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The War Against Trash

The United States' quarter-century-long waste management agreements with China, and neighboring Southeast Asian nations, have finally reached their limits. China’s heightened regulations, as of 2017, have had global implications as many countries struggle to meet the new contamination standard. As China has grown to become an economic powerhouse, its willingness to accept recyclables at a low quality of cleanliness has become an unprofitable practice. Before that of the 2017 regulations, only 9 percent of the materials were correctly processed and recycled. The rate of plastic imports and the high cost of recycling in regard to what was able to be salvaged for reuse began to pose a deficit in the Chinese market. As recyclables are a commodity, prices fluctuate based on a variety of factors including the price of crude oil, due to the fact that plastics are a petroleum based product. Currently, fossil fuels are the current feedstock for around 98% of the world's single use plastic. The price volatility of crude oil is largely responsible for the cost of producing and recycling plastics. The high expense of recycling plastic materials, paired with environmental devastation and severe public health implications, proved to be widely unsustainable for China. An estimated 1.24 million people died from the poisonous effects of exposure to air pollution in 2017 alone. Stricter regulations not only became desirable, but necessary. The rejection of trash by foreign processing centers clarified the crippling overreliance on Chinese management, as there still is no alternative or secondary market comparable to that of China. Even Southeast-Asian processing centers began to deny the overflow of trash as they found themselves unequipped to handle the increased volume of waste. The dependency of waste management on markets abroad has prevented the development of recycling infrastructure domestically, which leaves the United States economically and politically unprepared to deal with the excess of trash.

The scramble to find domestic disposal sites resulted in the abandonment of many recycling programs. Without the proper infrastructure, only two million tons of plastics were recycled out of the 40 million tons generated in 2021. This equates to a mere 5 to 6 percent of properly treated waste while 85 percent of recyclables were sent to landfills and ten percent were incinerated. While plastic production is still on the rise, the accumulation of plastic waste continues to grow in tandem especially as it does not decompose and will only continue to build as recycling programs can not keep up with production in tandem with the halt of waste processing centers abroad. The mismanagement of plastic waste can no longer be dealt with within the treatment and disposal stage.We must intervene at the root of the issue: production. Through direct action, the crisis can be impeded in order to prevent a snowball effect as the technologies to break down the large volume of plastic polymers can be solidified. Promoting societal change through adopting more sustainable practices, and shifting away from a culture of disposability, is not impossible. During World War Two, recycling was a form of propaganda to help wartime efforts and was seriously ingrained into the average American’s practice. The psychological effect of nationalism instated green practices and conscious exercise of sorting trash for the efficiency or ease of the recycling process. Recycling was metaphorically weaponized, as its potential to better our homefront was emphasized by the American government. United under the activity of recycling, every scrap was deemed important and reusable, rather than turning towards a larger rate in production. The startling and persuasive effects of nationalism can be used to better our environment while also strengthening our domestic waste management infrastructure which will simultaneously reinforce national security. The mentality of society can be altered to move away from the pervasive use of plastic, but it is necessary to implement policy to ensure a complete adherence from plastic commodities. Policies to incentivize biodegradable materials and funding of decarbonization movements is the most important step in transforming the energy landscape. Federal statute can allow for a concrete solution to a circular economy by mandating alternatives to plastics in order to heal the environment and begin to untie the chokehold of crude oil on the US economy.


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