China No Longer Wants Your Trash. Here's Why That's Potentially Disastrous.

A laborer disassembles motorcycles at a recycling factory in Hefei, Anhui province, China in 2009. (Photo: Jianan Yu/Reuters)
A laborer disassembles motorcycles at a recycling factory in Hefei, Anhui province, China in 2009. (Photo: Jianan Yu/Reuters)

On Jan. 1, China made good on its promise to close its borders to several types of imported waste. By the next day, panic had already taken hold in countries across Europe and North America as trash began piling up by the ton, with no one having a clue where to now dispose of it all.

For more than 20 years, China has been the world’s recycling bin, accepting an enormous quantity of recyclable waste from nations worldwide. In 2016, China processed at least half of the world’s exports of waste plastic, paper and metals. The U.S. exported 16 million tons of waste to China that year, worth about $5.2 billion. Britain sent China enough garbage to fill up 10,000 Olympic-size swimming pools.

It has long been a mutually beneficial arrangement for China and the exporting countries eager to get rid of their mounting waste. But last year, China told the World Trade Organization that it was no longer interested in playing the role of global wastebasket. Beijing said that, beginning in 2018, it would be banning the imports of 24 categories of solid waste, including waste plastics, unsorted scrap paper and waste textiles. It was the most severe step China had taken since it began building its metaphorical “green fence” earlier this decade, which involved measures aimed at reducing the amount of “yang laji,” or foreign trash, that could arrive on its shores.

The ramifications of China’s recent ban has been described with language suggestive of a natural disaster. It has sent “shockwaves” worldwide, said Greenpeace East Asia plastics campaigner Liu Hua. Arnaud Brunet, head of the Bureau of International Recycling, compared the ban to an “earthquake.”

Mere weeks after the ban took effect, waste management facilities in several countries, including the U.S., Canada, the U.K. and Germany, are groaning under the weight of trash that no one seems to know what to do with. There’s “a mad scramble for alternative destinations or solutions” for all the waste that’s piling up, said Von Hernandez, global coordinator for the nonprofit Break Free From Plastic, speaking to HuffPost from the Philippines on Wednesday.

Compressed blocks of plastic waste, which would have been exported to China, pile up at Far West Recycling in Hillsboro, Oregon. (Photo: Natalie Behring/Getty Images)
Compressed blocks of plastic waste, which would have been exported to China, pile up at Far West Recycling in Hillsboro, Oregon. (Photo: Natalie Behring/Getty Images)

In the U.S., a recycler in Oregon told The New York Times this week that his inventory had gone “out of control” since the year began. China’s decision, he said, had caused “a major upset of the flow of global recyclables.”

Ireland has warned that its pile-up of garbage will soon “reach crisis levels” if an alternative destination for its trash is not found. The country sent 95 percent of its plastic waste to China in 2016, according to TheJournal.ie.

In Calgary, Canada, which had been sending half of its plastic waste and all of its mixed papers to China, the city’s waste manager described stockpiling thousands of tons of plastics and paper in empty storage sheds, shipping containers and trailers as officials figure out what to do with all the detritus. In Halifax, where 80 percent of recyclable waste had been sent to China, 300 metric tons of plastic bags and other plastic film products had to recently be buried in a landfill because the city has no more space to store it, reported the Times.

“We have relied on exporting plastic recycling to China for 20 years and now people do not know what is going to happen,” Simon Ellin, chief executive of The Recycling Association in the U.K., told The Guardian, adding that plastic waste had already started to pile up in recyclers’ yards.

“A lot of [recycling organizations] are now sitting back and seeing what comes out of the woodwork, but people are very worried,” Ellin said.

An informal recycler in Shanghai sorting through bags of plastic waste. (Photo: Grainne Quinlan for HuffPost)
An informal recycler in Shanghai sorting through bags of plastic waste. (Photo: Grainne Quinlan for HuffPost)

Trash — specifically imported trash — has been, for many years, big business in China. From the 1980s, the country has eagerly accepted recyclable waste from countries worldwide to feed its flourishing manufacturing sector and satisfy the demands of a growing population.

“Right up to 2008, China was desperate for raw materials,” Adam Minter, author of Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade, told HuffPost in an interview last year. “They needed it for manufacturing, infrastructure, housing. They were really desperate.”

