After months of global outcry over the United States’ role in the plastic pollution crisis, companies that collect and dispose of waste are trying to clamp down on the amount of American refuse that gets dumped in poorer countries.
Waste Management Inc., the nation’s largest trash hauler, is no longer shipping discarded plastic to countries outside North America. This week, Greenpeace confirmed the policy change, which went into effect in August, deeming it “the right call.” Several other large trash companies have also said they won’t export plastics.
“Companies should not be exporting plastic waste for other countries to clean up our mess,” John Hocevar, Greenpeace USA’s oceans campaign director, said in a statement released Wednesday. “The U.S. is offloading plastic onto countries with poor waste management in hopes of pushing our pollution crisis out of sight, but this only shifts the burden to others that lack the capacity to deal with it.”
The move comes after months of reports that wealthy nations were shipping low-grade recyclables abroad instead of processing them at home, where operating costs are greater and there are higher standards for environmental preservation and labor practices. Earlier this year, HuffPost investigated illegal dumpsites in western Malaysia, where American trash from corporate giants like Walmart had been dumped illegally and, in some cases, burned in the open air.
Malaysia became the world’s top importer of plastic scrap after China closed its doors to billions of tons of foreign trash. Previously, China had bought and processed almost half the world’s recyclable waste, but it largely discontinued that policy at the end of 2017. In the wake of China’s waste ban, countries in Southeast Asia were inundated with foreign plastic, some of it imported illegally and arriving too dirty to be recycled.
Greenpeace Malaysia first alerted the world to a dramatic increase in plastic trash across Southeast Asia, particularly at Malaysian dumpsites, in 2018. The group warned in a report that the trash had overwhelmed these countries’ burgeoning recycling industries. A separate report by the Plastic Pollution Coalition found that the U.S. was sending 429 shipping containers per day to countries that could not manage the flow of waste. The influx, this report said, was likely increasing the amount of plastic dumped in the ocean.
Waste Management Inc. cited similar environmental concerns in its official statement on its plastic export policy change.
“With China’s ban on imports, plastic from across the globe began to move to a variety of countries that are not well equipped to handle the material, furthering the likelihood of more plastics entering rivers, waterways and oceans,” the company’s statement read.
Waste Management’s statement noted that it sent nearly one-quarter of its plastic recyclables overseas in 2019.
A handful of major waste-hauling companies in the U.S. have already ended the practice of shipping plastic abroad, according to The Last Beach Cleanup, which has partnered with Greenpeace and the Plastic Pollution Coalition to compile a list of the companies’ official policies. Vermont-based Casella Waste Systems told the groups it would stop plastic exports. Three smaller companies also said they do not export plastics. However, more than 40 other companies have not shared their policies.
The U.S. still exports over 1 million tons of plastic refuse a year, according to a Guardian analysis published in June. Meanwhile, the country recycles only 9.1% of its plastics at home, and that amount is already overwhelming U.S. recycling infrastructure. As a result, most U.S. plastic is likely being sent to landfills or incinerated.
“If the alternative to waste exports is that they’re simply landfilled or incinerated or end up polluting our environment, then companies are continuing to fail,” Greenpeace’s Hocevar told HuffPost.
“We should not be ... making this throwaway plastic at all,” he added.
The U.S. government has been unwilling to take responsibility for the country’s role in the plastic pollution crisis. President Donald Trump has repeatedly blamed Asian countries for the 8 million tons of plastics that enter the oceans each year.
In May, when nearly all the world’s nations signed an agreement to limit the amount of unrecyclable plastic waste shipped to developing countries, the U.S. refused to sign. Since then, countries like Malaysia and Indonesia have made headlines for sending hundreds of shipping containers full of plastic garbage back to their countries of origin, including the United States.
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