarding recyclables. She said there was now a big issue in the county and the country, “as to what we’re going to do with our garbage and recycling.”

Talking about recycling practices in general, Walsh said there are three types of people. She said first is the type that personally takes their recycling from their home to the transfer stations and, “Those people want to do it correctly.” The second group, which she estimated to be about 80% of consumers, mix un-recyclable materials, such as “Little Tikes [children’s toys,] the hoses, the diapers, anything that they feel is recyclable,” into the recycling containers. The third group, said Walsh, simply don’t bother to recycle.

Walsh told the legislators that with 12 hours notice, the charge to accept recycling at the transfer station jumped from nothing to $41.45 per ton. A couple of the legislators noted that they too had not received advance notice about the imposition of the charge, but they would be looking into the matter.  

Walsh said she had added a $1 surcharge on her customer’s bills to help pay for the surcharge, but she said she is still losing money on handling recyclables. She said there is no longer a financial incentive to use one truck to collect household waste and another to collect recyclables, although that is what is required by local law.

Even a cursory reading of the available literature on the topic shows that plastics have become an environmental issue of enormous proportions. According to the 5 Gyres Institute (tinyurl.com/yafd8shw), eight million metric tons of plastic enter the oceans each year, not only due to the manufacturers who produce all that plastic, but also to consumers, mostly from high-income countries, who help distribute plastic pollution to the four corners of the planet.

Some people and institutions are recognizing the situation and taking steps to mitigate the impacts of all that plastic. Many municipalities, including Sullivan County, are considering bans on single-use plastic items, and some companies are experimenting with mixing recycled plastic pellets into road-making materials to create superior road surfaces. But these steps seem tiny and impotent against such a huge problem.

Another entry from 5 Gyres (tinyurl.com/yce77gu5) shows the enormity of the problem: “Much of the plastic dropped in recycling bins isn’t even recycled. In 2014, 22% of PET plastic [containers for liquids and food] collected for recycling was exported out of the United States. Why? Our facilities can’t keep up: Plastic production surged from 15 million tons in 1964 to 311 tons in 2014—an increase of more than 2,000 percent. Currently, more than 300 million tons of new plastic is produced annually and less than 10% is recycled.”

A solution to the problem plastic pollution may require a radical change in the way humans have traditionally thought about rights and protections. Until now, in most legal systems only humans have had rights—rights that started with land-owning white men and gradually spread to minorities and women. Now, there is an emerging school of thought called earth law that says plants, animals and ecosystems also deserve rights. With the detritus of humankind spreading to every nook and cranny around the world, conferring rights to all living things on the planet may be one way to attack the problem.

 

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