With an enormous and inexpensive labor force to tap into, it was cheaper in China to recycle scrap metals, as well as waste paper and plastic, than to make those materials from scratch. And countries like the U.S., Canada and Britain had more garbage than they knew what to do with, so they willingly sold their trash to China for cheap.

“Suddenly, there was such a huge demand for stuff that was hard to recycle in places like the U.S.,” said Minter, who lived in Shanghai for over a decade starting in 2001. “In China, they had the labor to sort through this stuff and take it apart.”

Minter gave the example of electric motors, particularly those found in large machinery. Scrapyards in the U.S. didn’t know what to do with them, he said, despite the motors containing valuable recyclable materials like copper wiring.

“The problem is, it’s really hard to crack open the steel case. The labor to do it is too expensive,” said Minter, whose family has operated a scrap business in Minnesota for several generations. “These motors piled up in scrapyards and you’d have to pay people to take it off your hands. But that all changed in the 1990s when China began buying these motors for a few cents per pound.”

Minter, who now lives in Malaysia and writes for Bloomberg, recalled walking into a recycling facility in southern China in 2002 and seeing “an ocean of electric motors” there.

“I was absolutely floored,” he said. “There were motors in one corner, cases in another and piles and piles of pure, beautiful cooper. Every part of the motor was being recycled. They’d figured out how to leverage the labor and they had a market for it. Enormous fortunes were made, hundreds of millions of dollars made from electric motors. That was a real ‘aha’ moment for me.”

China, said Minter, was accepting all sorts of recyclables at the time. “China would buy anything and everything, I’m not exaggerating,” he said. And the exporting countries happily contributed, sending shiploads full of waste to China every year.

The U.S. currently exports about one-third of all its recycling, and almost 50 percent of that has been going to China, according to NPR. In 2016, China imported a total of 45 million tons (or about $18 billion worth) of scrap metal, waste paper and plastic from countries across the globe.

But last July, China made a bold announcement, notifying the WTO that out of concern for the environment and public health, it would be restricting the imports of certain categories of solid waste.

“Large amounts of dirty wastes or even hazardous wastes are mixed in the solid waste that can be used as raw materials,” Beijing said, explaining its decision. “This polluted China’s environment seriously.”

The move has been characterized as sudden by some media, but China has in fact been signaling its desire to ditch its “world’s recycler” reputation for quite some time. In 2013, the government launched a campaign dubbed Operation Green Fence, which sought to block imports of illegal and low-quality waste. As Minter put it, China made clear that it “didn’t want to buy everything anymore, they only wanted to buy the good stuff.” A follow-up initiative called National Sword, which saw customs officials cracking down on such imports, was introduced last year.

The reason for this sea change in China is manifold. From an economic perspective, recycling imported waste started to make less and less sense for China as the cost of labor rose steadily and the demand for raw materials fell.

As Beijing itself acknowledged, many environmental and public health issues had also arisen from this unchecked recycling boom. Because exporting countries had sent their waste willy-nilly to China ― a lot of it so contaminated that it could not even be recycled ― piles of imported garbage ended up filling China’s landfills and polluting the country’s waterways. Some of this imported waste also proved hazardous, like the time in 1996 when Chinese recycling factories accidentally imported more than 100 tons of radioactive metal from Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.

The incredible influx of waste into China also spawned entire towns devoted to recycling, where adults and children alike were often subjected to dangerous working conditions and exposed to toxic chemicals. One such community was spotlighted in Wang Jiuliang’s acclaimed documentary “Plastic China,” which screened at the Sundance Film Festival last year. The film triggered a surge of public anger in China — and observers say the film, though scrubbed from the Chinese internet soon after its original release in 2014, may have played a part in forcing Beijing to rethink its role in the global waste industry.

Wang, who spent three years filming the documentary, told Chinese news outlet Caixin Global in December that he still has scars on his face from the chloracne, a nasty skin condition caused by an overexposure to certain chemicals, that he developed while creating the film.

Yifei Li, an assistant professor of environmental studies at NYU Shanghai, said a rise in nationalist sentiment also played a role in spurring Green Fence and other related initiatives.

“Nationalism is growing like crazy here,” he told HuffPost from his office in Shanghai in September. “People are asking why we’re processing American waste in the first place. They’re saying: ‘Why are we doing this for the American imperialists?’ or whatever they call them. ‘Why don’t we first deal with what’s in our own backyard instead of taking care of other people’s problems?’”

