China stopped buying our plastic — so where does it go?

Illustrations by Frank Norton

In an age of ecological anxiety, nothing speaks more profoundly to our environmental hopes and fears than the act of recycling. We carefully wash our waste, sorting every scrap into color-coded bins, setting it by the curb so big, belching trucks can whisk it all away. We perform these rituals with a contradictory mix of emotions: part smug contentment at our environmental wokeness, part nagging worry that our efforts amount to mere performance, a sort of green theater.

Sure, we’d like to believe that recycling will save the world. But does it actually do any good?

Yes. Some. If you do it right.

That’s particularly true for plastic — which, as has been widely reported, is in a crisis now that China stopped buying American plastic because too much trash was mixed in.

When the truck takes your recycling away, what exactly does “away” mean?

The first stop is a material recovery facility, most likely in Harrisonville, Missouri, or Shawnee, Kansas.

There, garbage gets sorted, cleaned and baled before it’s shipped off to be processed.

That processing, until recently, would have happened in China, which once accepted nearly half the world’s plastic waste. In 2018, the People’s Republic stopped accepting most forms of plastic, meaning millions more tons ended up in landfills, incinerators and oceans.

That prompted the development of new domestic plastic processing plants, though they won’t be online for a few years, says Matt Riggs, environmental outreach coordinator for the Mid-America Regional Council.

“Basically, what China decided to do was come over to our side of the Pacific, set up shop and to get this stuff processed into the condition they want,” Riggs says.

The Chinese want their recycling uncontaminated — a vexing problem for American companies.

At Waste Management’s Shawnee plant, they take in some 8,000 tons of ostensibly recyclable trash per month, but 1,500 tons can’t be saved. Sometimes it’s because a recyclable is sullied by food waste or household chemicals. But sometimes it’s stuff that simply can’t be recycled, despite our
hopes otherwise.

The company’s community relations director, Paul Howe, calls the latter “wishcycling.” Last year, for instance, the company recovered some 5,000 bowling balls nationwide. It gets weirder. “We’ve found a live python in the recycling stream,” Howe says. “We found a black bear carcass.”

The company loses about 140,000 hours of labor per year to what Howe calls “tanglers” — garden hose, wire, clothing, an unending tsunami of plastic shopping bags and anything else that tangles up in the sorting machinery.

If you, an average Kansas City resident, can avoid tanglers, contamination and wishcycling, it will go a long way towards making recycling work.

But it won’t save the planet. Because the planet is a spinning ball of rock orbiting 93 million miles from an average-sized star. You cannot save or destroy it, no matter what you do. However, by ensuring that your recycling stream is clean, you can cut your contribution to the crapification of this habitat we all share. In an environmentally anxious age, not making things too much worse is about as good as it gets.

When it’s gross:

“Hunting seasons are the cruelest months at our [recycling facility]. We routinely see deer heads, dismembered turkeys and assorted animal parts that had been illegally and surreptitiously placed into commercial recycling containers. We also find cats and other dead animals. Residential containers often contain gross food items. A manager once tried to remove an unknown item from the sort line and quickly learned she had grabbed a nasty, rotting slab of bacon. Every day we see that a broad swath of customers must believe their dogs’ urine pads  are recyclable. They aren’t. And not a day goes by that we don’t have to sort out soiled diapers. Soiled diapers every single day — big ones, little ones, so many diapers.” —Tom Coffman of  WCA Waste

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