Waste not – because there’s nowhere to put it

It looks as if China’s decision to stop accepting a large proportion of the world’s plastic and paper waste products is going to have a dramatic impact on the way we live.

In the wake of China’s decision to stop importing nearly half of the world’s scrap starting Jan. 1, particularly from the wealthiest nations, waste management operations across the country are struggling to process heavy volumes of paper and plastic that they can no longer unload on the Chinese. States such as Massachusetts and Oregon are lifting restrictions against pouring recyclable material into landfills to grant the operations some relief.

If Europe and the rest of the world struggle like the United States, according to the study by researchers at the University of Georgia released Wednesday, an estimated 111 million metric tons of plastic waste will pile up by 2030. Based on the amount of domestic scrap exported to China, the researchers estimate that the United States will have to contend with 37 million metric tons of extra waste, an amount it’s not prepared to handle.

. . .

“It will impact recycling programs across the country,” said Ben Harvey, owner and president of E.L. Harvey & Sons Recycling Services in Westborough, Massachusetts. “If there’s no place for this stuff to go, what’s the sense of collecting it? We’re going to look at the programs and say why are we collecting it, it’s not a commodity anymore. It’s a big thing. It’s a scary thing.”

Conservationists who reviewed the study and found it credible said such heavy loads of garbage worldwide would not only continue leaking into oceans but would also likely spill into neighborhoods.

. . .

Studies say that between 8.3 billion and 9 billion metric tons have been produced since 1950. That’s more than four Mount Everest’s worth of trash. According to a separate study released last year, all but 2 billion metric tons of that plastic still sits on the Earth as garbage in landfills, recycled trash or pollution scattered in the environment, including deep oceans where a plastic island twice the size of Texas floats.

Plastic has been discovered in the bellies of dead whales and the decomposed stomachs of seabirds that mistook it for food. And yet, production of plastic continues almost without regulation … In 1960, plastic accounted for just 1 percent of junk in municipal landfills across the world. As single-package containers led to an explosion in convenience and use, that number grew to 10 percent in 2005. If the trend continues, researchers say 13 billion metric tons of plastic will sit in dumps.

There’s more at the link.  Recommended reading.

The report refers mainly to plastic and paper waste, but there are other waste products that are far more worrying.  In my travels throughout much of sub-Saharan Africa, I’ve seen the impact of European waste dumping in that continent.  Sometimes it’s been deadly to the local people.  What will happen when that sort of waste can’t be dumped anywhere else?  How will we dispose of it locally without impacting our residents?  That’s a good question.



  1. Shoot it to the sun? A new space industry to employ thousands? Pretty much joking about that.

    Certainly we have the technology to create smokeless incinerators where we could burn that stuff and create power from it?

    Would making that plastic biodegradable do any good? Of course it wouldn't affect what is out there now.
    China must have made this decision for some reason. Political perhaps? Or maybe they just want everyone else to die from it, as you say, so the Chinese can inherit the Earth without firing a shot…

  2. How much of that excess plastic packaging is coming via container from China, in the first place? Everything has a heavy plastic wrap, cardboard, and assorted theft tags.

    Local production again may have unintended environmental benefits.

  3. From an engineering standpoint this really isn't a problem. The problem comes from the fact that no one wants a dump in their backyard. A metric ton, once compacted in a landfill will take up about a cubic meter of space. 111 million metric tons will take up approximately an area of 480x480x480 meters (call it 500^3 meters). Granted, we don't stack trash that high, but if you work it out it doesn't take up that much area compared to all the open space in the United States. When you add in the environmental permitting and restrictions, that's when it becomes tricky.

  4. Incinerators? You can generate heat, steam, and electricity that way.
    Composting? … well, maybe not the plastic.
    Reprocessing? One would think there should be a way to recapture useful elements and compounds from waste. The trick is finding a market for it at the price afterwards…

  5. You missed the buried lede:

    "It will impact recycling programs across the country," said Ben Harvey, owner and president of E.L. Harvey & Sons Recycling Services in Westborough, Massachusetts. "If there's no place for this stuff to go, what's the sense of collecting it?"

    This is why they're talking about paper and plastic, and it reveals the cold, hard truth of our virtue signaling culture. All that paper and plastic that's collected at your curb for recycling?" At least 30% of it is just going to landfills.

    More than that: the recycled plastic and paper is mostly cheap, crappy plastic and paper. Nobody here in the west wants it. So we sell like 2/3 of it… to China. Which is also being banned now.

    You're just witnessing the house of cards collapsing, is all.

  6. I've read that China stopped accepting plastic because they now have sufficient plastic production to make all they need.

    My city started a new trash pickup system late last year, with new rolling bins that have dual lids for separate spaces. I just discovered that they aren't using the lid control system. Both sides dump together. The recycle bin had plastic/metal, and paper separate. All together now. The other bin is landfill and food waste. Dumped together now. Separate trucks, though.

    Drove past the San Jose paper/cardboard recycling business. Lots of old compressed blocks stacking up. Not sure if that might just be seasonal storage, as I don't go past it often, but it was obviously old stuff, as it was sun bleached.

  7. BTW, those curbside recycling systems never broke even, they ALWAYS ran at a loss. They just jacked up your garbage bill to pay for it.

  8. I follow some permaculturalists who are totally environmentalists and stuff. Paul Wheaton and his friends if you want to look him up. They are into what they call rocket mass heaters. It's a little complicated to explain, so let me just jump to the part relevant to plastics.

    At at high enough temperature, we can burn plastics- and with a secondary chamber in which the smoke is burnt, well, there's little to nothing to worry about. Now Paul is so Earth friendly he doesn't want anyone to have metal in their burn chamber because that metal eventually burns out. And, sure, maybe I got things wrong, but one of his buddies likes ships, and he was actually talking about building one of these things and going out into the ocean and burning the huge floating plastic pile that's supposedly screwing up the ocean. So, I'm pretty sure we can use this to generate power or something and it won't be a big deal. Excepting for government regulations that probably don't allow it…

  9. Remember re-usable pop and milk bottles? And then there's co-generation power plants, especially for the paper.

  10. Europe uses the 3rd world as a dumping ground and strip mine. Always has, pretty much. Today, it's dumping waste and wiping out their coastal fisheries. Modern piracy in the Horn of Africa was caused because Europeans wiped out the domestic fisheries of EVERY SINGLE coastal African nation with the exception of South Africa via distant-water trawling fleets.

    Virtually all seaborne plastic waste comes from Asia. China and Indonesia, and to a lesser extent India. The developed world contributes very little, relatively speaking.

    So, the trash issue is good for India, who needs the feedstocks and whose nascent reprocessing industry is hamstrung by a lack of infrastructure and economy of scale issues. India may well fill the gap if they can scale up beyond the mom-and-pop stage. Certainly they're going to need help in the shipping side, but there's opportunity there.

  11. Thermal depolymerization to the rescue! Make those plastic bottles back into oil!

    The problem is the heat energy required for this, which can use up most of your feed stock and create pollution. Solution: nuclear power. Nuclear heat along with pressure and some water (steam) applied to plastic and paper equals hydrocarbons.

    Environmentalist exploding heads would be a bonus.

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