Environmentalists and European nations say the recent ban on many recycling imports to China should spark a culture change. Because countries around the world and the oceans that link them are already groaning under mountains of plastic soda bottles, takeout boxes, plastic lids, creamer cups and other solid waste, forward thinkers argue that responses like recycling more products “in-house” or cleaning recycling better so it can still be sent overseas – are shortsighted and impermanent solutions to a crisis.

In an editorial this spring, the LA Times declared that, considering the magnitude of the problem, an “item-by-item, city-by-city approach isn’t going to cut it… The sheer volume of plastic trash now littering Earth has become impossible to ignore. It’s time for environmentalists, policymakers and elected officials to start planning a broader response.”

Broader, more fundamental responses are already being enacted in Europe. A similar vision has been part of Oregon’s culture since 2012, but it is not yet known how the state will respond to this crisis.

China won’t take our stuff

Before China’s ban on accepting many kinds of plastics, unsorted scrap paper and metal scrap waste, the US had been shipping nearly 4,000 shipping containers of recycled materials across the sea there – every day.

But China, long the world’s largest importer of recycled goods, including the importer of most of Oregon’s mixed paper and plastics, began this spring to enforce a policy called “National Sword.” The policy bans 24 types of solid waste and sets much tougher rules for contamination levels of the waste it does accept. The radical restrictions on what Oregon can ship off have disrupted recycling processors across the state and caused the state Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) to race to readjust.

“There is no excess capacity in the recycling markets that can absorb the materials that China is banning,” says the DEQ. “And due to Oregon’s strong recycling ethic, the flow of incoming material is not slowing down.”

The effects were quickly felt in Marion County; residents who use blue curbside recycling bins are now throwing more in the trash. Already prohibited were Styrofoam, mesh bags for fruits, plastic bags, plastic bottle caps and syringes; residents must now also keep out mayonnaise containers, egg cartons, milk cartons, cottage cheese containers and shredded paper.

All these are now headed straight to the incinerator, after which the ash is landfilled.

And, it’s not just consumers who are piling more waste into Oregon landfill; in order to relieve the pressure on recycling processors, who can’t find destinations for many thousands of tons of recyclables they’ve stockpiled – this spring the DEQ approved the disposal of mass quantities of the stuff that processors had been holding.

This tonnage of stockpiled materials is winding up in landfill, too.

Environmentalists say landfill is a shortsighted way to address the incessant production of things that have no ultimately satisfactory place to go. Stowing unrecyclable trash doesn’t address the production of astronomical quantities of new stuff, week after week and year after year. And landfill presents its own environmental drawbacks. Among them – landfill sites release methane, a greenhouse gas which traps up to 20 times more heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide does, they create groundwater pollution with toxins such as methane, organic acids, alcohols and aldehydes and they releases toxins such as arsenic, acids, mercury and lead into the soil.

 

It’s a global problem

“National Sword” didn’t hit Oregon alone. China was the destination for many industrialized nations, including the European Union (EU), Japan and the United Kingdom (UK), so its ban has had massive worldwide effects. Global plastic exports to China, 7.4 million metric tons in 2016, may plummet to 1.5 million metric tons in 2018.

In reaction to the ban, affected nations are attempting to solve their mounting waste issues with a combination of methods. Some are accelerating development of their own “in-house” recycling processors, though many lack the infrastructure for this. Some are scrambling to find foreign markets that will replace China, like India or Vietnam. Many are struggling to bring their recycled exports more in line with China’s more stringent standards. All are turning to increased landfill.

 

Reassessing the fundamental system        

For environmentalists, China’s ban has heightened awareness of the long-term weaknesses of a system where massive amounts of packaging and other goods are manufactured relentlessly and unsustainably. Unlike in the natural world, where materials and energy recycle, goods like plastic bags, microwave ovens, Styrofoam, monofilament fishing line and plastic bottles will virtually never be reintegrated.

The result is a worldwide poisoning of air, water and land with heavy metals, premature human deaths from air pollution – and, if current trends continue, oceans that will be more full of plastic than fish, by weight, by the year 2050.

With forecasts suggesting that the global population is likely to exceed 11 billion by the end of the 21st century, “and with the evident depletion of natural resources as well as the ever growing marine litter problem,” says Plastic Recyclers Europe, “it is impossible to ignore the [problems] being created by the way we produce, consume and dispose of our waste.  A new approach is needed to answer the environmental problems.”

One such approach is promoted by Britain’s Ellen MacArthur Foundation, which encourages a rethinking and redesign of materials through the framework of what it calls a “Circular Economy.” The Circular Economy, the Foundation says, imagines “gradually decoupling economic activity from the consumption of finite resources, and designing waste out of the system. Underpinned by a transition to renewable energy sources, the circular model builds economic, natural, and social capital.”

The organization leads a Plastics Initiative that has all plastic materials being reused, recycled, or safely composted in a controlled way. This month the Foundation announced that 11 leading brands, retailers, and packaging companies it had worked with, have committed to working towards 100% reusable, recyclable or compostable packaging by 2025 or earlier.

In addition,

* This year, the EU announced plans to make all plastic packaging in Europe recyclable or reusable by 2030

* In January, British Prime Minister Theresa May said she would eradicate avoidable plastic waste in Britain by 2042

* In February, Queen Elizabeth II banned plastic straws and bottle from all royal estates and restaurants

 

Oregon’s 2015 Vision

Oregon’s government expressed a similar vision in a report called, 2050 Vision for Framework and Action, which DEQ’s Environmental Quality Commission adopted in 2012.

The “Vision” was created by “Backcasting,” a method that starts with an imagined desired future, and then looks back to the present to identify the steps to get there.

Noting that all stages of the life cycle of materials and products are currently unsustainable, the Vision document anticipated an Oregon in 2050 where, among other things, producers make products sustainably and materials have the most useful life possible before and after discard.

The Vision noted that taking action early in the life cycle of products – in design and production – offers the best opportunities to realize these goals.

In the document’s concept, designed materials “… are selected based on their highest and best use. Cradle-to-cradle or closed-loop design, which addresses full life cycle impacts, is common… Products are designed to be durable, repairable, disassembled, or recycled, and single-use products are obsolete or used only as absolutely necessary.”

In its reaction to the China ban this year, the DEQ has not directly mentioned the ideals of the 2050 Vision.

Saying that it is hard to predict the full scope of the ban’s impacts, DEQ added, “The circumstances could require significant changes over the long term. In the meantime, however, DEQ and its partners are developing strategies to improve domestic recycling systems and markets, and looking to find ways to reduce contamination – both at the curbside and in processing facilities.”