China is done with our garbage. Now what?

by Jul 26, 2018

We pay a lot of attention to plastic waste and waste management issues. Without a doubt (at a speed that’s whiplash-inducing) this issue has become mainstream. Reached the tipping point. Jumped the chasm. (You get the idea.)

If you haven’t been watching the landscape like we have, consider some recent headlines:

  • McDonald’s and Starbucks – fierce competitors in the QSR coffee sector – are teaming up to build a fully recyclable, compostable cup within the next three years.
  • Every day, it feels like another country or company announces a ban on single-use plastics. Here’s a summary of the travel and tourism sector alone.
  • National Geographic recently launched its Planet or Plastic? movement. It’s a multi-year effort to raise awareness about the global plastic trash crisis and includes a mechanism for individuals to make a pledge to change personal plastics use.

And if you’re at all familiar with the very real, very visceral images from our oceans and on lands across the globe so clearly demonstrating the plastic waste crisis, you know the problem didn’t happen overnight. So it begs the questions … why all of this attention? Why now? And what happens next? Here’s our take.

China is done with our garbage. (Literally.)

In 2017, nearly 4,000 shipping containers left U.S. ports for China every day filled with recyclables. Keep in mind that a 20-foot-long shipping container’s maximum payload is just over 21 tons. That’s about 84,000 tons, or 168,000,000 pounds of garbage. Every. Day.

On January 1, China began enforcement of its National Sword policy, which bans the import of 24 types of solid waste, including various plastics, and sets much tougher standards for contamination levels. In other words, the U.S. (and many other countries) used to send our plastic recyclables “away.” Now … there’s really no “away.” And that is starting to bring some serious implications.

Waste Dive is continually monitoring the effects of the ban in the U.S. state-by-state. Some are beginning to estimate and adjust how long landfills have until they hit capacity. Others are closing recycling facilities because, well, there’s nowhere to send the stuff they collect. Which gets us to …

Recycling is complicated (and isn’t really working).
This Bloomberg article is worth a read and outlines the complexity problem. First off, only 9% of potentially recyclable plastic actually gets recycled in the U.S. (Europe only recycles 30%.) Single-stream recycling, which was intended to help consumers make recycling easier (“It all just goes into one big bin, hooray! I love recycling!”), actually made it easier to do recycling wrong.

Ever heard of “wish-cycling?” I’ll admit it: I’ve done it myself, and I’m much more engaged in this subject matter than the average consumer. It’s plastic, or part of it is plastic, so I throw it in the bin and hope it’s recyclable. Sometimes it could be, but often it’s not. This causes more contamination issues, which accelerated the China ban.

Adding to the confusion is that cities and towns in close proximity have different rules for what can and can’t be recycled. What’s recyclable at your home in the suburbs might not be recyclable at your office in a large metro.

There are certainly efforts, like the How2Recycle label, that are trying to help consumers do the right thing. But even if every single one of us were participating in recycling efforts all the time, we wouldn’t get close to recycling 100% of plastics. A lot of it simply isn’t recyclable due to the materials combined to create a certain type of packaging or container. It all creates a contaminated, messy mix that China doesn’t want anymore, and that no one else knows what to do with on global scale. Yet.

Single-use plastic is an easy (and understandable) target.
Plastic straw bans have gone viral. #StopSucking was trending, with celebrity participation running the gamut from Tom Brady to Chelsea Clinton to Neil deGrasse Tyson. By far, straws are NOT the biggest offender when it comes to plastic pollution, and they aren’t the total solution to the plastic waste problem. But it’s a way to start a conversation.

I’ve noticed more restaurants asking me if I “need” a straw, and straws and straw bans are getting more attention in my social media feeds – with opinions running the gamut, too. People are beginning to consider their own plastic use as well as the effects that massive consumption is having on our world. If a straw ban gets people noticing the issue and forces a larger conversation about more significant sources of pollution, what’s to be done, and how we all can be more accountable, that’s a great thing.

So … what now?
We’re looking at you, big business.

We here at Shelton Group are experts at market research, strategy and compelling communication in the sustainability sector. But we’re not product designers, packaging engineers or chemists who understand the way polymers and resins are created. We need you forming partnerships and alliances, and using your brilliance, influence and resources to address these enormous issues.

  • How can we rethink and recreate waste management systems at home, and in the developing world (where they’re needed even more)? How can we stop shipping and burying garbage around the world, keep it from getting into our oceans, and generate real value from waste?
  • How can packaging and products be designed intentionally so they’re zero-waste from the beginning?
  • Where are the opportunities in existing supply chains for new technologies and improvements? Where are completely new business models needed?
  • Where are unlikely partnerships that could yield huge breakthroughs? (Remember: McDonald’s and Starbucks are teaming together …)

We believe in you! And it’s not just us. Our research shows that 64% of consumers believe companies should provide ongoing support for issues that align with the types of products or services they offer, and they’re more likely to purchase from companies who make big commitments and communicate them in big ways.

To be sure, this is a messy situation. And we think more than a few of you out there are in a great position to help make it, and our planet, a lot cleaner. If you ever need some help brainstorming or strategizing, we’d love to hear from you.

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About the Author

Judith Rosenberg

As Senior Account Director, Judith works closely with our research and creative teams to lead strategic marketing communication initiatives and campaigns for clients. She loves identifying key opportunities for clients to leverage their sustainability efforts in support of their overall business goals (even more than she loves a good Asian noodle bowl).

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