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THE GLOBAL RECYCLING CRISIS

TRASH IS FILLING THE WORLD'S OCEANS

AND THE CORONAVIRUS HAS ONLY MADE THINGS WORSE

AMERICA'S DISMAL RECORD ON RECYCLING

According to a report from Verisk Maplecroft, a global risk-assessment and consulting firm, the United States accounts for only about 4 percent of the world’s population yet generates 12 percent of the planet’s municipal solid waste (MSW), better known as garbage. (NRDC, 7-12-19). The US produces far more garbage and recycles far less of it than other developed countries.

“The US is the only developed nation whose waste generation outstrips its ability to recycle, underscoring a shortage of political will and investment in infrastructure,” the consulting firm said. (The Guardian, 7-2-19)

While China and India are ahead of the United States in generating municipal waste, the United States has a much smaller population than these countries, and still generates almost as much waste.

Will Nichols, the Verisk Maplecroft firm’s head of environment, said the US had better recycling abilities than much of the world, “but the sheer amount of waste that is being generated is not being dealt with as well.” (The Guardian, 7-2-19).

 

THE SITUATION IN AMERICA GOT WORSE ONCE CHINA STOPPED TAKING AMERICA'S TRASH IN 2018

Where does all of America's trash go?

Originally, we were sending part of our recycling to China. For years, America sold millions of tons 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. (NPR)

But in 2018, China announced that 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. (NPR)

In 2017, the United States sent China 33.4 % of their recovered plastic. In 2018, that number dropped to just 4.5 percent. (Plastics Recycling Update)

 

AMERICAN LANDFILLS ARE PRODUCING METHANE GAS

So what does America do with it's trash? Much of it rots away in landfills. Or goes into the ocean (World Wildlife Fund). Even most recycling is now ending up in the trash.

The United States is home to thousands of landfills. And one scary thing about landfills is that they produce millions of cubic feet of methane gas each day.

Landfill gas is a dangerous, virtually invisible concoction generated in the most natural way possible: the bacterial decomposition of organic material. The result is half methane and half carbon dioxide and water vapor, with trace amounts of oxygen, nitrogen, hydrogen and nonmethane organic compounds, or NMOCs, which can cause smog if uncontrolled.

In the past, environmentalists have been more concerned by carbon dioxide emissions, but now, they are worrying about methane. Even though methane doesn’t linger as long as carbon dioxide, it is far more effective at absorbing the sun’s heat and contributing to global warming. For the first 20 years after it meets the atmosphere, methane is 84 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

The population-heavy states of California and Texas are currently facing the greatest problem with landfill-produced methane, but the repercussions of this problem could eventually affect the entire world. (Save on Energy)

 

LANDFILLS ARE LEAKING

The other problem is that landfills leak. Despite state and federal regulation, landfills leach harmful chemicals into the ground and water supply.

In theory, once the trash is deposited in the landfill, that’s where it stays. In reality, that’s far from the truth.

According to the Conservation Law Foundation, all landfills leak.

The theory behind landfills is that once waste is buried, the contamination remains inert in landfill “cells.” To keep the waste dry and contained, landfill cells today are required to have two plastic liners, each backed with synthetic clay, putting a few inches between decomposing trash and the soil beneath it. Once the landfill cell is full, gravel, a flexible plastic cap, and some sod are then built on top of the cell.

Unfortunately, it's impossible to keep landfill cells dry. Rain and snow get into them while they’re open and accepting waste (which can be for years). And even after the cell is sealed, the plastic caps develop holes over time, letting in more rain and snow. The water that gets into landfill cells picks up contaminants from the waste and becomes “leachate.” What’s in the leachate depends on what’s in the landfill, but some chemicals can be counted on, such as volatile organic compounds, chloride, nitrogen, solvents, phenols, and heavy metals.

The safeguards intended to prevent leachate from escaping a landfill cell – pipe collection systems in newer landfills and the plastic and clay liners mentioned above – fail over time. This toxic brew of “garbage coffee” leaks out of the landfill and seeps into groundwater – contaminating wells and waterbodies.

While landfill liners have evolved, you can't retrofit older ones. In the 1950s through the early 1980s, many landfills were compacted with soil and clay. But a clay liner even a foot thick will fail within five years. Which means it's pretty safe to assume that any landfill that began operating with clay cells is leaking contaminants into the soil.

By the late 1980s, landfills started to use plastic liners, but even these rip and fill with holes and cracks over time.

The EPA itself has said, “No liner… can keep all liquids out of the ground for all time. Eventually liners will either degrade, tear, or crack and will allow liquid to migrate out of the unit.”

There’s simply no such thing as a safe landfill. No matter how many barriers, liners, and pipes we install to try to mitigate the risk, landfills will always leak toxic chemicals into the soil and water.

