Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle: Plastic Trash is the New Colonialism

I think every person who is in favor of recycling — and you’re all in favor of recycling, right? — should read “Why Southeast Asia Is Flooded With Trash From America And Other Wealthy Nations” on HuffPost.

This article makes it pretty clear (without actually saying so) that a new flavor of colonialism is exporting our pollution in the form of plastic trash — the bulk of which is not economically recyclable — to Southeast Asia where it is dumped or burned. In addition to extracting mineral and other raw material resources, like we’ve done for centuries, we’re “extracting” clean air and water by polluting theirs instead of ours. Plastic benches and roads and other TED Talk-worthy processes and products are being done with the clean plastics that don’t leave our country. It’s the junk that we ship out.

The article quotes at least once U.S.-based recycler who says he has no control over where the junk goes after he sells it. Their plausible deniability is gone now, though. Knowing that it ends up polluting someone else’s community means that the U.S. brokers should not sell it.

There is, of course, another responsible party in this equation: Me (and probably you). I know that the plastic straw debacle pointed out that some plastic use is inevitable and, for some, life-sustaining or, at least, life-easing. I also know that individual action really only works if it forces manufacturers to change their packaging. That seems to have worked at Trader Joe’s. Let’s make sure other chains follow suit.

That said — and I write this with reluctant horror — maybe we should not put things which will not actually be recycled into our recycle bins! That would mean it would go into our landfills here in the U.S. meaning that we’re owning the problem. However, that has the downside that it is likely that all the new landfill space required would probably come at the expense of — and pollution of — poorer communities and communities of color and indigenous people here in the U.S instead of overseas.

I need to step up my vigilance and decrease my use of these plastics to the highest degree possible. What can I do? I can aggressively reduce my consumption of plastics and make sure the manufacturers and retailers know about it. That means reusing what I already have for as long as I can. After all, if I just purge my house of plastic bags, where are they going to go?! So, taking my produce bags back to the store to reuse only makes sense. It also means shopping at places like Trader Joe’s and letting other stores know why I’m switching. I am also guilty of not cleaning my recycled plastics as well as they need to be. No more wishcycling“!

Also, buying a bunch of cotton bags might not be the best idea either. In fact, if I needed any more bags (I don’t) I’d probably consider an option that keeps plastic out of the landfill.

Sustained regulatory pressure is also needed though it’ll require a less-fractious federal government (all three branches) to make nationwide changes. Meanwhile, states can mount significant pressure as proven by California’s long battle over car emissions (though this Republican administration is fighting back and gutting the regulations as fast as it can).