When a plastic bottle gets recycled by an environmentally-conscious consumer, where does it go? Many people assume it gets trucked off somewhere nearby and ultimately gets reborn as a brand new product further down the line. The reality, however, is that a significant portion of America’s waste used to get sent to China to be processed and potentially turned into something useful.

Unfortunately, since January 1 of 2018, China has placed bans and restrictions on many types of waste the United States used to export, leaving huge amounts of potentially reusable materials with nowhere to utilize them. By 2030, 111 million metric tons of plastic waste that otherwise would have been processed in China now has nowhere to be handled.[1] The domestic factories that process these kinds of materials into usable goods are too few, too small, and too swamped to take on this extra capacity.

Under an administration that touts its “America First” values as paramount, it seems overwhelmingly hypocritical to be sending huge portions of our recycling, and the jobs and income associated with processing and repurposing it, away to other countries. The United States isn’t only missing out on a large economic opportunity by neglecting to re-establish a recycling industry on American soil. Unsurprisingly, the practice of shipping off our waste for someone else to deal with has had negative consequences for the countries burdened with it.

Currently, portions of what used to be sent to China now go to countries like Vietnam and Thailand without adequate facilities to process recyclable materials. Without the proper infrastructure it is common in some places to simply burn these pallets of plastics, metals, and e-waste releasing huge quantities of air pollution.[2] Under America’s current recycling system, we are essentially exporting toxic gases that damage the health and beauty of developing nations across the Pacific.

While public awareness of what can and can’t be recycled and government initiative to re-establish an American recycling industry are important, they do nothing to address the fact that Americans on average generate nearly 5 pounds of waste every day.[3] Ultimately, the best thing to do is consume less plastics and other single-use materials altogether. If you want to reduce the amount of waste you generate, consider using reusable water bottles and portable coffee mugs, bringing your own cutlery to work on days you eat out, and demanding that companies or businesses where you spend your money use less single-use packaging.

[1] https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation-now/2018/06/21/china-ban-plastic-waste-recycling/721879002/

[2] https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/america-china-recycling-crisis-landfills_us_5b5170b1e4b0de86f48b7740

[3] https://archive.epa.gov/epawaste/nonhaz/municipal/web/html/