Ironically, while China has been focused on recycling waste imported from other nations, the country has neglected management of its own waste streams. In cities like Shanghai, the world’s most populous city, formal recycling of domestic waste has been almost unheard of. Informal waste pickers have instead taken up the mantle of recycling garbage produced locally.

But as the amount of domestic trash grows (Shanghai’s residents were reportedly generating some 22,000 tons of garbage per day in 2015 and that number is expected to balloon), China has grown increasingly concerned about how to better manage its own waste.

“China recognizes that the problem has reached a tipping point,” said Richard Brubaker, an environmental activist and founder of Collective Responsibility, a Shanghai-based sustainability consultancy. “They realize they now have enough of their own garbage. If they raise the price of recyclables here domestically, it forces other nations to take care of their own waste. China wants to close these loops, close off the cheap imports, and become more self-reliant.”

“The system here in China will adjust very quickly” to this arrangement, Brubaker added.

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An informal recycling center in Shanghai. (Photo: Grainne Quinlan for HuffPost)
An informal recycling center in Shanghai. (Photo: Grainne Quinlan for HuffPost)

But though China may be amply ready for this shift, many countries have apparently been caught with their pants down.

“I think you can say that for the exporting nations, they got lucky [with China] and then they took it for granted,” Minter said.

When recently quizzed about what the U.K. intends to do in light of the new restrictions, Environment Secretary Michael Gove was tongue-tied.

“I don’t know what impact it will have. It is … something to which — I will be completely honest — I have not given sufficient thought,” he said, speaking to lawmakers last month.

As recyclers and governments now rush to figure out what to do with their mounting garbage, environmental activists warn that the initial effects of China’s ban could prove detrimental to the environment and human health.

For one thing, “there are fears that the ban will simply lead to these huge quantities of waste being exported to less-developed, less well-regulated waste industries,” particularly India and the Southeast Asian nations of Vietnam, Malaysia and Thailand, Greenpeace said in a recent op-ed.

There are, however, “no new waste markets with equivalent capacity to China’s,” the nonprofit added. That means even if some waste is transported to other destinations, a lot of garbage could still end up getting incinerated by countries that would have otherwise exported it.

“This would then turn the problem into a toxic pollution issue,” said Hernandez of Break Free From Plastic. “The burning will contribute to greenhouse gas emissions and release cancer-causing dioxins,” among other problems, he noted.

In the longer term though, activists have stressed that there could be many positive effects of the ban. Exporting countries may be forced to consider ways to cut down on their waste and to improve their own recycling systems.

“This regulation will send shockwaves around the world, and force many countries to tackle the ‘out of sight, out of mind’ attitude we’ve developed toward waste,” Greenpeace’s Liu said in a statement.

Already, the U.K. and the European Union have unveiled plans to reduce waste ― both partly in reaction to China’s ban. The EU said this week that it plans to phase out single-use plastics and to make all packaging reusable or recyclable by 2030. British Prime Minister Theresa May said earlier this month that the U.K. would eliminate all avoidable plastic waste within 25 years.

In China, a dearth of imported waste could be the stimulus the country needs to spur its domestic waste management and recycling sectors ― and thus help reduce its pollutive footprint locally and beyond. China has consistently ranked as the globe’s worst ocean polluter; a 2015 report found that China was responsible for one-third of all plastic waste polluting the world’s seas.

Ultimately, the outcome of this ban ― whether positive or negative ― depends on the choices made by China, the countries that export their waste and the nations that may take China’s place in accepting them, said Hernandez.

“We could say the China ban is a double-edged sword,” he said. “It could reduce plastics and other waste, and improve systems of recycling. ... But exporters could take easy, cheap and dirty ways out. It’s ultimately the actions of these governments that will dictate what happens next.”

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story stated that China imported 7.3 million tons of trash in 2016. In fact, that number referred only to plastic waste that China imported that year.

