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Your plastic recyclables are getting shipped overseas, not made into shiny new products

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 11/27/2021 Marvin Burman
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The recycling industry is drowning in secrets that put our oceans, and the Earth’s future, at risk. 

When I started a social enterprise to keep plastic out of oceans, I was horrified to encounter a tsunami of dirty details in an industry ostensibly focused on cleanliness. It’s a good time to take a deep dive into three secrets about this green industry’s black underbelly.  

We dramatically underestimate how much ocean-bound plastic waste we generate. Research shows recycling hasn’t slowed the deluge of plastic pouring into oceans. That’s partly because only 9% of the plastic produced ever gets recycled. Scientists estimate at least 8 million tons of plastic enters the ocean annually. 

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If we continue on this path, by 2025, we’ll be adding more than 17 million tons every year. 

The United States is one of the worst offenders

But how can this be when almost all Americans say they support recycling? 

You’re Not Actually Recycling

When you toss a plastic bottle into your recycling bin, you may envision it carted off to a shiny factory where an expert team efficiently breaks it down and turns it into something new. But the truth is far from shiny. It’s downright grungy.

Historically, at least half of that plastic you thought you recycled never made it to your local recycling center. It got shipped overseas.

The U.S. ships a million tons of plastic waste overseas every year. Starting in the 90s, the U.S. shipped plastic waste to China where the most useful items might actually be recycled. However, much of it got dumped into rivers, which carried the plastic into the ocean. China banned these imports in 2018. Then, the U.S. started shipping plastic waste to countries even less capable of handling it. 

Plastic floods poor countries

A lack of global plastic waste regulations means plastic dumping in impoverished countries goes unchecked. In places like Manilla, Philippines, some streets literally overflow with plastic. These areas don’t have local infrastructure to manage their own plastic waste problems, let alone imported trash. So, plastic gushes into streams, rivers, and oceans. 

An extensive investigation by The Guardian found the developing countries that receive the U.S.'s plastic waste mismanage 70% of their own plastic waste. 

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It’s outrageous that companies continue to manufacture single-use plastics, dupe the public into thinking it’s easily recyclable, and pass the buck to ocean-adjacent communities that are incapable of dealing with the crisis. 

Tackling the problem

Scientists say we must do three things to stem the plastic tide. 

► Slow ocean-bound waste plastic at the source.

► Incentivize the collection and repurposing of ocean-bound waste plastic.

► Help nations develop local recycling infrastructure

This will require a massive effort. Researchers warn we need to cut plastic production by at least 25% while increasing waste collection and management by 60% in order to make a dent in the problem. 

As governments drag their feet on developing a comprehensive global solution, individual people wonder how they might help.

Marvin Burman in Berlin, Germany, on Nov. 9, 2021. © Family handout Marvin Burman in Berlin, Germany, on Nov. 9, 2021.

The scope of the problem can be paralyzing. When an individual considers the fact that there’s a 600,000 square mile garbage patch in the Pacific and millions of pounds of plastic still pouring into the ocean every year, they are likely to freeze. 

Psychologist Karl Weick noted when an individual feels a problem is overwhelming, they do nothing. There is a fix, though. Weick found when a single person focuses on “small wins” it’s much easier to achieve success. So, I embarked on an ocean protection project that helps individuals create small wins that add up to big change for oceans. 

Becoming an ocean hero 

I created an eco-friendly search engine called OceanHero that addresses the three things we must do to protect oceans now. It allows anyone to participate in slowing the ocean-bound plastic tide with small actions at no cost while they surf the web.

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OceanHero’s unobtrusive advertisements fund ocean-bound plastic collections in impoverished nations. The funding pays for workers in these nations to pick up and repurpose plastic. So far, OceanHero has paid for workers to recover and truly recycle more than 20 million ocean-bound plastic bottles. 

While we work to pick up and repurpose plastic already polluting the earth, it’s vital that we don’t add more to the plastic waste heap. There are simple steps you can take to create small plastic waste reduction wins in your daily life. First, immediately eliminate single-use plastics from your routine. Buy products in sustainable packaging. Increasingly, brands are swapping plastic for paper or glass. When you buy these products, you’re sending a message with your wallet.

Secondly, when companies aren’t living up to your sustainability standards, let them know. You can call them out on social media, email the leadership, or, when possible, try to talk to someone at the business in person. I’ve found that businesses are receptive to consumers who complain about plastic packaging or single-use plastic elements.

Like drops of water gather to form oceans, each small eco-win you create gathers to form a wave of change in the plastic industry. 

Marvin Burman is the founder of OceanHero, the eco-friendly search engine that provides funding for ocean-bound plastic waste cleanup and recycling infrastructure development. To learn more visit oceanhero.today. 

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Your plastic recyclables are getting shipped overseas, not made into shiny new products

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