A pile of garbage and recycling at the University of Illinois Waste Transfer Station. Credit: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign


By Laura Schultz


On Jan. 1, 2018, the People’s Republic of China stopped accepting shipments of used waste plastics from around the world. Though it made some headlines, this about-face didn’t turn the world as we know it on its head – or at least it hasn’t yet. As far as most of us knew, in the first week of 2018 we dropped our garbage in the trash can, and our recyclables in the recycling bin, and they went to the same places as the week before.

Up until January 2018, China processed about half the global supply of used plastic, metals, and waste paper. At last, Beijing decided that this waste’s impact on China’s environment and public health was too great, largely because of hazardous waste mixed in with the usable waste, as well as the increasing cost of labor to sort it. So the waste ban (officially called the “National Sword”) was put in to effect, blocking the import of 24 waste types, including plastics that are low value or hard to recycle.

China took in so much of this waste from the West that, when combined with e-waste, it had become the “world’s garbage dump” in the eyes of the Chinese government. As the country grew wealthier, there was little appeal in sorting through dirty, unwanted waste for recyclable and financially valuable materials. So if it was no longer profitable, what would China gain by continuing to take the West’s waste? Frankly, not much.

The journey our recycle takes from Central Illinois to China.

With that in mind, we have new and urgent questions: What about that waste that’s no longer shipped to China? Where does it go now?

The fact is that the alternative for recycling companies in Western nations is grim, particularly for plastic. Currently, there is no viable alternative to process it all. Other countries (many of them also in Asia) accept these recyclables, but they don’t have the capacity to process the vast volumes previously shipped to China. As Western companies and municipalities struggle to find a solution, many recyclables have been either stockpiled in rented warehouses, incinerated, or sent off to a landfill, defeating the whole purpose of recycling.

So the longer we go without a solution, the larger the waste piles become, the more toxins are leaking into our air, and the bigger our landfills grow with materials that don’t belong there. According to a University of Georgia study published last summer, the amount of waste diverted from China because of this ban will be somewhere near 111 million tons of plastic by 2030. So China’s decision, while entirely justifiable in the context of its own national interest, has shone a light on the fundamental flaws of the global waste management system. 

An excavator crushes trash at a landfill. Credit: U.S. Air Force

Plastic waste import to China began in earnest in the early 1990s, when markets for plastic trash began to open up. Despite the advent of waste recycling among environmentalists in the 1970s, very little infrastructure was built to actually perform recycling for plastic in the United States and other developed countries. It might seem that it would have been more logical simply to build this infrastructure instead of shipping everything in our recycling bins across the Pacific Ocean, but recycling isn’t exactly simple to do. It requires significant investments of energy and time, both of which cost money. For countries like ours, it turned out to be more economical to send waste abroad, to developing countries desperate for materials and equipped with cheap labor. And because China was initially so happy to take trash, that nation ended up collecting nearly half of the world’s used plastic for three decades between 1988 and 2017.

An economist might recognize this as a case of developed countries imposing the negative externalities of waste on China. “Whenever you buy something, supposedly you’re paying for the pollution costs so that the company can properly manage its waste since they have to pay money to do that,” explains Jim Puckett, an economist and the director of the Basel Action Network, a global waste watchdog group. In an ideal economy, the cost we pay for any item would include the cost the company should pay to manage its waste and environmental effects. But in our current economic system, Puckett contends, this isn’t the case: “It’s so easy now to just send off your problems to other parts of the world that are not able to send you a bill.”

Ultimately, a global industry that relies on imposing negative externalities on millions of people in developing countries is not moral or sustainable, even if it has been profitable. However, there are a whole host of other reasons that global waste management — particularly of plastic — is not sustainable. For one, plastics require nearly as much, and sometimes more, energy to recycle as it did to produce them in the first place.

Plastic bottle bales waiting for pickup at the University of Illinois’ Waste Transfer Station.

First and foremost, we misunderstand the role we as consumers play in recycling, explains Joy Scrogum, Sustainability Specialist at the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center (ISTC, a Division of the Prairie Research Institute). “It is a misnomer to say, ‘I recycle,’ when you put your paper in the office collection bin or put your bottles and cans out to the curb in a separate bin. You’re not recycling when you do that, you’re separating materials for recycling.”

Too many people think that by just dropping their trash into the recycling they have prevented every environmental damage associated with it. Even before China’s waste ban, not everything deposited in recycling bins was actually recycled, largely due to user errors. As it currently stands, there is no guarantee that your recycling will reach a processing facility instead of a landfill or incinerator.

Furthermore, even if 100% of people sorted 100% of their recyclables 100% of the time, it’s not helpful if all these products were made out of virgin materials that will run out eventually without careful management.

“The loop isn’t effectively closed until you’re buying materials made with post-consumer recycled content,” Scrogum says. In other words, we’re going to need a whole lot more of our products to be made out of recycled content to make recycling a truly effective part of our waste management and manufacturing systems.

Tom Szaky, CEO of recycling company Terracycle, says the problem is that we’re addicted to disposability: “The more convenient and affordable you make a product, the less recyclable it is. In order to be able to recycle something, it needs to be economically feasible. So even if you have the infrastructure, if you’re going to lose money doing it, you won’t recycle.”

What you can actually recycle depends on local services and a host of other factors.