Also on HuffPost

Reduce use of all plastic products, but especially single-use ones

Plastics are an invaluable material, used to make everything from medical equipment to parts of buildings, and nixing them completely from your daily life would be near-impossible. “Plastic has done incredible things for us as a society and it has an appropriate place,” said Nick Mallos of the Ocean Conservancy.<br /><br />What we need to remember is to<strong><i> minimize our plastic waste</i> (</strong>and really, all waste just generally) ― that includes recyclable plastics and compostable or biodegradable ones too. <br /><br />“Someone might buy a new iPhone and say, 'Well, since I recycled my old phone with Apple, I’m all good.' But Apple doesn’t tell you just how little of that iPhone actually gets recycled,” said Adam Minter, author of <i>Junkyard Planet: Travels in The Billion-Dollar Trash Trade</i>. “People need to stop thinking of recycling as a ‘get-out-of-jail-free’ card. You haven’t actually done anything <i>good </i>for the environment. You’ve just done something less bad.” (More on that below.)<br /><br />“If we really want to deal with the waste problem we’re facing, we need to think deeper about the nature of consumption itself,” Minter said.<br /><br /><i><strong>Reducing single-use plastic products </strong></i>are especially key. Single-use plastic packaging, like plastic bags, containers, straws and cutlery, is the “biggest source of trash” found in or near water bodies worldwide, according to Mallos.<br /><br />Start bringing your own reusable bag to the supermarket and a reusable bottle for your water; refuse a straw when you order a beverage and leave a set of reusable cutlery at your desk at work. <br /><br /><i>Click here to learn <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/reduce-plastic-use-water-pollution_us_590816f6e4b05c397681f20b">more tips and tricks on how you can give up single-use plastics</a>.</i>
Plastics are an invaluable material, used to make everything from medical equipment to parts of buildings, and nixing them completely from your daily life would be near-impossible. “Plastic has done incredible things for us as a society and it has an appropriate place,” said Nick Mallos of the Ocean Conservancy.

What we need to remember is to minimize our plastic waste (and really, all waste just generally) ― that includes recyclable plastics and compostable or biodegradable ones too.

“Someone might buy a new iPhone and say, 'Well, since I recycled my old phone with Apple, I’m all good.' But Apple doesn’t tell you just how little of that iPhone actually gets recycled,” said Adam Minter, author of Junkyard Planet: Travels in The Billion-Dollar Trash Trade. “People need to stop thinking of recycling as a ‘get-out-of-jail-free’ card. You haven’t actually done anything good for the environment. You’ve just done something less bad.” (More on that below.)

“If we really want to deal with the waste problem we’re facing, we need to think deeper about the nature of consumption itself,” Minter said.

Reducing single-use plastic products are especially key. Single-use plastic packaging, like plastic bags, containers, straws and cutlery, is the “biggest source of trash” found in or near water bodies worldwide, according to Mallos.

Start bringing your own reusable bag to the supermarket and a reusable bottle for your water; refuse a straw when you order a beverage and leave a set of reusable cutlery at your desk at work. 

Click here to learn more tips and tricks on how you can give up single-use plastics.

Don't litter

This might seem straightforward, but preventing litter is a critical action to ensure that plastic waste gets properly disposed of and doesn’t end up in our seas or other environments. <br /><br />According to environmental engineer and plastics expert Jenna Jambeck, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/plastic-waste-oceans_us_58fed37be4b0c46f0781d426">mismanaged waste like litter</a> is the <i><strong>number one cause of plastic garbage is the world’s oceans.</strong></i> That plastic bag that got caught in a breeze could end up in a storm drain; that empty plastic bottle left on a beach could get carried out by a tide.<br /><br />Ocean Conservancy recommends always “<a href="http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2016/06/09/six-simple-ways-to-make-your-outdoor-adventure-ocean-friendly/#more-12214" target="_blank">taking five</a>” whenever you leave a space to ensure that you’ve collected all your trash and disposed of it properly.<br /><br />Plastic bags, which often can’t be recycled (more below), are especially prone to becoming litter as they are easily carried away in the wind (yet another reason to not use them!). If you must throw one away though, be sure it’s balled up or weighed down so it can’t easily float away.
This might seem straightforward, but preventing litter is a critical action to ensure that plastic waste gets properly disposed of and doesn’t end up in our seas or other environments. 

According to environmental engineer and plastics expert Jenna Jambeck, mismanaged waste like litter is the number one cause of plastic garbage is the world’s oceans. That plastic bag that got caught in a breeze could end up in a storm drain; that empty plastic bottle left on a beach could get carried out by a tide.

Ocean Conservancy recommends always “taking five” whenever you leave a space to ensure that you’ve collected all your trash and disposed of it properly.

Plastic bags, which often can’t be recycled (more below), are especially prone to becoming litter as they are easily carried away in the wind (yet another reason to not use them!). If you must throw one away though, be sure it’s balled up or weighed down so it can’t easily float away.

