Single-use plastic is one of the biggest contributions to our waste system at the moment. So much so that cities are banning some forms of it and even McDonalds is working on getting rid of the plastic straw. But at the start of 2018, those efforts took on a lot more urgency: China has banned all plastic waste imports, and that could leave millions of tons of plastic garbage with no place to go but in the ground. How did this happen, and what can we do to keep plastic from clogging landfills?
The reason China banned plastic waste imports (as of December 31st, 2017) is simple: The country was making plenty of plastic waste on its own, and the waste it was receiving was too contaminated to make a profit off recycling. If the contamination (that is, all the unrinsed mayonnaise and yogurt and the last drops of soda) is below .5%, China will still accept the waste. And other countries also recycle plastic waste, but don’t have nearly the infrastructure China does.
For Americans, if you’re using plastic, there’s a rising chance it’s not actually being recycled — it might soon not even be allowed into your recycling bins.
This makes a bad problem worse: According to the Economist, only 9% of the world’s plastic production is even recycled in the first place. Plastics are increasingly turning up in the oceans, our waterways, and even our beer. So, how can you pitch in to solve this?
The biggest way you can help is to go beyond the tote bag and stop using plastic, wherever you can. Most of the disposable plastics we use, like zipper bags and straws, are available in reusable, washable versions. In the long run, with a little care taken, these will easily outlast the bags you use and might even save you a little money if you go through a lot of them. But sometimes you want a yogurt or have to get a tub of hummus for work. In those situations, the problem is contamination, so thoroughly clean out any plastics you have before tossing them in the bin. That makes them much, much easier to recycle.
Next, ask the places you shop at and the products you buy to do away with plastic packaging or reduce plastic use, where they can. Even the biggest fast food holdouts are cutting down on their use of plastics, especially as renewable, biodegradable products become cheaper and more visible. And back causes that remove plastic from your local ecosystem, like bag bans.
In other words, it’ll take a little work. But the sooner we wean ourselves off plastic, the better it’ll be for all of us.