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...
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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.
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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.
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