Recycle when you can, and do it right

Recycling plastics is much more complicated than you might think. It’s so complex, in fact, that a significant amount of discarded plastics (even the ones you <a href="https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2015/12/what-actually-happens-to-a-recycled-plastic-bottle/418326/" target="_blank">put into the recycling bin</a>) <i><strong>don’t end up being recycled</strong></i>. In general, <a href="blogs.ei.columbia.edu/2012/01/31/what-happens-to-all-that-plastic/" target="_blank">less than 7 percent</a> of all the plastic that Americans throw away each year are recycled and about 8 percent is combusted in waste-to-energy facilities. The rest end up in landfills.<br /><br />The reasons for these low numbers are manifold, said Darby Hoover, a waste management specialist with the Natural Resources Defence Council. But generally, it boils down to two major problems: Firstly, there are many different kinds of plastics and not all of them are easily recycled; and secondly, consumers often aren't aware of these differences and therefore don't dispose of plastics in the best way. <br /><br />“You know that <a href="http://learn.eartheasy.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/recycle-logos-1.gif" target="_blank">little triangle</a> on plastic products? The little triangle is not an indicator that something is recyclable. Instead, it’s merely a designation — numbered 1 to 7 — of <a href="https://www.lifewithoutplastic.com/store/common_plastics_no_1_to_no_7#.WQrVw1OGNp8" target="_blank">what kind of plastic it is</a>, what polymer that plastic is,” explained Hoover. A number 1, for instance, indicates that the item is made of Polyethylene terephthalate (or PET, for short), a material typically used to make bottles and microwaveable food containers; while a number 2 indicates high-density polyethylene, the stuff plastic grocery bags are usually made of. The most complicated designation is number 7, which indicates all other plastics -- including products with a mixture of various plastics in them and also compostable plastics.<br /><br />Recyclers use these numbers to determine which items can be recycled at their facility and which can’t. Different kinds of plastics typically can’t be recycled together, and many facilities won’t accept certain types of plastic at all, like styrofoam, vinyl and plastic film products like plastic bags and cling-wrap (these products have been known to <a href="https://www.google.com/url?q=http://www.chicagotribune.com/g00/business/ct-plastic-bag-ban-recycling-0731-biz-20150730-story.html?i10c.referrer%3Dhttps%253A%252F%252Fwww.google.com.sg%252F&sa=D&ust=1493407222155000&usg=AFQjCNGh2EdCA7M_rgM6YbBNaHbFe7FHvg" target="_blank">gum up recycling equipment</a>). <br /><br />To add to the confusion, local municipalities across the U.S. have differing rules when it comes to recycling plastics. Some might accept type 7 plastics, for instance, but others will not. <br /><br />“No matter where you live, you have to check the local municipality for their rules,” said Hoover, who recommended reviewing your local city or town website for more information. You also have to continue checking in, she added, as these rules often change without much warning.
Recycling plastics is much more complicated than you might think. It’s so complex, in fact, that a significant amount of discarded plastics (even the ones you put into the recycling bin) don’t end up being recycled. In general, less than 7 percent of all the plastic that Americans throw away each year are recycled and about 8 percent is combusted in waste-to-energy facilities. The rest end up in landfills.

The reasons for these low numbers are manifold, said Darby Hoover, a waste management specialist with the Natural Resources Defence Council. But generally, it boils down to two major problems: Firstly, there are many different kinds of plastics and not all of them are easily recycled; and secondly, consumers often aren't aware of these differences and therefore don't dispose of plastics in the best way. 

“You know that little triangle on plastic products? The little triangle is not an indicator that something is recyclable. Instead, it’s merely a designation — numbered 1 to 7 — of what kind of plastic it is, what polymer that plastic is,” explained Hoover. A number 1, for instance, indicates that the item is made of Polyethylene terephthalate (or PET, for short), a material typically used to make bottles and microwaveable food containers; while a number 2 indicates high-density polyethylene, the stuff plastic grocery bags are usually made of. The most complicated designation is number 7, which indicates all other plastics -- including products with a mixture of various plastics in them and also compostable plastics.

Recyclers use these numbers to determine which items can be recycled at their facility and which can’t. Different kinds of plastics typically can’t be recycled together, and many facilities won’t accept certain types of plastic at all, like styrofoam, vinyl and plastic film products like plastic bags and cling-wrap (these products have been known to gum up recycling equipment).

