What happens to our plastic waste? Why does it end up in the ocean?

Updated: Sep 20, 2020

Today we are going to be talking about plastic waste. Specifically, where it ends up when we put it in our recycle bin.

If you'd rather watch a video version of this post, you can watch it here:

Let’s start off with this: what do you think happens to your waste? You probably assume it goes to a local recycling facility and at least most of it is recycled and turned into new things. I wish this were the case. Most of us, myself included until two years ago, don’t think about the waste that it takes to create a product and we don’t care about the waste once it’s been whisked away by our garbage truck. We only think about the act of putting it in the trash or recycling. There is much more to the story.

The bottom line, we don’t take care of our own waste. The US sends its waste to less fortunate countries to deal with. That’s right, someone else has the burden of the waste you create. I know, it’s not our fault as consumers that this has happened, but this video is designed to make you aware of this problem and some steps that we can do to help. We think that recycling vs throwing things away is saving the world and reducing the problem, but unfortunately, with the current system, this is not the case. I’m not saying recycling is BAD, but it’s not as great as we might think.

If you don’t know how to properly recycle, you can watch this video here for a basic guide. But, always consult your city to see what they will and won’t take.

Photo of my friend Taylor taken by Courtney from Made You Look Photography

In 2018, roughly 68,000 shipping containers were sent from the US to developing countries. The newest popular places the US likes to send their waste is Bangladesh, Laos, Ethiopia, and Senegal. It is in these countries that they are paid unfair wages with limited environmental regulations to deal with our waste. Our problem becomes theirs. This is a problem because these, and other, countries barely have the capacity, time, and staffing to deal with their own waste, let alone tons and tons of waste from other countries (the US is not the only culprit).

Though this still remains a problem and has gone on for too long already, also in 2018, a treaty was signed that gives countries the power to block imports of garbage from other nations. Unsurprisingly, the US did not sign this.

The US produces roughly 34.5m tons of plastic every year. Only 9% of this is recycled and over half of that 9% was handled by China and Hong Kong. They handle 1.6m tons for us. We might assume that number of plastic being recycled is the fault of the recycling companies, but it can be our fault as well. If our plastic is contaminated with food, it can’t be recycled and chances are, the entire bag it was in will have to become trash as well. So, wash your containers before chucking them in the bin. Experts guess that 20-70% of plastic has to be discarded due to contamination. Because of this contamination, China refused to accept any more plastic from the US. Malaysia is now the biggest recipient of our plastic and they can’t even manage half of their OWN plastic waste. That means, the plastic we went them was simply dumped in open landfills. Indonesia and Vietnam also cannot manage their own waste, let alone the waste we send them.

The food contamination isn’t the only problem. Our plastic ends up in their streets and waterways. The melting of it so close to people’s homes makes them risk plastic fume inhalation. Plastic and air pollution also harms the crops grown in these areas.

This deer was munching on a napkin...

But what happens to the plastic that can’t be recycled? A lot of it, as you probably know, ends up in our oceans. It has even been detected on uninhabited islands. Henderson Island, 3,000 miles from the closest majorly populated area only half the size of Manhattan has over 19 tons of waste on its shores. That’s 627 pieces of trash every square meter. Mismanaged waste can be defined as waste that doesn’t end up in bins and facilities whether it’s on purpose or not. Surprisingly, the US is doing good in terms of mismanaged waste, but developing nations in Asia are not doing so well. Could it be correlated to how much waste we send to these East Asian Nations? Probably.

It’s not just thrown into rivers on purpose. Landfills can be flooded and in this video I talked about the plastic crisis in Thailand where they don’t have proper trash and recycle bins with lids. Trash ends up all over the place. The most polluted river in the world is in China that is fed by many smaller rivers throughout the country. It dumps into the East China Sea and then the Pacific Ocean and eventually makes its way to the great pacific garbage patch. A lot of the litter we see here in Okinawa comes from China. This “garbage patch” it simply a gyre, or circulating water. This is where Henderson Island lies.

Photo of my friend Taylor taken by Courtney from Made You Look Photography

The issue is tricky, though, it can’t just be put to a stop. It’s a business. We sell or trade our waste and those developing nations can sell the recycled plastic for profit. These workers sorting our trash need jobs, and although it’s extremely unsanitary, unsafe, and underpaid, they need the work. We also produce too much plastic to handle ourselves, similar to these other countries, some of which can only handle 20% of their own plastic. Basically it comes down to there is too much plastic being thrown away and no one has the time, capacity, staffing, or money to deal with it. We are all swimming in our own waste and we are not sharing the burden equally.

