Why China Isn't Taking America's Garbage Anymore—Literally

China's expanding middle class is changing the world. The results are a global recycling dilemma.

Most of us don’t think of what happens to the plastic items we put in the recycling bin. It’s a matter of out of sight, out of mind. Some believe manufacturers turn them all into new products, but is that the case? What really happens after that plastic bottle leaves your hand? In truth, only 9.5% of all plastic in the U.S. is recycled. Surprisingly, 15% is burned for electricity or heat.


About one-third is exported. Of that, half ends up in China, but not for long. The rest goes to landfills, where it can take up to 500 years to breakdown. As it does, it turns into toxins which poison our land and water. Over time, a lot of our plastic makes its way into the ocean—8.8 million tons of it enter our oceans every year, to be exact. By then, it’s become microplastics, tiny beads mere millimeters long. These are a significant threat to the environment and are also very difficult to clean up.

Pretty soon, America may be putting a lot more of its own plastic into landfill. Beginning January 1, 2018, China plans to ban the import of yang laji or “foreign garbage,” including certain plastics and other materials that are unable to be recycled. The ban was filed this summer with the World Trade Organization. Beijing has listed 24 waste products that it says are a threat to China’s environment and public health.


As of Jan. 1, China is banning the importation of "foreign garbage." Credit: Getty Images.

As a manufacturing powerhouse, China has imported waste materials from other countries to help fuel its economic rise for several decades. It turned these plastics from abroad into resin, which was made into carpeting, plastic bottles, pipes, and all other manner of items. But now, a robust Chinese middle class with more Westernized consumption habits produce enough material to fill China’s needs from within.

As such, Beijing filed its ban with the WTO last July, which includes certain plastics, textiles, and mixed paper. It isn’t only America that’ll have to make other arrangements. China is the world’s biggest importer of such waste. It took in 7.3 million metric tons of plastic last year. This accounts for 51% of the world’s total plastic scrap.

The West Coast of the US has been particularly hard hit. In many cases, recyclers have nowhere to put these materials. Some operations are hauling them off to landfill to dump. Steve Frank of Pioneer Recycling in Portland, Oregon, told NPR that once China shuts down operations completely, it’ll become a serious problem. "The rest of the world cannot make up that gap,” he said.

Hopes for an End to Plastic

Rather than burning plastic refuse and contributing to global warming, storing it until a market opens up, or sending it to the landfill, many in recycling and environmental sciences believe this could be a watershed moment where we finally change our relationship with plastic. Bans on disposable plastic are one route. Some cities, states, and even whole countries are banning plastic bags, for example, producing or selling plastic bags is now illegal in Kenya, with a fine of $40,000 as a consequence. An awareness campaign to steer consumers away from plastic and toward other, more sustainable options might also make an impact.


Many believe it’s time for us to change our relationship with consumer plastics. Credit: Getty Images.

The U.S. Response? Produce More Plastic

Rather than a problem, the U.S. chemical industry may see it as an opportunity, at least somewhere down the line. One solution for all this waste nobody wants, is to break down discarded plastic into its chemical components for use by the petroleum industry. Others such as aviation, transportation, and food packaging might also find uses.

The U.S. fracking boom has made natural gas incredibly cheap for the moment, which makes the U.S. one of the cheapest places in the world to produce plastic. The chemical industry is looking to capitalize, investing $185 billion to expand its capacity, according to the American Chemistry Council. Four new U.S. plastics plants will be operational by the end of 2017. The industry is planning to produce and ship high quality resin to China for profit, as the nation is shifting to a preference for "virgin" plastics, rather than plastic scrap that must be cleaned, processed, and so on. Ultimately this means more plastic in the world, not less, as profit opportunities are prioritized over long-term consequences. 

What Can You Do?

Look at what plastic you buy and throw out on a daily or weekly basis and try to replace those items with sustainable alternatives. For instance, opt for reusable water bottles, sandwich bags, food storage bags, shopping bags, and other such things. When it’s time to buy something, try to purchase items made from natural materials such as bamboo, wood, cloth, or glass.

Repurpose and reuse as many things as possible before throwing them away (if you must). Remember the mantra: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. And check with your town’s department of public works about what items are and aren’t recyclable. Though we assume so, not all plastic is. In fact, many aren’t. To find out which is which, click here.

Lastly, write to three (or more) of your favorite brands, restaurants, or cafes and ask them to change their packaging to use less plastic. Let them know it is important to you, and encourage friends and family to do the same. Evolving habits and consumer pressure matters to companies that want to remain competitive.

Should we shoot our garbage into space and solve the problem that way? See what Bill Nye thinks:

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Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?


Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

In their findings the authors state:

"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.

Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."

With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

  • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
  • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
  • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
  • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
  • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
  • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
  • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,
    Patriotic.

Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

It's interesting to note the authors found that:

"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

  • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
  • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
  • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
  • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
  • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
  • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

  • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
  • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
  • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
  • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
  • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
  • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

Civic discourse in the divisive age

Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.


Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.