Plastic garbage from Trader Joe's and an AARP card are peeking out of hillocks of plastic trash piling up in Indonesia.
It's a sign of a new global quandary: What should wealthy countries do with their plastic waste now that China no longer is buying it?
For years, America sold millions of tons of used yogurt cups, juice containers, shampoo bottles and other kinds of plastic trash to China to be recycled into new products.
And it wasn't just the U.S. Some 70 percent of the world's plastic waste went to China – about 7 million tons a year.
Numerous Chinese millionaires were minted as recycling businesses started and blossomed. Sure, they paid for the world's plastic and paper trash, but they made far more money from processing it and selling the resulting raw materials.
But last year the Chinese government dropped a bombshell on the world recycling business: It cut back almost all imports of trash. And now a lot of that plastic gets shipped to other countries that don't have the capacity to recycle it or dispose of it safely.
To understand the current situation, we have to go back in time a couple of decades.
A billionaire is born
In 1995, Zhang Yin started a paper recycling company in China called Nine Dragons. She would become China's first female billionaire. China wanted scrap paper and plastic to recycle into more products, and Yin seized the market.
Martin Bourque runs one of the oldest recycling operations in the U.S. as part of the Ecology Center in Berkeley, Calif. "There were brokers going around the globe buying up every scrap of plastic they could find and paying top dollar for it," he says.
And there was this brilliant tactic to increase profits: West Coast ports in the U.S. were full of empty Chinese shipping containers that had come to deliver goods to American consumers. "So it made a lot of sense to send [waste] out though the port in an empty ship that was going back anyway," Bourque says.
For American recyclers, it was too good a deal to pass up. Many types of plastic — bags, cups, plastic wrap, thin film — gum up sorting machines at materials recovery centers in the U.S. and is of almost no value to recyclers.
Waste expert Joe Dunlop at the Athens-Clarke County materials recovery facility near Athens, Ga., explained the problem. Conveyor belts deliver tons of trash every hour, with magnets diverting metal and paper going into bins for recycling. Some plastic is binned up, too, if it's recyclable — bottles, for example. But the rest, like a box covered in film plastic — thin flexible sheets of plastic — is not easy to recycle.
He pulls up a 2-foot-square piece of cardboard out of a 10-foot-pile of trash. "A cardboard box wrapped in our No. 1 contaminate, film plastic," he says. "That's just bad. What is so awful about a cardboard box that they had to go and do this to it?"
The cardboard/plastic combo originally held beverages, he says, "but have you ever had to unpackage containers? It's a pain in the butt."
Dunlop says a lot of that plastic is useless when it comes to recycling in the United States. It mostly ended up in landfills until China came along.
China had plenty of capacity to handle plastics and lots of cheap laborers to sort the recyclable materials from the nonrecyclable. By 2016, the U.S. was exporting almost 700,000 tons a year to China alone. Overall, China imported 7 million tons from around the world.
About five years ago, the Chinese government started to worry about all this trash coming in. A lot of the plastic was contaminated with stuff that made it difficult and expensive to recycle – paper, food waste, plastic wrap (which is not recyclable). And some of the plastic was hard to recycle and thus not profitable to import.
What's more, a lot of plastic sneaked in illegally, without permits. These fly-by-night recyclers dumped stuff they couldn't recycle, causing pollution on land and in waterways.
In fact, Bourque actually tracked some of the plastic scrap from his operation in Berkeley. In 2016, he buried a GPS transponder in one of his bales of paper and plastic waste from the Ecology Center. Waste brokers bought it. He followed the transponder's electronic signals to a town in China. Bourque then contacted local residents to document what happened to it. They reported to Bourque what they saw.
"And what we found confirms some of our worst nightmares: dumping in the local canyon of materials they couldn't recycle, plastic in the farmland incorporated into the soil of the cornfields nearby," he says.
China says no
So the Chinese government cracked down.
In 2017, the government started to cut way back on plastic trash imports. Then the big bombshell: In January 2018, it banned almost all imports. Last year, China took in less than 1 percent of its 2016 total.
That means a huge amount of plastic is looking for a place to go. Especially, says Bourque, in the Western U.S., where communities depended heavily on the Chinese trade.
"A lot of it is being stockpiled," he says. "You know, people who have warehouse space." Many communities — like Eugene, Ore. — temporarily stopped collecting things like yogurt containers and shampoo bottles that used to go to China.
Keefe Harrison runs a nonprofit called the Recycling Partnership that works to improve recycling rates. She says more plastic in the U.S. is now ending up in landfills or getting incinerated, which creates pollution. And she says the confusion is discouraging to consumers. "It's very hard to turn recycling on and off," she says. "You can't tell your citizens 'Today we're not recycling any more, but next week we'll start again.' "
Harrison says if recyclers in the U.S. are going to pick up the slack, they need help. For one thing, they need more good, valuable plastic — bottles and tubs like the ones detergent comes in, for example, that are easier to recycle into raw plastic they can resell in the U.S. "The truth is that only half of Americans can recycle at home as easily as throwing something away," she says. "So that's step one that we have to fix."
Meanwhile, shipments of plastic waste to other Southeast Asian countries have skyrocketed. Exports from the U.S. to Thailand jumped almost 7,000 percent in one year. Malaysia's went up several hundred percent. Those numbers dropped in 2018 after those countries cut back on imports.
Stiv Wilson is an environmental activist and documentary filmmaker who works with a project on waste called The Story of Stuff. He has also been working with an environmental group called Ecoton in Indonesia, another big importing country. Wilson visited a town near a recycling plant in the city of Surabaya. The plant takes paper bales mixed with plastic.