Like I said, recycling is a business. If the US can’t sell our recyclables to other countries, there is no profit. It costs too much for us to transport and recycle it ourselves so most programs have stopped or the “recycling” ends up in the trash anyway. This was the case when I lived in Texas and I was furious to know that the only reason the state sends plastic and other recyclables to landfill was because of money. I’ll talk more about this in a later video. But, the cities and states are right. Citizens would not be pleased to have their recycling bill be anywhere from 10-20x more than it was just a few years ago.This is especially the case with plastic. Metal and glass are infinitely recyclable and cost less than creating virgin metal or glass. Plastic though, costs the same or even more to recycle than it does to create virgin plastic. The market is just not profitable to plastic and that seems to be where most of the issues lie.

Even though a lot of countries have banned foreign waste, illegal dumps/facilities still exist. We still ship our waste overseas even though China and other countries have banned it. A lot of these dumps are in Malaysia. Most people seem to think their country’s recycling rates are much higher, but, before this video, did you know where your plastic ended up?

Unfortunately, there is still no incentive for us to consume less. It’s cheap to buy things and it’s cheap to throw them away and most people don’t have a care at all once that trash gets whisked away by a garbageman. This is where I come in along with other environmentalists. Landfills are getting to max capacity with not much more space for them left. We’ve already talked about plastic pollution in our waterways. And we can’t simply burn all of our trash as it emits harmful chemicals into the air.

So, what’s the solution? Like I said, it’s tricky. It’s very messy and no one is quite sure what to do. We are in way over our heads, yes, but that does not mean we need to give up and quit before we even begin.

First, consume less single use items if possible. Surely, you can cut out a few items every day or every week. Rethink your purchases and see what you can buy package-less or in another material that can be composted or is more easily recyclable.

Just as important, learn how to recycle properly. I’ve made a few videos on this already I will leave linked below, but in summary, you can’t throw everything in the bin just to make yourself feel less guilty. Milk cartons, thin plastics, and dirty containers are common offenders. Ask your facility what they will and won’t take.

Another equally important one, don’t put contaminated items in your recycle bin. This is anything from plastic you didn’t wash out to greasy pizza boxes, to containers with paints or chemicals on them. Those cannot be recycled individually and it risks your entire bin or bag from being recycled. Sure, the US recycling system isn’t great, but it sure isn’t helping by not recycling properly.

Photo of my friend Taylor taken by Courtney from Made You Look Photography

Another way is to simply buy less in general. I’m not telling anyone to quit shopping, but try not to impulse buy.

Then, once your item comes to the end of it’s life or the end of your love for that item, think about your options first. Can I sell it? Can I donate it? Can I upcycle or repurpose it? And then, think about if you can recycle it. The landfill should be a LAST RESORT.

To prevent garbage from ending up in the ocean, you can’t do much once it’s out of your hands, that’s just the truth. But, pick up litter when you see it. Organize a beach or city clean up. And educate others. Share this video to let people know the truth about where our plastic ends up. I appreciate you taking the time to watch this, but don’t let this information die with you. Spread the message. I’m not just saying that to help me grow. I want to change and save this planet and I need your help.

But, let’s not stop here. Vote for leaders who are willing to make this change. Vote with your dollar for companies that are doing good. Reach out to your recycling facility to see what they actually do with your waste.

And, don’t assume that metal and glass and cardboard are any better. Throughout the next few weeks, we will be diving into each of these materials. I will talk a bit about their carbon footprint before and during their use, but I will be spending a majority of my time on the after effects. What happens to our waste when it is removed from our site. It isn’t a “out of sight out of mind” concept. The problem doesn’t end with us and it still doesn't end with our recycling or waste facilities. If you want to hear more about the carbon footprint of these materials before we even purchase them, I highly recommend one of my favorite YouTubers, Gittemary Johansen. She has a great series about this.

Our waste isn’t just our concern and burden to bear. Our actions have an impact on every single person around the globe. Another issue I am going to be talking about in a few weeks is how minority groups are suffering the worst from climate change and consumerism. This was just the tip of the iceberg.

If you like this type on content, please do what you can to support my videos and my blog. I’m not asking you to do this to help me grow. Though, that is a benefit, I’m asking because this message needs to be heard by many more people than I am able to reach right now. Giving my videos a thumbs up and a comment and commenting on my blog posts truly does help. It helps even more if you’re willing to share on Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, in conversation, in school, and everywhere else possible.

As you can tell, I’m super passionate about this. There is a huge problem and every single person walking the earth has to face it. It’s not just the problem of the Malaysians and the Vietnamese. It’s our problem too. We can’t keep walking about ignorant to the piles of waste we are swimming in. We need change. It is possible, but we must all work together.

Thank you so much for reading. Again, if you'd like to watch the video, you can watch it here. A big thanks to my friend Taylor who let me use here photos for a message about our waste.

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