Forget the trade war, China won't take our plastic anymore

While speculation about the trade war with China reaches a fevered pitch, its most glaring consequence concerns an export that ended months ago, before the trade war even started: mountains of our discarded plastic bottles, old newspapers and other waste.

For years, China has been the planet’s premier dumping ground for recyclable plastics and scrap paper, processing 106 million tons of plastic waste from the United States and other industrialized countries since 1992. The millions of tons of scrap paper and plastic waste the U.S. sent to China every year makes it our sixth largest export to that country.

That ended in January, when China decided that it would no longer act as the “world’s garbage dump.” Now, across the nation, the plastic waste we dutifully deposit in recycling bins is piling up in ports or being sent to incinerators and landfills, including in Baltimore County, where about a third of our recycling gets dumped as trash instead. Eventually plastic trash makes its way into the environment, where it can linger indefinitely.

We’ve already polluted our planet with so much plastic that plastic waste has been found in the most remote parts of the world, from the deepest waters of the Pacific Ocean to sea ice floating in the Arctic. Recently, researchers discovered tiny bits of plastic lurking in nine of 17 water samples collected off the once-pristine waters of the Antarctic Peninsula. Here in Maryland, one national magazine called the Chesapeake Bay “plastic soup.”

With the export of our plastic waste to China off the table, it is time to get serious about reducing the volume of waste we produce. And the good news is we don’t have to wait for our political leaders in Washington D.C. or Annapolis to take action: There’s a lot we can do to right now at the local level.

First, we can ban polystyrene containers wherever they’re still in use. Across Baltimore County, residents take home prepared foods, drinks and other items in such containers, over 90 percent of which ends up in landfills. These foam containers take up crucial space in our landfills and harm fish, birds and human health when they enter the food chain. Even worse, polystyrene containers that are incinerated releases styrene gas, a known carcinogen. Already, Baltimore County sends 215 tons of solid waste to the Wheelaborator Baltimore incinerator in Baltimore City. Incineration of this waste exacts an annual $55 million toll on public health, as nearby communities exposed to smoke from the incinerator suffer a 20 percent increased risk of lung cancer, among other health effects.

We can end this. Montgomery County, Prince George’s County and Baltimore City have all banned polystyrene foam containers. Baltimore County and other municipalities across the state should do the same. Many alternatives to polystyrene containers are cheaper, plus they’re reusable and compostable.

We also can implement a beverage-container deposit program. Only 25 percent of the 4.8 billion beverage containers sold in Maryland every year are recycled. While bills to introduce deposit programs, which would provide 5-cent rebates for returned bottles at reverse vending machines, have failed in the Maryland General Assembly, there’s no reason why municipalities can’t start their own.

We can start making composting of food and yard waste easier. Curbside collection of food and yard waste diverts material out of landfills, reduces transportation costs and produces valuable end products that improve the health and water retention of our soils. Howard County already has such a program. The same can be done in other local communities.

Over seven percent of the trash collected by volunteers around the world consists of plastic straws and stirrers. Because of their shape, they’re particularly dangerous for marine life; sea turtles even have been found with plastic straws stuck up their noses. That’s why cities such as Seattle and others are banning plastic straws, and companies from McDonald’s to Bon Appetit are starting to phase them out as well. While some people require straws for health reasons, most of us do not. Why not consider asking our coffee shop owners and restaurants to provide straws by request only or lids that do not require a straw (think Starbucks strawless Nitro Cold Brew lid)?

The truth is, relying on China to process our plastic and paper waste was always an imperfect solution. Taking that option off the table empowers us to start to take control of our impact on our shared environment. The end of our plastic-waste export business to China may be just the kind of change we need.

Colleen Ebacher (colleenebacher@gmail.com) is the Democratic candidate for Baltimore County Council in District 3. Policy consultant Maryanna Price and communications director Sonia Shah provided research and writing assistance.

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