To add to the confusion, local municipalities across the U.S. have differing rules when it comes to recycling plastics. Some might accept type 7 plastics, for instance, but others will not.

“No matter where you live, you have to check the local municipality for their rules,” said Hoover, who recommended reviewing your local city or town website for more information. You also have to continue checking in, she added, as these rules often change without much warning.

Choose non-synthetic fabrics when possible

Studies have found that microplastics — plastic fragments less than 5 millimeters long — can get <strong>washed out of synthetic clothing</strong>, like those made of polyester or acrylic. <br /><br />A single cycle of a washing machine could release more than <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/science/2016/sep/27/washing-clothes-releases-water-polluting-fibres-study-finds" target="_blank">700,000 microplastic fibers</a> into the environment, concluded one 2016 paper. <br /><br />Natural fabrics to consider instead include organic cotton, wool, flax and hemp.
Studies have found that microplastics — plastic fragments less than 5 millimeters long — can get washed out of synthetic clothing, like those made of polyester or acrylic.

A single cycle of a washing machine could release more than 700,000 microplastic fibers into the environment, concluded one 2016 paper.

Natural fabrics to consider instead include organic cotton, wool, flax and hemp.

Say no to microbeads

Plastic microbeads are sometimes added as an exfoliating agent to personal care and beauty products like face scrubs, soaps and toothpaste. These tiny plastic pieces can pass unfiltered through sewage treatment systems and end up in local waterways, and eventually the sea.<br /><br />Recognizing the potential risk that microbeads pose to marine environments and possibly human health, several countries, including <a href="https://www.theverge.com/2015/12/28/10680648/us-ban-microbead-2017-law-president" target="_blank">the U.S.</a> and <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/sep/02/uk-government-to-ban-microbeads-from-cosmetics-by-end-of-2017" target="_blank">the United Kingdom</a>, have introduced bans of the substance.<br /><br />Many of these bans have yet to be enforced, however, and some are limited in scope, so remain vigilant when purchasing products that could have microbeads in them (look out for terms like “exfoliator,” "scrub,” “buff” and “polish”).<br /><br /><i>Visit the <a href="http://www.beatthemicrobead.org/faq/" target="_blank">Beat the Microbead</a> website to learn more.  </i>
Plastic microbeads are sometimes added as an exfoliating agent to personal care and beauty products like face scrubs, soaps and toothpaste. These tiny plastic pieces can pass unfiltered through sewage treatment systems and end up in local waterways, and eventually the sea.

Recognizing the potential risk that microbeads pose to marine environments and possibly human health, several countries, including the U.S. and the United Kingdom, have introduced bans of the substance.

Many of these bans have yet to be enforced, however, and some are limited in scope, so remain vigilant when purchasing products that could have microbeads in them (look out for terms like “exfoliator,” "scrub,” “buff” and “polish”).

Visit the Beat the Microbead website to learn more.  

Participate in cleanup efforts

Every year, Ocean Conservancy organizes the International Coastal Cleanup, a global event that asks volunteers to collect plastic and other garbage from coastal areas and waterways. Last year, more than 700,000 people in more than a 100 countries participated in the event, collecting more than <a href="http://www.oceanconservancy.org/who-we-are/newsroom/2016/trash-weighing-more-than-100.html" target="_blank">18 million pounds of trash</a> <i>in a single day.<br /><br /></i>In 2017, the cleanup event is planned for <a href="http://www.oceanconservancy.org/our-work/marine-debris/" target="_blank">Sept. 16</a> ― but you don’t have to wait till then to do something. Ocean Conservancy has a <a href="http://www.oceanconservancy.org/our-work/international-coastal-cleanup/do-it-yourself-cleanup-tool.html">DIY toolkit</a> to help you organize cleanups in your own community.
Every year, Ocean Conservancy organizes the International Coastal Cleanup, a global event that asks volunteers to collect plastic and other garbage from coastal areas and waterways. Last year, more than 700,000 people in more than a 100 countries participated in the event, collecting more than 18 million pounds of trash in a single day.

In 2017, the cleanup event is planned for Sept. 16 ― but you don’t have to wait till then to do something. Ocean Conservancy has a DIY toolkit to help you organize cleanups in your own community.

