Plastics, China, and the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Oh My!

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I heard recently that more jobs are being sent overseas. This time, our garbage is what China is after. More and more, the plastics in our garbage our going to China to be recycled. With low environmental standards, wages and a high tolerance for child labor, the US and Britain find themselves passing off their recyclables to China.

No detailed studies have been done of the environmental costs of shipping vast quantities of waste from Britain to China, but environment groups and MPs were yesterday shocked at the scale of the trade. “Exporting lightweight packaging waste to China makes little sense environmentally,” said Liberal Democrat MP Sue Doughty. “It is a failure of the UK recycling market which allows the UK to export plastic for recycling. We have no control over environmental standards in China. Instead of solving the problem we are exporting it.

Another great article, if you have time to read, details the many aspects of this growing problem very nicely.

“Right now, a lot of our material is indeed baled and shipped off-shore,” said Calvin Young, market development specialist with the state Integrated Waste Management Board. “We all hear the horror stories, but there’s not a lot of verified information” about working conditions in China or elsewhere, he said. A spokeswoman for the waste board, which manages California’s solid waste stream, said the state’s hands are tied. “Once you release the material and another person buys it, you can’t tell them what to do with it,” said Roni Java.

Low conversion rate

What is clear is that plastic recycling presents myriad problems. In addition to safety and environmental questions, technological and economic hurdles have complicated plastics recycling efforts in the United States. The result: Plastic containers get turned into new products at a much lower rate than glass bottles or aluminum cans. The can you recycle today, for instance, will make its way back to the supermarket shelf in just six weeks. Because of health concerns, a plastic bottle will never become another plastic bottle. Recyclers often have a hard time making ends meet because the demand from manufacturers for recycled plastic — and, consequently, the money paid for it — is considerably less than for virgin material.

Another growing problem, literally, is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a patch of garbage floating around the Pacific Ocean that is about twice the size of the state of Texas (or about half a million square miles).

This is a very informative article from Best of Life online with pictures that aren’t for the faint-hearted.

photo of deformed sea turtle
At the same time, all over the globe, there are signs that plastic pollution is doing more than blighting the scenery; it is also making its way into the food chain. Some of the most obvious victims are the dead seabirds that have been washing ashore in startling numbers, their bodies packed with plastic: things like bottle caps, cigarette lighters, tampon applicators, and colored scraps that, to a foraging bird, resemble baitfish. (One animal dissected by Dutch researchers contained 1,603 pieces of plastic.) And the birds aren’t alone. All sea creatures are threatened by floating plastic, from whales down to zooplankton. There’s a basic moral horror in seeing the pictures: a sea turtle with a plastic band strangling its shell into an hourglass shape; a humpback towing plastic nets that cut into its flesh and make it impossible for the animal to hunt. More than a million seabirds, 100,000 marine mammals, and countless fish die in the North Pacific each year, either from mistakenly eating this junk or from being ensnared in it and drowning.

I read an article in Popular Science about 1-2 years ago about a new form of recycling using plasma technology. It is fascinating! It would seem we have a very viable win-win situation for some of our garbage problems. However, like the oil industry, kicking out the old and not good for us to make room for the new, innovative and better is not as easy as it should be. The same problems that stymie the energy industry stymie the garbage industry; kicking out the fat cats that make money off of problems.

Here is my idea for a plan to help stop and fix the GPGP. Have a group of environmentally conscious countries set up a coalition to fund one of these plasma recyclers to be on a ship or a platform like they use for oil drilling. Start “dredging” the misc. garbage out there in the gyre’s. Let the countries that fund the project get the by-product Hydrogen fuel and solid recycled waste to be used for industry by percent contributed. They may or may not financially come ahead, but the alternatives to leaving it to grow will be a far greater debt we will pay later.

UPDATED on April 26, 2009.

3 thoughts on “Plastics, China, and the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Oh My!

  1. Wow – fantastic post and I like your idea about a group of environmentally conscious countries. I just met with a financial planner who will be investing my retirement funds into socially conscious investments and then I came here to read this. Good research. All this pollution breaks my heart. We recycle everything that we can including styrofoam. I’m hoping that the person that has the recycling center knows what happens to the plastic. He does sell items made from recyclables at the re-cycle center.

    Plastic is having a terrible impact on the environment. Thanks for bringing up this topic. I’ll be attaching a link to this from PA 4 change.

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