US Continues to Struggle With Its Vast Plastic Waste Amid Export Cut-Offs

Chinese labourer sorting out plastic bottles for recycling in Dong Xiao Kou village, on the outskirt of Beijing (File)

Mary ManleyThe US wastes 40 million tons of plastic per year. The refinement of plastic also emits up to 235 million tons of greenhouse gasses per year which then becomes microplastics, which has caused almost 95% of America’s water supply to contain plastic. The US is now struggling to find ways to dispose of their plastic following a ban from China, a recent report claims. In 2018, China cut off plastic under their “National Sword” policy which banned the import of most plastics and other materials after managing half of the world’s recyclable waste for the past quarter century, with the US regularly exporting 7 million tons a year to China alone.The US, the UK, and other EU countries then responded to China’s ban by sending their waste to other countries including Thailand and Malaysia, who have since followed China’s example in cutting off imports.US companies like Chevron and ExxonMobil, are now suggesting that plastic could be turned into crude oil.According to the report, because these companies are looking to make up for their loss in revenue as the world moves away from fossil fuels, they are lobbying to cover the US with 150 plants that specialize in pyrolysis, a form of chemical recycling that melts plastic into crude oil that can then be used for fuel and petrochemicals and other poor quality plastics.However, this solution of reusing or reproducing overlooks the fact that plastic production continues to double every 15 to 20 years. Because while recycling is a legitimate process, the vast majority of plastics aren’t actually recycled because it costs more to do so than is actually profitable.”Reduction in the production of plastic is entirely possible,” said Abou-Ghalioum of Buckeye Environmental Network. “It’s talked about how we rely on plastic for so many things, and it just feels like a marketing ploy to make us reluctant to shift away from it. We had everything we ever needed before plastic.”According to a report by the Center for Climate Integrity (CCI) released in February, despite their knowledge that recycling plastics is not technically or economically practical, petrochemical companies have continued to push “fraudulent” marketing and public outreach campaigns to convince consumers otherwise.“Fossil fuel and other petrochemical companies have used the false promise of plastic recycling to exponentially increase virgin plastic production over the last six decades, creating and perpetuating the global plastic waste crisis and imposing significant costs on communities that are left to pay for the consequences,” the CCI wrote.More than 99% of plastics are produced from fossil fuels, the CCI report added. Though there are thousands of different types of plastic, the majority of these cannot be “recycled”. And despite efforts to convince consumers otherwise, the recycling rate in the US for plastics in 2021 was estimated to be only 5% to 6%.“…the plastics industry has employed a familiar playbook for more than 50 years to escape accountability. Petrochemical companies—independently and through industry trade associations and front groups—have deceived consumers, policymakers, and regulators into believing that they could address the plastic waste crisis through a series of false solutions,” the CCI wrote.Beyond PoliticsPlastics Cannot Be Recycled and Producers Know This, Report Claims17 February, 04:58 GMTAs oil is being replaced by clean, renewable energy, oil companies are trying to focus on plastic to replace their fuel losses, despite the fact that plastic waste can no longer be exported. The International Energy Agency predicted that in 2018, petrochemical products like plastic would outpace trucks, aviation, and shipping in oil demand by 2050, according to Wednesday’s report.Meanwhile, ExxonMobil predicted that petrochemicals used for plastics and fertilizer would make up for nearly all of the oil industry’s growth by 2050, replacing industrial fuel demand. However, to keep up plastic production, the companies have to show that what they are doing is somehow sustainable.But the economic and environmental impact of turning pyrolysis oil back into plastic is actually worse than making brand-new plastic, a study published in 2023 by researchers at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory found.The process can also emit cancerous pollutants including mercury, benzene, and arsenic. It also does nothing to hold accountable the fossil-fuel companies responsible for driving the on-going climate crisis.

"It has had, let's say, limited success," Tim Miller, a vice president at the plastic-recycling center Royal Paper Stock, said about pyrolysis, adding that a pyrolysis facility in Oregon shut down after tens of millions of dollars in losses. "No one yet in the United States that I know of is just cranking in plastic and pumping out oil."


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