The Conservation Law Foundation states that the best way to solve this problem is not to build anymore landfills. Instead, we should solve our waste problem by instituting Zero Waste programs that save money, protect the public health and environment, and create new jobs.

 

THE DISASTER IN THE WORLD'S OCEANS

The world's oceans are filling with islands of garbage, including an island of garbage in the Pacific Ocean that is now one of the world's largest continents. The amount of plastic currently in the ocean is set to triple in a decade, unless major reforms are put in place. Somewhere between 15 trillion and 51 trillion pieces of plastic litter the world's oceans, a study has found. By 2050, the ocean is expected to contain more plastic than fish. (One Green Planet)

In addition to vast islands of garbage, there is now even microplastic in peoples' intestines. (Reuters, 9-2-19). Microplastics are unavoidably being digested by humans and the full impacts of this remain unknown. Studies have found microplastics in human stool. (Reuters, 9-2-19). Up to nine different plastics were found out of 10 varieties tested for, in particles of sizes ranging from 50 to 500 micrometres. Polypropylene and polyethylene terephthalate were the plastics most commonly found. Based on this study, the authors estimated that “more than 50% of the world population might have microplastics in their stools.” (The Guardian, 10-22-18).

Previous studies on the rate of plastic consumption in humans show that particles can pass through the gastrointestinal tract. In fact, it’s possible that humans may be consuming anywhere from 39,000 to 52,000 microplastic particles a year, according to National Geographic. Evidence of particles can be found in beer, salt, seafood, sugar, alcohol, and honey, as well as some species of fish like shellfish. (Euro News, 8-19-20)

Microplastics have also been found in tap water around the world, in the oceans and in flying insects. A recent investigation in Italy also found microplastics present in soft drinks. In birds, the ingestion of plastic has been found to remodel the tiny fingerlike projections inside the small intestine, disrupt iron absorption and add to stress on the liver.

Another consideration is that microplastic particles are able to stick to other harmful chemicals and pollutants, which may also have harmful effects on human health. (Sustainability Times, 1-23-20)

And according to (Particle and Fibre Toxicology, 11-12-20), microplastics contain additives, contaminants, and may promote the growth of bacterial pathogens on their surfaces: they are potential carriers of intestinal toxicants and pathogens that can potentially lead to further adverse effects.

Not only are microplastics having a toxic and harmful effect on human beings, but they are now in the food chain of ocean life, including krill, which are the foundation of the ocean's food chain. (The Guardian, 4-22-20). So if krill are eating plastic, that means it's going to end up in the intestines of most other ocean life as well, including whales and large fish.

A new very alarming study has also found that krill may be breaking down microplastics into nanoplastics. According to the European Food Safety Authority, more research is needed on nanoplastics as they can penetrate all kinds of tissues, eventually ending up in cells, and potentially causing health problems.

The NUI Galway (NUIG) study found that 73 per cent out of 233 deep water fish examined had ingested plastic particles, causing internal damage, inflammation of intestines, reduced feeding and other effects. (Green News, 3-12-18).

We know that the Climate Change is now a national security focus of the Biden Administration, and we very much applaud that move. However, one issue that must be tackled is the global trash crisis of trash filling the world's oceans. This is a major health risk for everyone.

 

 

IMPACT OF CORONAVIRUS ON GLOBAL TRASH CRISIS

Now with the global Coronavirus crisis, we expect much of this has gotten worse, since attention has been directed toward the virus and away from the current garbage crisis. And also since there is a growing impact of waste issues caused by (Personal Protective Equipment) PPE and plastic waste. According to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, hospitals in Wuhan, the initial epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak, produced more than 240 tons of single-use plastic medical waste (such as disposable face masks, gloves, and gowns), per day, at the peak of the pandemic—6x more than the daily average prior to the pandemic.

A recent study from the University College London found that, if every person in the United Kingdom used one single-use face mask each day for a year, it would create 66,000 tons of contaminated plastic waste and 10x more climate change impact than wearing reusable masks

Another study has found that "COVID-19 has exposed the world to several environmental threats due to plastic pollution—attributable to unsustainable use of single-use plastics."

Recycling industries that were already struggling before are now struggling more than ever. (LA Times, 12-5-20).

 

SANE RECYCLING SYSTEMS IN OTHER COUNTRIES

In a country like Sweden (and many other European countries as well) you have a sensible recycling system. This has probably been impacted somewhat by the Coronavirus crisis, but we would expect there is still a better system in these countries than America, where trash is filling up landfills and not being recycled.

