Monday, March 12, 2018

Baltimore's plastic legislation and worldwide plastic trash

 Baltimore is sometimes a bit insular and often not exactly ahead of the curve, but after many failed attempts legislation to curb plastic bags and styrofoam containers the latter finally seems to have a chance to succeed. One can see this as a result of the tenacity of a renewed local council, but the legislation also coincides with a global shift regarding plastic garbage that may make laws reducing the use of throw away plastic a worldwide necessity.
Plastic scraps in China (Photo: NYT)

China has been for a long time the world's largest recipient of plastic garbage which it turns into pellets and the kind of plastic products it can't make from petroleum since the country doesn't have much of that commodity.  7.3 million tons of paper, metals and used plastic went to China in 2016, according to recent industry data. The U.S. exports about one-third of its recycling, and nearly half goes to China.

But January 2018 China banned 24 types of garbage imports, including pretty much all recycled plastic. This is, in part, also a result of a Baltimore legislation, which the City enacted after almost everybody else did it already: single stream recycling. The idea to throw all recyclables into one bin jacked up the city's recycling rates but this method now used almost anywhere in the US also helped to contaminate the recycled materials to a degree that China felt compelled to first enact first the policy of the "green fence" (increased controls of imported recyclables regarding contamination) and then the "national sword", the total ban on certain recyclables. 

It isn't entirely clear how the trash producing countries will react to the import stop. Avoidance of plastic for throw away items would certainly be the right answer. But it may come differently. Countries like Malaysia, India or Thailand are already ramping up plastic imports, the producing countries could also install more of the facilities that turn waste into new items. Or China could open its doors again if the exporters could guarantee less contaminated waste. For Baltimore and other cities it could mean the end of single stream recycling.

However global politics will play out, Baltimore's decision to ban plastic containers fits into the picture, even though neither styrofoam nor plastic bags recycle well at all. The Baltimore styrofoam ban isn't just good for local landfills, the Bay and the Oceans but the right step in the global attempt of becoming more sustainable.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA
Recycling Chaos In U.S. As China Bans 'Foreign Waste', NPR

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