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Worlds away, but intertwined by plastic

Standing at the entrance of Old Trail, a subdivision of rapidly rising single family homes, apartments and businesses in the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains in western Albemarle County, it’s hard to fathom that it has been inextricably tied to a country on the opposite side of the world, China. 

For a quarter century, that tie that bound both was garbage. Specifically, our plastic recyclables. 

In January 2018, that bond was broken when China enacted the National Sword policy, effectively banning the import of plastic recyclables for health and environmental reasons, they said. 

Later that year, Old Trail residents were told that because of the abrupt closure  of the van der Linde material transfer station for household waste, their contracted garbage hauler, Time Disposal, would be raising rates significantly, about 8.5% annually, to continue to collect single-stream garbage. The homeowners association opted to cancel the recycling effort for the community but gave residents willing to pay the extra fees, about $120 more annually, an opportunity to sign up to continue the service. According to Real Property Management, less than one-sixth of the community responded and, at the end of January this year, the last recycling bins were hauled out of the community.

In the beginning, communities tossed out little green buckets and asked citizens to separate their plastics from their paper, glass and metals. It was cumbersome, slow and, at first, many people just continued to toss everything in the garbage. Communities were benefiting from not sending as much garbage to the landfills and reaping some of the price benefits of recycling. Slowly, mandatory recycling started to grow across the country and with it came a rise in single-stream recycling.

This allowed people to toss all recyclables together, and they would be separated at a material transfer facility, or MRF, just like van der Linde. It increased the amount of items recycled, but the cost came in the contamination of the sorted material. It was inevitable that at the MRF, plastics would be commingled even though to be properly recycled, they couldn’t be. On top of that contamination of plastics by food and other substances, some toxins, like gasoline, weren’t rinsed out before being tossed out.

Still, China took the material, dumping most of it on the shorelines of the South and East China seas where it would sit to be sorted. (In reality, a great majority of those plastics were washing out with every storm, eventually dumping into the Pacific Ocean.)

As consumption of plastic increased steadily and recycling was becoming the norm, the increase in contamination was starting to cost Chinese companies millions of dollars. In an effort to force MRFs to better sort and police the recyclables that were being shipped to China, it enacted Operation Green Fence in 2013. It was an aggressive inspection of containers; more than 70% of the containers in the first year were inspected. Shippers had the most to lose, as they could be denied entry to ports or forced to pay heavy fines which would trickle down to the recycler. 

Quickly, improvements came to MRFs, usually at an increased cost of manpower. Quality control stations were created. 

The number of contaminated containers fell.  And more plastic goods were created and recycled.

But in the last decade, more plastic has been produced than in all the previous decades combined. 

In February 2015, a renowned researcher from the University of Georgia, Jenna Jambek  and her colleagues published a study of plastic in the world’s oceans. The conclusion was grim and China was responsible for a large portion of the plastic entering the world’s waterways, eventually swirling in the Pacific Gyre in what has become known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

The environmentalism around plastics was starting to grow as was a focus on the ramifications of our plastic addiction. Researcher Richard Thompson at the University of Plymouth in England, started to discover tiny plastics littering the beaches all around. He found that the plastics in the ocean were breaking down under the stress of sun, wave and wind into smaller and smaller particles. He called them microplastics. 

His research led his students to wander off around the world to study other impacts of plastic degradation. In 2011 Mark Browne began to study the outflow around Sydney and discovered an inundation of micro fibers floating and submerged in the silt. Shortly after his discovery, Sherri Mason from SUNY Fredonia found microbeads, the small pellets used in makeups and hand cleaners, floated by the millions in the Great Lakes.

Activists groups like Five Gyres and Plastic Soup as well as more well known groups like Greenpeace began to focus on the epidemic in the world’s oceans. Stories were starting to emerge about plastic consumption. Then in 2016, while working for a nonprofit news organization called Orb Media I began to investigate microplastic contamination of global drinking water. That story was published in conjunction with The Guardian, and within a week of publication in September of 2017, more than 4 billion people had read that story which pointed to China and Asia in general as huge contributors to the global plastics problem. That story and a follow-up investigating microplastics in bottled water led the World Health Organization to begin examining the impacts these might have on human health and to the U.N. making a proclamation to eliminate all single-use plastic. 

By December 2017, feeling the pressure and responsibility, though they didn’t admit as much, the Chinese government enacted National Sword. It lowered the allowable contamination level to almost zero, effectively banning the import of all recyclables.

Because of the ban of recyclables China imposed in January 2018, recycling rates have continued to fall. Starting in June, Albemarle began accepting only resin codes 1 and 2;  meaning a greater amount of plastics and their associated toxins will end up in our landfills and eventually into the air, earth and water.

It has come full circle now as I stand in my garage in Old Trail sorting plastics, metals, papers and glass to be taken to McIntire because it’s the only place in the county for me to recycle plastics right now, I can’t help but wonder what’s next.

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*Featured image by Skyclad Aerial.

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