Plastic Pile-Up
Muse Science Magazine for Kids|September 2019
What happens when 7 million tons of plastic has nowhere to go?
Tracy Vonder Brink

Trash day again. Recycling trucks chug along, picking up all the bins. Then the paper, plastic, and aluminum we’ve discarded can be made into new products. But have you ever thought about where that happens? In the United States and much of the world, companies collect and sort recyclables, but do not also repurpose them. They sell the sorted items to other companies that use them to create new products. For decades, companies in China bought most of the world’s recycling.

That ended in 2018, when the whole system came crashing down.

The Way It Was

In 1995, Chinese entrepreneur Zhang Yin opened a recycled paper business. She thought she could make money by buying waste paper from around the world and turning it into new products. She was right, and her business made her China’s first female billionaire. Other Chinese companies quickly followed her lead, opening facilities to process all kinds of recyclables. Other factories in China used some of this material to produce new items. The world’s thrown-away plastic, paper, and cardboard became new toys, electronic parts, and home goods.

It was a system that seemed to work well for everyone. China sent shipping containers of new goods to the US. Unloading the new products left containers empty and available to fill up with recyclables and ship back to China. By 2016, the US was exporting nearly 700,000 tons of plastic waste per year to China. That’s the weight of more than 25,000 full garbage trucks. And the US wasn’t the only country looking to get rid of recyclables. Chinese companies bought nearly 70 percent of the world’s plastic waste. It all added up to about 7 million tons of plastic, or the weight of over 270,000 loaded garbage trucks. Picture an enormous parking lot with every space filled.

So What Happened???

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