"That plastic gets separated by the paper factory," he says. "It gets dumped in the neighboring community, and then the only way to get rid of it is to openly burn it. It is also used as fuel for boiling water to make tofu in small tofu factories all around. ... Air, water and land (are) all affected by this."
And he's the one who has documented uniquely American items that indicate where a lot of the trash comes from — "Like AARP cards with names on them. So obviously you know where that's come from."
These new dumping destinations aren't likely to last. Already, Vietnam and Malaysia are cutting back imports of scrap plastic because they are overwhelmed. They can't handle the huge diversion of plastic to their countries since China shut out imports.
Recycling experts say it's a time of reckoning for their industry and that wealthy countries need to stop exporting to countries that can't handle it.
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
For years, Chinese companies bought plastic trash thrown out in the U.S. and recycled it. It was a huge and profitable business, and American communities relied on it. Now China has stopped accepting American waste. So where is the plastic going? NPR's Christopher Joyce reports.
CHRISTOPHER JOYCE, BYLINE: The stuff you throw in a recycling bin goes to places like this...
(SOUNDBITE OF TRASH DUMPING)
JOYCE: ...The Athens-Clarke County recycling facility in Georgia. In a barn-like building, trash of every shape and color bounces along conveyor belts. Magnets pull out the metal. Paper gets dumped into separate bins. And then there's the trash of the trash. Workers in overalls stand beside one belt and feverishly pull stuff out.
MASON TOWE: Plastic bags, any film plastic that could get tangled in the gears. They're pulling out Styrofoam, contaminated materials - all that.
JOYCE: Recycler Mason Towe says the good stuff - cans, paper or plastic bottles - gets squeezed into bales by a crushing machine, and then the bales get trucked out and sold. But plastic mixed with paper or the film plastic in plastic bags or food wrap - almost nobody wants that. Joe Dunlop is the waste administrator here. He picks out a piece of cardboard.
JOE DUNLOP: Cardboard box wrapped in our No. 1 contaminant - film plastic. That's just bad. What is so awful about a cardboard box that they had to go and do this to it? It's beyond me. Apparently, it's cheaper. But have you ever tried to unpackage containers? It's a pain in the butt.
JOYCE: A lot of this stuff gets dumped into landfills, but about 20 years ago, buyers for this kind of junk plastic emerged. Chinese companies wanted it. They had big factories and cheap labor to turn the plastic into new products. Martin Bourque runs the Ecology Center in Berkeley, Calif., which has been doing curbside recycling since 1973.
MARTIN BOURQUE: There were brokers going around the globe buying up every scrap of plastic they could find and paying top dollar for it.
JOYCE: And it was cheap to ship. West Coast ports were full of empty Chinese containers that had brought consumer goods to the U.S. They just refilled them with our trash and sailed them back. But early last year, the Chinese government said no more.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: China has notified the World Trade Organization that it will ban the import of 24 different types of garbage.
JOYCE: Chinese recyclers were overwhelmed, and a lot of waste came in illegally and polluted land and waterways. Martin Bourque knew about that. In 2016, he wanted to see if his exported plastic was polluting China. He buried a GPS transponder in one of his bales. Waste brokers bought it. He followed its electronic signals to a town in China.
BOURQUE: And what we found, you know, confirms some of our worst nightmares. There was dumping in the local canyon of materials that they couldn't recycle. There was plastic in the farmland incorporated into the soil of the cornfields nearby.
JOYCE: Before the new policy, China imported more than 7 million tons of plastic waste a year from around the world. Last year, after the cutback, they took less than 1 percent of that. That means a huge amount of plastic is looking for a place to go, especially, says Bourque, in the western U.S. where communities depended heavily on the Chinese trade.
BOURQUE: What's happening with all this plastic if China isn't buying it? Well, a lot of it's being stockpiled, you know, people who have the warehouse space.
JOYCE: Many communities - for example, Eugene, Ore. - stopped collecting things like yogurt containers that used to go to China. More plastic in the U.S. is now ending up in landfills or getting incinerated, which creates pollution. Keefe Harrison runs a nonprofit called The Recycling Partnership. She says the confusion is discouraging to consumers.
KEEFE HARRISON: It's very hard to turn recycling on and off. You can't tell your citizens, today we're not recycling anymore, but next week we'll start again.
JOYCE: Harrison says recyclers in the U.S. need to pick up the slack, and they need help. For one thing, they need more good plastic - bottles and tubs, for example - that are easier to recycle into raw plastic that can be sold in the U.S.
HARRISON: The truth is that only half of Americans can recycle at home as easily as throw something away. So that's step one that we have to fix.
JOYCE: Meanwhile, U.S. recyclers are shipping more plastic to other Asian countries. U.S. exports to Thailand jumped almost 7,000 percent in one year, then dropped after Thailand slapped limits on imports.
Stiv Wilson is a waste activist with a project called The Story of Stuff. He's been working with an environmental group called Ecoton in Indonesia, another big importing country. Wilson visited a town near a recycling plant in the city of Surabaya. The plant takes paper bales mixed with plastic.
STIV WILSON: That plastic gets dumped in the neighboring community, and then the only way to get rid of it is to openly burn it. It is also used as fuel for boiling water to make tofu. You know, air, water and land is all affected by this.
JOYCE: As to where the bales come from, Wilson found some clues in the piles of waste.
WILSON: Trader Joe's, Bob's Red Mill...
JOYCE: Logos on packaging for items usually sold in the U.S. and another uniquely American item.
WILSON: AARP cards with, like, people's name on it. So obviously you know where that's coming from.
JOYCE: These new dumping destinations aren't likely to last, however. Already, Vietnam and Malaysia are limiting imports of scrap plastic. Recycling experts say it's a time of reckoning. Wealthy countries are running out of foreign buyers to take their garbage. Christopher Joyce, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.