Earth Day 2018: Pollution From Plastic Is Drastic

Turn to the nation's most objective and informative daily environmental news resource to learn how the United States and key players around the world are responding to the environmental...

By Marissa Horn

“Reduce. Reuse. Recycle.” You’ve seen those words above trash cans in your workplace, or on kids’ television shows teaching future generations about how we can close the loop on recycling plastic and other materials.

Organizers of Earth Day—April 22—chose this year to focus on plastic materials, which are a problem because of their “un-biodegradable nature,” according to the Earth Day Network. Only 12 percent of those materials are recycled; more than three-quarters end up in landfills.

Towns, cities, and entire countries have taken steps to increase the recycling of plastic, or have just outright banned the product. China also took steps to ban importing recyclables Jan. 1, leaving tens of thousands of tons of recyclables to be diverted to U.S. landfills in recent months as the reality of the new ban on certain types of imported waste takes hold.

Companies also are joining in on the movement to recycle more. McDonald’s and Coca-Cola both announced initiatives in January aimed at reducing the amount of packing waste in their global operations.

McDonald’s set a target to make 100 percent of its consumer packaging from “renewable, recyclable, and certified materials” by 2025, while Coca-Cola declared its goal to recycle the equivalent of 100 percent of its packaging by 2030. For every bottle or can the company sells globally, it wants to take one back.

Let’s take a look back at the first few months of 2018 to see what countries and companies are doing to make a difference—good or bad—in the realm of recycling plastic.

1. U.S. Recycling Woes Pile Up as China Escalates Ban
China has been by far the largest market for U.S scrap exports and its crackdown—now several months old—has both U.S. and global waste collectors scrambling to find new markets for their recyclables to avoid disrupting curbside collection services.

A pile of recycled cardboard sits on the ground at Recology’s Recycle Central on Jan. 4, 2018 in San Francisco.
Photographer: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

2. Quebec to Help Recyclers Hit by Chinese Import Limits
Quebec will lend a financial hand to beleaguered recycling centers hit by recent Chinese rule changes that are reorganizing the global trade in recycled goods.

Computer chips and bits of scrap metal await processing at Falconbridge’s Horne copper smelter in Rouyn-Noranda, Quebec, Canada on July 20, 2006.
Photographer: Norm Betts/Bloomberg via Getty Images

3. ‘Banning the Bag’ Won’t Fix Ocean Plastic Problem, Manufacturers Say
Each year, more than 8 million metric tons of plastic end up in oceans, endangering marine wildlife, fisheries, and tourism. Unless something changes, by 2025 the oceans will hold about one ton of plastic for every three tons of finfish, according to estimates from the Ocean Conservancy.

Plastic trash litters the beach in Prestwick, Scotland.
Photographer: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

4. EU Pushes Drinking Water Updates as Counter to Plastic Bottles
Water suppliers faced a host of new pollution limits as the European Union mulled plans to promote public access to free tap water as a means of discouraging single-use bottles.

Bottles of Vittel water move along a production line at bottling plant.
Photographer: Jean-Christophe Verhaegen/AFP/Getty Images

5. Mexican City’s Plastic Bag Ban a Start, But Won’t Solve Problem
A plastic bag ban that took effect April 1 in the northern Mexican city of Queretaro got a thumbs up from environmentalists, but some question whether it actually does much to help the environment.

An scavenger classifies refuse in front of a pile of compacted bales of plastic bottles at the ‘Bordo Poniente’ garbage dump in Mexico City.
Photographer: Yuri Cortez/AFP/Getty Images

6. Microplastics in EU Products Under Regulatory Microscope
Tiny plastic particles intentionally added to products sold in the European Union are under the regulatory microscope as the bloc’s chemicals agency seeks data and comment on their use in cosmetics, detergents, paints, and other items.

Cosmetics are displayed at a pharmacy in Paris Nov. 27, 2017.
Photographer: Stephane de Sakutin/AFP/Getty Images

7. Plastics Industry Opposes Patchwork of Rules as Bag Bans Expand
The plastics manufacturing industry and environmental activists don’t want plastic bags to go to waste, but they disagree on the steps needed to ensure that the material doesn’t end up in landfills or the ocean after one use.

A pedestrian carries a single-use plastic bag while shopping in Los Angeles on June 24, 2014.
Photographer: Kevork Djansezian/Bloomberg via Getty Images

8. Keep Trash Out of Anacostia River, Court Tells D.C., Maryland
Maryland and Washington will need a new plan to prevent trash from entering the Anacostia River if they are to comply with the Clean Water Act.

Stairs to a floating dock are seen along the Anacostia River on May 16, 2016, in Washington.
Photographer: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

9. Australian Recyclers Feeling Crushed by China’s New Rules
Australia’s recycling industry is in crisis mode and faces uncertainty as China’s tough new restrictions on imports of recyclables disrupt their business model.

A bulldozer moves garbage in a landfill cell at the Melbourne Regional Landfill site, operated by at Cleanaway Waste Management Ltd., the nation’s largest garbage company, in Ravenhall, Victoria, Australia, on June 14, 2017.
Photographer: Carla Gottgens/Bloomberg via Getty Images

10. Olympic Athletes Going for Gold—But Not at Green Ice Rinks
And now for something that uses plastic—not in bags, but on ice. Organizers of the Winter Games in South Korea set a goal of becoming the first zero-emissions event in Olympics history. But the refrigerants that were used in the Pyeongchang ice arenas are some of the most potent climate-warming chemicals on the market.

Russia’s Olga Sosina controls the puck against Kali Flanagan of the U.S. Feb. 13 at Kwandong Hockey Centre in Gangneung, South Korea.
Photographer: Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

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