Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Plastic Recycling, China, and the Big Green Lie

The United States currently dumps more than 50% of its "recycled" plastic on China. China's record on environmental regulation of its plastic-recycling industry is, in a word, abysmal.
Chinese woman collecting plastic bottles from filthy river
After withering under a growing international spotlight, China has finally agreed to a series of regulations. The following list of newly banned practices comes directly from this September 5, 2012 "Plastics News" article:
  • Recycling activities in residential areas;
  • Using recycled plastic to make ultrathin bags (shopping bags less than 0.025mm thick and other bags less than 0.015mm in thickness) that have been banned since 2007;
  • Using recycled plastic to make food-contact bags;
  • Handling of hazardous waste (with chemical residues, pesticide or disposable medical packaging) without special operating license;
  • Processing activities without sufficient water treatment facilities, such as granulation of woven bags, washing of plated scrap, stripping of plating or coating, etc.;
  • Improper handling of waste from the recycling process;
  • Outdoor incineration of plastic scrap and waste from the recycling process.
  • Importing unwashed, post-consumer scrap;
  • Transferring imported waste to a company other than what is allowed by the import license, including sending the materials to vendors for washing services;
  • Selling unwashed leftover plastic materials after sorting and processing imported plastic scrap;
  • Selling unwashed leftover plastic materials after sorting and processing imported scrap paper.
Let that sink in. That's all just now being made illegal. Half of all the bottles and jugs that we have dutifully cleaned, sorted, and put into a curbside bin have been shipped to a country that had zero functional oversight on all of the above. All this time.

Something else to sink in: Industrial regulation in China rarely meets international standards. It's rife with corruption -- with sewage plants that only operate the one day a government official comes by, for example. Plastic recycling centers that never bothered to buy the government-required sanitation equipment. So it's great that finally there are some rules in place. Is there any real belief that they will be enforced?

We buy stuff from China because it's cheap. It's cheap because we send over countless tons of our used plastic to a nation that has so far been incapable of effectively or honestly overseeing how that material gets re-used.

Change the game.


  1. chilling and well written. thanks for your dedication and hard work Harry. It IS a game changer.


  2. Makes me wonder why industry has not developed and embraced packaging that, like nature's products, breakdown in a resonable time frame and give back to the environment.

    1. Sadly, I have a hunch that without coercion they never will. Plastic is the absolute cheapest (to them) product around. Especially since the industry's successfully "externalized" all the cleanup cost on us. As long as they're getting the profit and we're paying the cost -- and they keep the public believing they care -- they'll never change.

  3. hi. thanks for sharing post on such critical aspects. i hope many are about to rethink their ways to help combat plastic flooding.

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