A solution that Sweden has found for their trash is replacing fossil fuel with waste in order to produce energy. This is generating them 100 million USD annually by importing trash and recycling the waste produced by other countries. The United Kingdom, Norway, Ireland and Italy are willing to pay 43 USD for every ton of waste that Sweden imports to this end. (Blue Ocean Strategy)

Only 1% of Sweden’s trash is sent to landfills. By burning trash, another 52% is converted into energy and the remaining 47% gets recycled. (Blue Ocean Strategy)

Germany is a country that runs one of the most successful recycling and waste management programs out there. In 2009, Germany's recycling rate hovered at around 70%. For 2015, that increased to 79%. (Earth911)

   

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- Sweden: 48 percent

- United States: 32 percent (in 2019 according to the EPA)

You can read more of the details of how Germany's recycling system works here, and why it is successful. (Earth 911)

 

WHAT IS THE UNITED STATES TO DO?

The garbage crisis needs to be treated like a crisis. This needs to be made into a major issue and money should be spent to solve this crisis.

Greater education on this issue is key. Along with more recycling facilities. The government may have to make some tough decisions: tax increases or spending cuts in other areas. We don't have the specifics or all the answers here. But it's important to acknowledge that this is a crisis that needs to be addressed, because it is part of the greater, overall environmental crisis on this planet.


RELATED WORLD FUTURE FUND REPORTS

Plastic in Ocean

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NATIONAL RECYCLING GROUPS

Big List of Recycling Organizations Helping America Go Green

National Recycling Coalition


RELATED NEWS ARTICLES AND STUDIES

COVID-19 Escalates Global Trash Crisis

A struggling recycling industry faces new crisis with coronavirus (Los Angeles Times, 12-5-20)

THE GROWING IMPACT OF PPE & THE WASTE ISSUES COVID-19 HAS EXPOSED (Roadrunner, 10-21-20)

Study - Accumulation of plastic waste during COVID-19 (Science Journal, 9-11-20)

Study - Impact of COVID-19 Pandemic on Waste Management (NCBI, 8-26-20)

Study - Masks in the U.K. Are Producing 66,000 Tons of Garbage (UCL, 5-5-20)

 

America's Disastrous Record on Recycling

The Recycling Industry in America Is Broken (Eco Watch, 4-20-21)

Recycling in the U.S. Is Broken. How Do We Fix It? (State of the Planet, 3-13-20)

Report - US tops list of countries fuelling the waste crisis Waste Generation and Recycling Indices (Verisk Maplecroft, 7-2-19)

The United States Is the Most Wasteful Country In the World (NRDC, 7-12-19)

US produces far more waste and recycles far less of it than other developed countries (The Guardian, 7-2-19)

 

What Happened After China Stopped Taking America's Trash?

U.S. Recycling Industry Is Struggling To Figure Out A Future Without China (NPR, 8-20-19)

American cities confront a "slow-moving recycling crisis" (CBS News, 3-20-19)

Where Will Your Plastic Trash Go Now That China Doesn't Want It? (NPR, 3-13-19)

U.S. scrap plastic exports fell 35 percent last year (Plastics Recycling Update, 3-13-19)

Is This the End of Recycling? (The Atlantic, 3-5-19)

Since China’s Ban, Recycling in the US Has Gone Up in Flames (Wired, 2-27-19)

 

Plastic in Human Intestines

Microplastic in Human Stool (Reuters, 9-2-19)

Microplastics in Human Stool (The Guardian, 10-22-18)

Human Organs Can Absorb Microplastics, Say Scientists (Euro News, 8-19-20)

Study - Microplastics Reduce Lipid Digestion in Simulated Human Gastrointestinal System (Environmental Science and Technology, 8-14-20)

Study - Immunotoxicity and intestinal effects of nano- and microplastics: a review of the literature (Particle and Fibre Toxicology, 11-12-20)

 

Plastic In The Ocean

Microplastics found for first time in Antarctic ice where krill source food (The Guardian, 4-22-20)

Krill may be breaking microplastics down into even smaller particles in our seas (Green News, 3-12-18)

Study - Turning microplastics into nanoplastics through digestive fragmentation by Antarctic krill (Nature Communications, 3-8-18)

There Will be More Plastic in the Oceans Than Fish by 2050 – Here’s How You Can Help! (One Green Planet, 2016)

5 countries dump more plastic into the oceans than the rest of the world combined (The World, 1-13-16)

How Does Plastic End Up In The Ocean? (World Wildlife Fund)

 

Overfishing

China's Fishing Fleet Is Vacuuming the Oceans (Gatestone Institute, 4-22-21)

 

Recycling Programs That Work

Germany: A Recycling Program That Actually Works (Earth 911, 7-11-17)

 

Landfills

All Landfills Leak, and Our Health and Environment Pay the Toxic Price (Conservation Law Foundation, 7-23-18)

American Landfills Are Producing Millions of Cubic Feet of Methane Gas Each Day (Save on Energy)

 

Trash Per Person

The Trash One Person Produces in a Year (Titlemax)