America Needs a Plastics Intervention. Now’s the Time.

China doesn’t want our plastic waste anymore. Instead of searching for another buyer, maybe some soul-searching is in order.

January 12, 2018

Philip Rozenski/iStock

Deep in our hearts, we know that the global addiction to plastic is wholly unsustainable. It’s why so many of us make a real effort to significantly curtail our use of plastic bottles and bags, clamshell packaging, straws, disposable utensils, and the like.

In addition, it’s why so many of us support larger and more concerted policies to remove plastic from the waste stream. And finally, it’s why we recycle, a laudable activity that we nevertheless recognize as being utterly insufficient to make up for our plastics addiction. According to one recent study, of the 6.3 billion metric tons of plastic waste that the world has generated since the middle of the last century, we’ve managed to recycle only about 9 percent of it. The rest of it gets trashed and ultimately ends up in our landfills or our oceans. Every year, we throw enough plastic away to circle the earth four times.

Now comes news that should drive home an obvious point: As worthwhile as recycling efforts are, and as much as we need to support them with our local ordinances and individual actions, we simply can’t expect recycling to get us out of this mess. On January 1, China, the world’s largest importer of international plastic waste, stopped accepting shipments. After decades of purchasing the detritus of our disposable culture, the Chinese have determined that the environmental costs of storing and processing seven million metric tons of trash annually from other countries simply outweigh the benefits.

In past years, nearly one-third of the recyclable plastic in North America went to China for processing. No more. While the news of China’s decision sent shock waves through the plastics and recycling sectors, it has yet to penetrate the public consciousness inside the United States, where Americans go through 100 billion plastic shopping bags every year and discard 2.5 million plastic bottles every hour.

But it needs to sink in. Americans are very good at hiding—or, in this case, exporting—what we throw away. For all our concerns about landfills and what goes into them, I’d wager that very few of us have ever visited one; the thought of witnessing our own contributions to the waste stream makes us profoundly uneasy. Now that we can no longer rely on China to accept ton after metric ton of our cheaply made and casually discarded plastic, we may be headed for a long-overdue moment of reckoning: a sober acknowledgement that the ultimate solutions here aren’t, in the end, going to be technological or economic in nature. They’re going to be attitudinal and societal.

And as clichéd as it may sound, the solutions really are going to start with you and me—and the myriad little choices that we make every day. I don’t just mean bringing your own canvas shopping bags to the grocery store, or buying food in bulk to avoid plastic packaging, or swearing off plastic forks and knives. All those choices are good ones, and if more of us made them, the aggregate effects would be tremendous. But there are also other choices to be made, choices that, taken together, constitute the kind of cultural and societal pressure that pushes upward from the grass roots and effects change at a much larger scale.

What’s called for now is a second industrial revolution in which speed and efficiency, the motors of the first industrial revolution, are replaced by a dedication to sustainability and social responsibility. Product designers, marketers, industry heads, trade groups, and—most important—consumers need to work together to create demand for new packaging solutions that use materials more planet-friendly than plastic. Once demand enters the equation in a serious way, interesting things start to happen. Creativity flourishes. Opportunities for companies to increase sales and rebrand themselves open up.

Were we to put our collective thought and effort into it, we really could make plastic packaging the new smoking—redefining its culturally approved image, cutting into its social license, and making companies clamor and compete for sustainable alternatives. It’s not pie-in-the-sky idealism. Industry standards change; the status quo gets disrupted all the time. But it typically happens only when manufacturers begin to feel self-conscious about being out of date, out of style, or out of touch with public demand.

China’s decision to stop taking our plastic waste should be a wake-up call. The image of a trash-filled boat making its way halfway across the Pacific Ocean—and then turning around and heading back to the States with nowhere else to dock—should be in our heads as we try to figure out where to go from here. Our days of offloading our garbage are coming to an end. It’s time to start making less of it.


onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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