Waste Management, Houston, and Casella Waste Systems, Rutland, Vermont, along with several smaller companies, have stated they are no longer exporting plastic scrap outside of North America. Since June 2019, Greenpeace, The Last Beach Cleanup and Plastic Pollution Coalition have communicated with more than 50 of the largest U.S.-based waste management companies, urging them to stop exporting plastic scrap due to the social and environmental harm to receiving countries.
In response to the groups’ requests to stop exporting, John Casella, chief executive officer of Casella Waste Systems, states, “Having spent the last 40 years as a champion of sustainable waste management, innovative recycling and recovery solutions, I am supportive of your request.”
For decades, plastic waste has been exported to other countries and counted as “recycled” by industrialized countries. In 2018, the U.S. exported 1.1 billion kilograms of plastic scrap, with 78 percent landing in regions with “poor waste management systems,” including Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, Turkey and Vietnam. These countries are named as the largest contributors to ocean plastic pollution.
A 2019 Greenpeace investigation found that U.S. plastic scrap exports significantly increased to several countries, mostly in Southeast Asia, following China’s ban on foreign scrap. Since China’s ban, countries, including Malaysia, have begun to put measures in place to halt this influx of plastic scrap, and in some cases sent it back. Container ships have already arrived in the U.S. with rejected single-use plastic from Indonesia.
Waste Management, the largest waste services company in the U.S., released a new report titled, “Position on Plastics Exports,” in which the company says, “With China’s ban on imports, plastic from across the globe began to move to a variety of countries that are not well equipped to handle the material, furthering the likelihood of more plastics entering rivers, waterways and oceans. In response to concerns about plastic in the environment, Waste Management is not shipping plastics collected on its residential recycling routes and processed in its single stream material recovery facilities to locations outside North America.”
Other waste companies that stated they do not export municipal plastic scrap include Resource Management Companies, Chicago Ridge, Illinois, Single Stream Recyclers, Sarasota, Florida, and TFC Recycling, Chesapeake, Virginia. A complete listing of company responses to the groups’ letters is posted on The Last Beach Cleanup website.
“Actions to find markets for discarded plastic materials collected in U.S. communities should not negatively impact communities in other countries,” says Jan Dell, independent engineer and founder of The Last Beach Cleanup. “The most recent export data shows U.S. plastic waste now going to Djibouti, Ghana, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. These countries need our support to stop plastic pollution, not our plastic waste.”
As exports drop, the groups are also asking waste management companies for transparency around where the scrap is going instead. Incineration and landfilling plastic scrap are not solutions, the groups say.
The responsibility should not rest on waste management and recycling companies alone. The groups are also urging the plastics industry, consumer goods companies and retailers to stop producing and selling single-use plastics that are not responsibly recyclable and end up polluting communities and the environment worldwide.