Support plastic bag legislation

Using a plastic bag for groceries may seem convenient, but the ubiquitous sack is one of America’s greatest waste challenges. An average American family of four uses more than 1,500 plastic bags every year, according to the NRDC. Each bag is typically only used for about 12 minutes. Yet since plastic bags are very rarely recycled, most of them end up in landfills where they can languish for many hundreds of years.<br /><br />Reducing your use of plastic bags is one important way to mitigate this waste problem. But another way to make a big impact is to support local, state and federal single-use bag legislation -- specifically legislation that supports the reduction of all kinds of single-use bags including plastic <a href="https://www.wired.com/2016/06/banning-plastic-bags-great-world-right-not-fast/" target="_blank">and paper</a>, according to Jennie Romer, a New York City lawyer and founder of the website Plastic Bag Laws.<br /><br />Across the country, there are already many ordinances in place related to single-use bags. Last year, California became the first state to ban single-use plastic bags at all retail outlets, and in 2010, Washington D.C., implemented a 5-cent fee for all single-use bags, both plastic and paper. Cities and towns in Texas, Hawaii, Massachusetts and Colorado, among other states, have also embraced single-use bag legislation in some form or other.<br /><br />For most of the nation, however, plastic and other single-use bags remain widely available. According to Romer, it’s extremely challenging to pass a plastic bag law — or even keep one in place (New York City is a prime example) — due to fierce opposition led mostly by lobbyists from the petroleum and plastic industry. “They fight bag regulations tooth and nail,” Romer said. “And their resources far outweigh that of the volunteers and grassroots community groups that are leading this fight.” <br /><br />Preliminary evidence suggests that single-use bag legislation can be very effective in reducing waste. In Ireland, for instance, where a <a href="http://www.nytimes.com/2008/01/31/world/europe/31iht-bags.4.9650382.html" target="_blank">plastic bag tax was introduced</a> in 2002, plastic bag use reportedly dropped by more than 90 percent in just a few weeks. In San Jose, California, a 2011 plastic bag ban resulted in a reduction of plastic litter by “approximately <a href="http://plasticbaglaws.org/city-of-san-jose-releases-bring-your-own-bag-ordinance-implementation-results/" target="_blank">89 percent in the storm drain system</a>, 60 percent in the creeks and rivers, and 59 percent in City streets and neighborhoods,” stated a city report released almost a year after the ban was put in place.<br /><br /><i>Find out more about plastic bag legislation around the country and how you can get involved by visiting the <a href="http://plasticbaglaws.org/get-involved/" target="_blank">Plastic Bag Laws website</a>.</i>
Using a plastic bag for groceries may seem convenient, but the ubiquitous sack is one of America’s greatest waste challenges. An average American family of four uses more than 1,500 plastic bags every year, according to the NRDC. Each bag is typically only used for about 12 minutes. Yet since plastic bags are very rarely recycled, most of them end up in landfills where they can languish for many hundreds of years.

Reducing your use of plastic bags is one important way to mitigate this waste problem. But another way to make a big impact is to support local, state and federal single-use bag legislation -- specifically legislation that supports the reduction of all kinds of single-use bags including plastic and paper, according to Jennie Romer, a New York City lawyer and founder of the website Plastic Bag Laws.

Across the country, there are already many ordinances in place related to single-use bags. Last year, California became the first state to ban single-use plastic bags at all retail outlets, and in 2010, Washington D.C., implemented a 5-cent fee for all single-use bags, both plastic and paper. Cities and towns in Texas, Hawaii, Massachusetts and Colorado, among other states, have also embraced single-use bag legislation in some form or other.

For most of the nation, however, plastic and other single-use bags remain widely available. According to Romer, it’s extremely challenging to pass a plastic bag law — or even keep one in place (New York City is a prime example) — due to fierce opposition led mostly by lobbyists from the petroleum and plastic industry. “They fight bag regulations tooth and nail,” Romer said. “And their resources far outweigh that of the volunteers and grassroots community groups that are leading this fight.” 

Preliminary evidence suggests that single-use bag legislation can be very effective in reducing waste. In Ireland, for instance, where a plastic bag tax was introduced in 2002, plastic bag use reportedly dropped by more than 90 percent in just a few weeks. In San Jose, California, a 2011 plastic bag ban resulted in a reduction of plastic litter by “approximately 89 percent in the storm drain system, 60 percent in the creeks and rivers, and 59 percent in City streets and neighborhoods,” stated a city report released almost a year after the ban was put in place.

