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A Shocking Amount of America's Recycled Plastic Doesn't Actually Get Recycled

Luke Darby
The U.S. and other countries are dumping more plastic in developing countries than they can handle.

Americans produce almost 35 million tons of plastic garbage each year. The stuff takes up to 400 years to break down, and not even 10 percent of it gets recycled. But, according to a new report from The Guardian, what little plastic Americans do try to recycle often ends in poor countries across the developing world, where it sits in landfills and small towns.

Until 2017, China and Hong Kong were responsible for processing about half of all U.S. plastic meant for recycling. But so much of the plastic they received from the U.S. was covered with food, dirt or was otherwise contaminated or non-recyclable that it just wound up in Chinese landfills, so the government decided to shut down the program. By examining shipping records and U.S. Census Bureau export data, The Guardian found that the US is still exporting more than 1 million tons of plastic per year, much of it to countries "that are already drowning in it." As The Guardian reports:

Take Vietnam. Minh Khai, a village on a river delta near Hanoi, is the center of a waste management cottage industry. Rubbish from across the world, inscribed in languages from Arabic to French, lines almost every street in this community of about 1,000 households. Workers in makeshift workshops churn out recycled pellets amid toxic fumes and foul stench from the truckloads of scrap that are transported there every day. Even Minh Khai’s welcome arch, adorned with bright red flags, is flanked by plastic waste on both sides.

American plastic is piling up in some of the poorest countries in the world—Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Senegal, Ecuador, Cambodia. Shipping recyclables across the globe for factory processing is hardly a "green" solution, but the labor in these countries is often cheap and there are few if any environmental regulations. Unsurprisingly, considering the lack of oversight, many of those countries are also mismanaging the plastic they process, sometimes just dumping it directly into open air landfills. University of Georgia researcher Jenna Jambeck found that Malaysia was improperly disposing of 55 percent of the plastic shipped there. In Vietnam, it's as much as 86 percent.

This isn't a uniquely American problem. In 2013, Canada mislabelled 69 shipping containers holding 2,450 tons of trash as "recyclable" and shipped them to the Philippines. Canada's years of foot-dragging to get the garbage shipped back caused Rodrigo Duterte, president of the Philippines, to recall his ambassador in Ottawa earlier this year. Finally, rather than deal with it any longer, the Philippines paid to haul it all back to Vancouver.

In fact, plastic pollution is a global catastrophe. Between 1.15 and 2.4 million tons of plastic end up in the ocean every year. The Pacific Garbage Patch, the largest of five massive rafts of floating garbage in the world's oceans, is now twice the size of Texas, according Forbes. In the last year, numerous whales have washed up dead on beaches around the world with their stomachs stuffed with plastic bags and other debris. There's now enough long-lasting plastic globally that it will be a permanent part of humanity's fossil record.

Plastic has only been in mass production since the 1960s, and there's already an estimated 8.3 billion tons of it the world over, according to National Geographic. It's going to take more than shuffling it around the globe to really deal with the overwhelming scale of the problem.

Originally Appeared on GQ