Until recently, the US exported nearly 40% of its recycling to China for processing. But in recent years, China trashed its recycling import program.
Without many alternatives, American cities that formerly shipped mangled Bud Light cans and bent Starbucks straws straight to China are now doing something different to get rid of their plastic: Lighting it on fire.
China didn’t start the fire…
Well, actually, this time it kinda did: In 2016, China imported 10B metric tons of plastic from around the world. That’s ⅔ of the world’s plastic waste — 17x more than any other country.
But in 2017 China unexpectedly stopped importing garbage, igniting actual dumpster fires across the world.
Since the ban went into effect in January 2018, recycling has piled up in garbage dumps across the US. And increasingly, it has ended up on fire.
One person’s plastic is another person’s pain-in-the-a$s
Now, the entire US recycling industry is in the dumps. In Philadelphia, citizens continue to recycle their cans and bottles, but half of the city’s recycling ends up in the nearby Covanta incinerator, which now burns 3.5k tons of trash every day.
Towns that once sold recycled paper now pay to remove it. It’s an expensive headache: In 2017, Stamford, CT’s recycling program made $95k (last year it paid $700k).
On the one hand, this dumpster fire is a good kick-in-the pants for the US and other countries to find new, responsible ways to dispose of trash. But in the meantime, it’s a catastrophic problem, both for the environment and for communities that are exposed to incineration fumes.