Find out more about plastic bag legislation around the country and how you can get involved by visiting the Plastic Bag Laws website.

Support companies that offer solutions to reduce, reuse and recycle plastics

Use your dollar to support companies and entrepreneurs that are doing their part to reduce plastic waste in their business. <br /><br />They might be rethinking product design, like <a href="https://www.treehugger.com/organic-beauty/switch-fresh-has-invented-refillable-reusable-deodorant-stick.html" target="_blank">this deodorant brand</a> with its reusable, refillable containers; or incorporating recycled materials into their goods, like <a href="http://goodonyou.eco/ultimate-guide-ethical-activewear-2017/" target="_blank">activewear companies</a> that are turning <a href="http://www.thegoodtrade.com/features/your-comprehensive-guide-to-ethically-made-athletic-wear-brands" target="_blank">plastic bottles into clothing</a> or social enterprises like <a href="http://www.greensole.in/" target="_blank">Greensole</a> (pictured) that recycles old shoes into new ones.<br /><br />There are also companies out there that are attempting to reduce waste across their entire value chain. Take Dell, which is recycling old computers into new ones as part of its <a href="http://www.dell.com/learn/us/en/uscorp1/corp-comm/closed-loop-recycled-content" target="_blank">closed-loop recycling supply chain</a>. The company has also started <a href="http://www.dell.com/learn/us/en/id/press-releases/2017-02-22-dell-announces-ocean-plastics-shipment" target="_blank">harvesting ocean plastics</a> to turn it into packaging material.  <br /><br />Consider also supporting green groups like <a href="5gyres.org" target="_blank">5Gyres</a>, <a href="oceanconservancy.com" target="_blank">Ocean Conservancy</a> and <a href="https://www.theoceancleanup.com/" target="_blank">The Ocean Cleanup</a>, which are leading the fight to clean up the world’s oceans.
Use your dollar to support companies and entrepreneurs that are doing their part to reduce plastic waste in their business.

They might be rethinking product design, like this deodorant brand with its reusable, refillable containers; or incorporating recycled materials into their goods, like activewear companies that are turning plastic bottles into clothing or social enterprises like Greensole (pictured) that recycles old shoes into new ones.

There are also companies out there that are attempting to reduce waste across their entire value chain. Take Dell, which is recycling old computers into new ones as part of its closed-loop recycling supply chain. The company has also started harvesting ocean plastics to turn it into packaging material.  

Consider also supporting green groups like 5Gyres, Ocean Conservancy and The Ocean Cleanup, which are leading the fight to clean up the world’s oceans.

Engage your family and friends

Waste is not an issue people often talk about, but for change to occur, the conversations need to start.<br /><br />“This is a critical issue that’s tied up in so many other environmental concerns,” said Minter. “Yet people seem to have an aversion to it. They just don’t take much of an interest. Where’s the Paris <i>landfill</i> conference? You don’t see environmental groups flying celebrities into anywhere to talk about waste.”<br /><br />The dialogue can begin in your own home and among your own friends. Start engaging your loved ones and your community on this important issue.
Waste is not an issue people often talk about, but for change to occur, the conversations need to start.

“This is a critical issue that’s tied up in so many other environmental concerns,” said Minter. “Yet people seem to have an aversion to it. They just don’t take much of an interest. Where’s the Paris landfill conference? You don’t see environmental groups flying celebrities into anywhere to talk about waste.”

The dialogue can begin in your own home and among your own friends. Start engaging your loved ones and your community on this important issue.

Track your progress

Start paying attention to the amount of plastic you use and waste on a daily basis. And as you start cutting back on your consumption, jot down a tally of all the plastics you “save.” You’ll likely be amazed.<br /><br />Ocean Conservancy also has a <a href="http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2016/05/24/join-the-fight-for-trash-free-seas-with-clean-swell/" target="_blank">Clean Swell App</a> which lets you track your beach cleanup efforts. It lets you share your progress on social media and to submit data directly into a global ocean trash database. 
Start paying attention to the amount of plastic you use and waste on a daily basis. And as you start cutting back on your consumption, jot down a tally of all the plastics you “save.” You’ll likely be amazed.

Ocean Conservancy also has a Clean Swell App which lets you track your beach cleanup efforts. It lets you share your progress on social media and to submit data directly into a global ocean trash database. 

This article originally appeared on HuffPost.

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