As many of you know, I live in Oaxaca, Mexico. Saturday morning was garbage day, and I watched a brand new truck pull up in front of my house for one of three pickups a week—better than most communities here get. The truck had big plastic bags attached to sort cans, glass and plastic bottles. The truck also collects flattened cardboard boxes.
From its collection points, the truck proceeds to an enormous, long over-capacity dump on the outskirts of the city. The dump has been the site of frequent controversies, closings, political fights and fires. Its history is documented here. One way the dump manages to survive is through the presence of “pepenadores” who sort and salvage the stuff they can sell to recyclers. They make far less than a living wage and their efforts, in terms of the local and global problem of plastic and garbage generally, are like shoveling shit against the tide, as the saying goes.
We need to be particularly and regularly reminded of the problems that plastic is causing in all our environments. Recycling was never the panacea for the problem; no country but maybe the US has the resources to deal with it. And US waste is the biggest culprit:
- Last year, the equivalent of 68,000 shipping containers of American plastic recycling were exported from the US to developing countries that mismanage more than 70% of their own plastic waste.
- The newest hotspots for handling US plastic recycling are some of the world’s poorest countries, including Bangladesh, Laos, Ethiopia and Senegal, offering cheap labor and limited environmental regulation. . . .
- Reflecting grave concerns around plastic waste, last month [May 2019], 187 countries signed a treaty giving nations the power to block the import of contaminated or hard-to-recycle plastic trash. A few countries did not sign. One was the US.
You may not know that only 9 percent of the world’s plastic trash gets recycled because it’s too expensive. China won’t take it anymore, so most gets dumped in the ocean or burned or put in over-burdened landfills. You may be familiar with what this dumping is doing to the ocean and its inhabitants, an abominable story with enormous consequences.
Like climate change itself, there is no real solution to this but to stop producing plastic and work on source reduction, as it’s called—like not burning fossil fuels in the first place. How to bring industry and consumers and politicians to this state is the conundrum of the age.
Recognizing the severity of the problem is the first step. Mexico’s giant supermarket chain Chedraui recently decided, without much fanfare, to just stop giving customers plastic bags. This I discovered last month with happy surprise on a shopping trip. Such bags are banned in at least 68 countries worldwide, but not in the US. Bangladesh, victimized by plastic and trash dumping, has banned them since 2002. Neither bans nor charges for bags are much more than quick fixes. But they are small and necessary steps forward.