America’s Secret: Plastic waste that kills the planet is shipped everywhere


Do you know what happens to the plastic you throw in the recycling bin? All advertising materials from within the US’ plastics industry says the plastic is sent off to a place where it is smooth and without problems into something new. We say it is time for a reality check.

This is not what happens for lots of people, including Nguyễn Thị Hồng Thắm​, a 60-year-old Vietnamese woman, living in the middle of tons of dirty American plastic in Hanoi’s suburbs.

Tham is paid $6.50 per day to separate the non-recyclable materials and sort the translucent plastics in a lot, and opaque plastics in another.

There has been discovered that hundreds of thousands of tons of American plastic are being sent off per year to poorly regulated countries all over the worlds, so they perform the filthy, labor-like process of recycling. The effects on public health and the planet are terrible.

Here is what a team of investigators found in 11 countries:

– In 2018, a total of 68,000 shipping containers of American plastic recycling were sent from the US to developing countries that can’t handle over 70 percent of their own plastic debris

– The latest favorite places for the US to export their plastic are some of the globe’s poorest countries, such as Bangladesh, Laos, Senegal, and Ethiopia, offering cheap toil and little environmental legislation

– In some countries, such as Turkey, the flood in American waste shipments is perturbing efforts to manage locally produces plastics

– Even with these countries overwhelmed in American waste, thousands of tons of plastic debris are still spread all over the US!

‘United States of Plastic’

These deficiencies in the recycling system are counting to an increasing state of crisis regarding plastic, which is now all over the place, found in massive amounts in the oceans and even identified in the human digestive system.

Considering the severe concerns revolving plastic waste, last month, 187 countries signed a contract which allows nations to block the import of contaminated plastic waste that is difficult to recycle. What is ‘interesting’ is that the US did not sign the treaty, among a few other countries.

Some people may think that they are doing the world a favor, but international recycling businesses look at it as a method to make money. As there are no global rules, just an interminable, filthy market, makes it possible for some companies and countries to exploit others in a place with no regulations.

America’s dumping lands

Out of the 9 percent of the US’ plastic waste that was recycled back in 2015, China and Hong Kong managed over 50 percent of it, namely approximately 1.6 million tons of American plastic recycling per year. However, the majority of plastic America sent was contaminated, or it was non-recyclable, and the authorities of these countries had no choice but to landfill it to China. Because of increasing environmental and health issues, China has banned all the plastic sent by America in 2017, except for the cleanest.

After China’s ban, American plastic waste has become a ping-pong ball, jumping from place to place. Analysis of shipping records of exported plastic shows that America is still sending off to other countries over one million tons of plastic debris per year, the majority of it to countries that are practically submerging in it.

Last year, America shipped 83,000 tons of plastic recycling to Vietnam. Nguyễn Thị Hồng Thắm, ​the plastic sorter mentioned before said that they are terrified of the plastic fumes, and they can’t drink the water from underneath the soil. The reason why they keep working there is that they have no money, so they have no other choice.

The toxic fumes generated by plastic incarceration or plastic processing can cause respiratory diseases. Habitual exposure affects sorters and people living nearby with hundreds of toxic substances, such as hydrochloric acid, sulfur dioxide, dioxins, and heavy metals​, which then cause endocrine disruption​, developmental disorders, and cancer.

Because countries such as Vietnam, Malaysia, and Thailand now banned imports, America decided to send their plastic elsewhere. Shipments began to appear in Cambodia, Laos, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, and Senegal.

Plastic waste feeds a global business

Plastic debris is a commodity. Recycling brokers are looking all over the US and abroad for buyers who will melt the plastic, transforming it into pellets, and turn those pellets into something else.

With American plastic waste being dumped in countries that have never seen such amount of plastic, local people are crying foul. For instance, in the Philippines, approximately 120 shipping containers per month get to Manila and an industrial zone at Subic Bay.

From Manila, some of the plastic is sent to Venezuela City, an area in the suburbs of Manila is also known as the ‘Plastic City,’ and locals are more and more worried about the number of factories that process plastic that is suddenly appearing everywhere.

Helen Lota, a 47-year-old shopkeeper, told reporters that her daughter got sick because of the smell and toxicity emanating from the plastic processing factories. Many other residents explained they and their families suffer from severe cough, and nothing can help them unless the smell and toxicity stop.

Yet, recycling is among the biggest income resources for many. In Turkey, American plastic waste amounts imported has increased, from 159,000 to 439,000 tons in only two years.​

Approximately ten ships arrive at the ports of Adana and Istanbul every month, bringing around 2,000 tons of cheap American plastic that is non-recyclable.

Eser Çağlayan, aged 33,​ said he was able to feed his family of five with the $800 he earned every month by collecting plastic waste that people threw away. Once the US started to import cheap and filthy plastic, his income has downed by approximately a third.

‘‘I want to tell people in the US this: recycle in your own yard,” he said. “Don’t bring down our income and put us all in danger of hunger.’’

People are fighting for change

The social and environmental effects of America’s plastic exports are alarming even to people in the plastic processing industry. One of the founding fathers of America’s curbside recycling system, Bob Wenzlau says that when he started the curbside recycling system, he used to feel incredibly proud, but now, after finding out what kind of effects it has in the countries America sends the plastic waste he said, “my heart aches, because the system is doing harm”.​

​Wenzlau has recently asked the Palo Alto city, where he founded the system, to pass a measure imposing to city’s recyclers to report all the social and environmental effects of any recycling that is sent off to other countries.

Even in San Francisco, praised for a long time now for the high percentage of debris it recycles, the chief of the city’s waste disposal provider has stated that the system is not good and is failing as there is too much plastic being produced.

A study published this year by the Gaia group investigated the human consequences of American plastic exports on the nations that get them.

The report says that the effects in the south-east Asian countries have been shocking as it contaminated their water supplies, killed the crops, conducted to respiratory illnesses from exposure to incinerating plastic, and increased organized crimes in regions known to receive new imports of plastic.

In Malaysia, especially, after the government banned the import of waste, numerous illegal plastic processing factories have sprouted all over the country, as the US signs contracts to anyone willing to take in their trash.

Pang Song Lim, a 44-year-old civil engineer, living in Sungai Petani, where officials estimate about 20 illegal plastic-processing factories to be there, explained how he prepares his house every evening for the invasion of smoke from burning foreign plastic waste, which encapsulates his home and the places around.

“It’s normally after eight o’clock,” Lim said. “Burned plastic … acidic … it hurts my chest. I try to seal my windows and block under the door with carpet.”


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