How the Global Waste Business Has Let Us Ignore Our Trash Problem, Until Now by Ashley Fernandez W'22

Southeast Asia has recently become the primary dumping ground for the world’s plastic waste. Following China’s ban on importing waste that is not 99.5 percent pure, countries like Malaysia have unwillingly become the primary alternative destination for the world’s trash. In 2018, Malaysia imported over half a million tons of plastic waste that has either ended up polluting the natural environment or burnt by illegal factories that have sprung up to deal with the influx of waste. The plastic came almost entirely from the top ten plastic waste-producing countries, like the United States, Germany, and Canada. The trash that leaves our homes and businesses joins an enormous global trash trade that, for too long, has meant ‘out of sight - out of mind’ for developed countries. But as the commodity value of trash has dropped, and as China’s disruption of the market has revealed the disturbing truth, the world needs a solution now more than ever.

Recycling as we know it isn’t working anymore. The traditional recycling process for trash in the developed world has usually involved initial cleaning and processing by companies like Waste Management at a Materials Recovery Facility, or MRF. The resulting raw material was then sold to China. For the U.S., this has contributed to our trade deficit with China, but in a way that was mutually beneficial. The U.S. sells and sends its trash to China which keeps it out of our landfills while minimizing shipping costs due to trash being one of the few things the U.S. exports to China in bulk. In return, China gets cheap raw materials it uses to produce goods for export. A ton of mixed paper would have net a processing company $150 two years ago, but now prices have dropped as low as $5.

From 2013 to 2017, Operation Green Fence, National Sword, and Blue Sky policies have changed the waste landscape in a previously unimaginable way. These recycling policies out of Beijing restrict foreign countries’ ability to profitably sell waste to China. As a result, the $200 billion global recycling industry is now almost at a stand still. Waste is sitting idle in processing facilities or on cargo ships with no final destination. Insiders in the waste management field are uncertain about the future. William Moore, president of Moore & Associates, a recycled-paper consultancy has said “It’s not going to be a quick turnaround. It’s going to be a long-term issue.” Currently, one solution is to ship waste to other Southeast Asian countries like Thailand, who has seen a more than a 1000% increase in imports of waste. Unable to all be processed, Thailand’s beaches have been left covered with rubber, Indonesian waterways covered in plastics, and Malaysian air polluted. The leaders of these nations have made it clear that this behavior will not be tolerated. Yeo Bee Yin, Malaysian Minister for Energy and Environment has said “no developing nation should be the dumping site for the developed world.”

Elsewhere, people have been unwittingly driving up the price of recycling through seemingly good practices. Single stream recycling, where all recyclables go into one bin, has increased recycling rates in the U.S., but at the expense of higher costs due to contamination from non-recyclable goods. Plastics and glass are the hardest and least profitable waste products to recycle, with paper and metal being the best. Even other potential sources of profit for recycling companies have fallen by the wayside. For example, organic waste can be used to produce methane gas as a commodity, but conventional gas prices have stayed at all-time lows due to fracking. To reverse current trends that are driving recycling companies out of business, we either need to buy used waste at the same rate China has or rethink how we produce and deal with waste.

The solutions currently in play are far from ideal. As recycling companies have been forced to close processing facilities, they have resorted to dumping into landfills. This produces greenhouse gases and leaches toxins into our soil and groundwater, endangering millions of lives. The next step in thinking is how to change consumer behavior. There are proposals, such as a plastic tax, similar to a carbon tax, that would disincentivize the purchase of plastics and encourage innovation. However, to truly deal with this issue, we will need to see a significant change in consumer culture. Single use disposable products have become the standard for most of the world’s consumption, which has left an unmanageable pile of trash in its wake. “Because we’re not seeing it, we think it’s not a problem,” said Mark Dancy, president of WasteZero, a waste reduction company. The plastics we have created will affect the planet for tens of thousands of years and will considerably impact global business for decades to come. Now that light has been shed on this problem, we will see if the market is able to respond.