Though the word “disposable” instantly calls to mind food packaging from supermarkets or fast food joints, it also applies to the reusable items that we either break or grow tired of and then want off our hands. As long we keep producing and throwing away stuff, we will continue to have a host of problems on our hands: pollution in both manufacturing and disposal; growing landfills; heightened energy demands; depleting stocks of raw materials and resources; and the externalities all of these things produce. Even if we built enough recycling facilities in the United State to process every bit of plastic we sort for recycling, it would still allow us to keep disposing of waste wantonly. We would still suck up resources and energy in producing and recycling the materials. The recycling of plastics would still be dirty. Trash would still get burned. Because of these baseline conditions, Puckett believes that, eventually, “the world will realize [recycling] is largely a joke.” 

So while we need a greater capacity to recycle things in the U.S. and other developed countries, we cannot let ourselves believe it alone will solve the waste problem. Only overcoming our culture of disposability can do that. That’s a tall order to be sure: No one wants to give up the convenience and affordability of disposable goods. Given that, Szaky says, “we need to create economic models where we move away from disposability…That is really the most important part. Companies and entrepreneurs need to invent and develop these models.” Do politicians need to legislate this economic transformation? Szaky suggests it’s probably better to start with companies and businesses themselves, which can clear the way for politicians to amplify their efforts through law later on.

Meanwhile, Puckett argues we need a more universal, democratic system to deal with our waste crisis. He describes six steps, foremost of which is to ban single-use plastics. His other suggestions range from incentivizing against other unnecessary and toxic plastics, continuing anti-plastic promotion to the public, monitoring developments in the global waste management system, and placing plastics under the Basel Convention. It’s this last point that is making the most progress. The Basel Convention, established in 1989 to regulate the trade and disposal of hazardous waste, might be on the verge of a significant amendment, Puckett says. In the wake of China’s waste ban, Norway proposed adding multiple polymer plastics to Annex II of the Convention, which covers technically non-hazardous wastes that still warrant special consideration.  

If passed, Annex II would become effective within a few months of signing, and the changes would be immediate, he says. Because the U.S. did not sign the Basel Convention, it would no longer be able to export plastic waste to developing countries; and European plastic exports will also be banned since Annex II is within their implementation of the convention. Importing countries would need to approve any shipments of plastic waste, increasing transparency.

“The net effect of all of this,” Puckett says, “would be far less movement of plastic wastes globally, and countries would have to do what the Basel Convention aimed for since the beginning: national self-sufficiency in waste management.”

There’s a new term for the kind of system that would achieve this self-sufficiency: the circular economy. It’s become something of a buzzword in environmental circles recently, though it’s not necessarily the easiest term to define. Says University of Illinois resource economist Don Fullerton: “I don’t know what the circular economy is, because somebody made it up, and it’s a label that’s used in many different ways by different people for different purposes.”

What Fullerton makes clear is that whatever this system is, it uses less extraction and less landfilling. To those advocating for this kind of economy, our current economic system is “linear.” In this linear system, most materials are extracted from the earth, manufactured into a product, sold to consumers, used and then disposed of. This linearity is what allows the buildup of waste and landfills at the end of the line. In a circular economy, by contrast, the end of the line is looped back to the beginning as often as possible. According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, the leading nonprofit working to circularize the economy, the system has three main principles: designing out waste and pollution; keeping products and materials in use; and regenerating natural systems.

“We need to change our mind-sets in terms of our place in the natural world and our relationship with resources,” Scrogum says. “That’s what is needed to create a circular economy.” 

University of Illinois employees sifting undamaged recyclable material out of campus trash.

In other words, we need to be willing to make the sacrifice. We can look for ways to hold onto the convenience of disposability, but it doesn’t seem likely we can enjoy them without creating more mountains of waste and irreversibly depleting our natural resources. For a species that has engineered its way to the moon, creating alternatives for single-use plastic (or at the very least the capability to recycle plastics cleanly) should be within our reach.

We’re taking some steps in the right direction. Early last year, a supermarket in the Netherlands made headlines for introducing the first plastic-free grocery aisle in the world. Right here at the University of Illinois, the iMBA program helped student Chris Moriarity create the Million Waves Project, which collects plastic litter from beaches and puts it through 3D printers to create prosthetic limbs. Though this project doesn’t abate the production of plastic waste, it showcases the kind of inventive thinking and ingenuity needed to create a world with less of it.

Ultimately, though, it will take much more than a smattering of technological and infrastructural advancements, or adding plastic to the Basel Convention, to adequately address our waste epidemic. No one interviewed for this article was particularly optimistic that the U.S. is going to garner the will to transition our waste management system to a more sustainable platform very soon — especially not to prevent the 111 million tons of waste no longer welcome in China from going unrecycled by 2030. Until we can circularize our economy, we will remain awash in waste.

In the end, it’s not just about our trash, but our entire future and purpose as a species. “We need to be able to look forward with optimism and joy to a long future in which humans flourish along with other forms of life that are part of the ecosystems in which we live,” says Robert McKim, emeritus professor of religion at Illinois. “Are we able to live on Earth without ruining it?”

Right now, the signs seem to point to no. Cheap disposable goods have made life significantly more comfortable and convenient in wealthy countries for several generations, making them hard to give up. But we’re now at a crossroads. We’re choking on waste — and will soon drown in it. Avoiding that fate for us and our children is doable; we just have to recycle our willpower, over and over, to make it happen.

About the Author …

Laura Schultz is from Shorewood, Ill., and is the Senior Sustainability Intern at iSEE. She graduated in May 2018 with a B.S. in Environmental Sustainability and a minor in Integrative Biology. She was a staff writer for the Green Observer magazine for three years. This article was researched and written for ESE 498 in Spring 2018.