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Outsourced Recycling And The Ocean Plastic Problem

Ocean pollution has been a formidable ecological issue that developed countries struggle to contain. Thousands of tons of plastic end up in the sea, flowing through river systems that empty into the Atlantic or Pacific. In the Western world, people often don’t think about where their recycling ends up. However, it’s crucial to understand how outsourced recycling has contributed to this river-to-ocean plastic problem.

The South Pacific Ocean is one of the most polluted parts of the world, as evidenced by the beaches of Henderson Island, a patch of land where containers have washed ashore. Currents carry the trash to Henderson Island from mainland Asia. 

The Yangtze River in China has been the biggest culprit of this extreme pollution. The Yangtze produces around 330,000 tons of ocean plastic annually, largely due to a lack of civil waste management in some of the most rural parts of China and unregulated trash disposal. Not to mention, China would purchase American and European recyclable plastics to power its manufacturing sector.

To understand how the rivers and oceans got so out of hand in Asia, we need to talk about outsourced recycling. While the U.S. and Europe have waste management programs, they cannot (or do not, depending on public opinion) dispose of all their recycling correctly, thus leading to these outsourced recycling ventures. These are common in Southeast Asian countries like Malaysia, Vietnam, and Thailand

This outsourcing is used to manufacture objects like toys and trinkets, usually funded by Chinese investors. This strategy is connected to China banning imports of other nations’ plastics in 2018. While it has led to increased pollution, outsourced recycling has presented itself as a business opportunity for some. 

Seah Kian Hoe of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, describes the recycling programs’ growth, “Thirty-five years ago, it was just scavenging — a very different era compared to now. I wanted to get into the recycling business and do it differently.” Before China joined the Western world in outsourcing recycling, Kian Hoe was only picking through a few tons of glass bottles. Now he’s sorting through boatloads of plastic to keep these manufacturing plants firing.

Photo Courtesy Tobias Tullius

There have been several potential solutions to reduce the levels of river-to-ocean plastic. Many developed nations have implemented biodegradable materials, but not all degrade in dark, low-oxygen-level oceans. 

According to Distinguished Professor Ramani Narayan of Michigan State University, there is an incorrect public perception of biodegradable materials, saying it promotes the idea that throwing something away equals it going away, which doesn’t exist.

The United Nations concurs with Narayan, saying biodegradable plastic is not a sufficient solution to reducing ocean waste or chemical damage to marine life. 

The good news is universities and clean technology firms have been pioneering potential alternatives. The University of Georgia is working on an option that uses polymers synthesized by microbes to make packaging biodegrade faster. 

In England, Polymateria is working on “self-destructing plastic,” a version that degrades into safe wax that will help add nutrients to the earth. These innovations are critical to reducing the high trash levels in the Pacific Ocean and could help cut down on the few hundred tons that come from American waterways. 

Outsourced recycling has helped expand manufacturing and created jobs in Southeast Asia but at the expense of poor waste management and unregulated dumping. The fight against ocean plastic is ongoing, and it will take many years before the seas are clean. In the meantime, companies and citizens are searching for ways to make a dent in the crisis.

“We all agree on the issue,” said Ben Jordan, Coke’s senior director of environmental policy. “Are there ways that don’t require packaging at all? Are there places where you can bring your own packaging? For all the packages out there, whether a PET bottle or aluminum can, how can we make it more sustainable than it was yesterday?”


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