The global recycling industry pollutes low-income communities.
Most plastic is not recycled in the first place – only about 9% of what is created – and the plastic yogurt cups, food containers, bottles and bags that are called recycled exacerbate a complex problem that is largely invisible in the world.
The global trade in plastic waste sends plastics from mostly wealthy nations to developing countries, passing the burden of plastic pollution. Trade disproportionately impacts women, people living in low-income countries and people of color. It’s also responsible for a ton of greenhouse gas emissions — carbon emissions from plastic waste shipped overseas from the US alone equal the annual emissions of 26,000 cars. It’s absolutely better to recycle plastic than toss it in the trash — recycling a plastic bottle uses 76% less energy than making it from scratch — but recycling can create a false sense that single-use plastic is harmless as long as it is processed on something else.
WHAT HAPPENS TO THE PLASTIC YOU RECYCLE?
When you throw something in the trash, you might think it goes to a nearby final destination where it melts and forms into a new bottle or food container. That’s not usually how it happens. Instead, recycled plastic typically takes a long journey, contributing to a heavy carbon load around the world, and goes to the low-income countries that are tasked with sorting the often toxic mess. The contents of your trash can travel up to 13,000 kilometers before reaching a recycling facility. That’s because only a handful of countries are responsible for processing the majority of global plastic waste, and changing policies are constantly changing to which countries plastic waste is being routed.
Estimates vary as to how much and which countries are the biggest contributors to the plastic waste stream, but one thing remains constant. Upper middle-income countries account for almost all plastic waste exports, and low-income countries bear the brunt of the plastic waste burden.
THE AMOUNT THAT HUMANS PAY FOR WASTE PLASTIC
While rich nations produce most of the world’s plastic, marginalized low-income countries are predominantly tasked with disposing of it.
A report published in 2021 documented the cost this waste route takes on people living in low-income countries. While most countries now ban the importation of anything but the highest quality plastics, that does not stop wealthy nations like the US, the world’s biggest plastic waste producer, from sending their cheap waste to countries that haven’t yet imposed their restrictions.
As a result, plastic waste from high-income countries contaminates water supplies, kills crops, causes respiratory illness from exposure to burning plastic, and fuels the rise of organized crime in areas that accept plastic waste shipments. And once it arrives, the most socially marginalized people – often women – are the most affected.
Women are more likely to work as informal waste collectors than in formal waste management and reports show that in informal waste management economies, highly recyclable and therefore more valuable plastics are typically reserved for men in African countries, Latin America and Asia. If women sell these types of plastics, they are often paid less for them than a man would. So, in the end, women are paid less for working in the same toxic environment as men.
CELEBRATING MARGINALIZED SCAVENGERS
For now, the global waste trade is how rich nations deal with plastic. It is not a solution, but it is still important to highlight the people at the end of the line who currently play a critical role in reducing plastic pollution around the world. In India, around 2.2 million people work as informal waste pickers. The work is typically done by people from marginalized groups and people from lower castes. The implications of informal waste management are complicated. The industry creates jobs for women and exasperates gender inequality in the plastics industry.
During India’s first pandemic lockdown in 2020, informal waste workers were deemed non-essential. They could not leave the house to work. These people, mostly women, were out of work for four months and plastic waste piled up in landfills, rivers and coastlines.
In Delhi, waste pickers belong mainly to Muslim minorities. And so, women waste pickers face intersectional discrimination along the lines of gender, caste, religion and occupation. But they provide the essential service to prevent recyclables from ending up in landfills and oceans.
“Often, when we talk about power, we talk about caste, class, gender, race, but we don’t talk about visibility. Those who are the most visible and whose stories are the most articulate are, for the most part, also the most powerful and those on the margins are often left behind.” At the same time, marginalized people play crucial roles in society’s ecosystems. “When we work with communities of women, especially women who have become invisible in some way, we make these huge participatory monuments with them. We have their stories and contributions on record,” Shilo said. “In the process, we change the scale of power.”
WHAT CAN I DO?
Corporations are always at the root of the plastic crisis. In fact, just over 20 companies produce 55% of the world’s single-use plastics. It is your products that create these problems in the first place. Change the way you buy and these companies will change your product.
If you have to use single-use plastic, do not recycle low-grade plastics like food containers, fruit bags, styrofoam or plastic cups to go. These are cheap and often cannot be recycled, so you end up sending your garbage across the world and making it someone else’s problem. Source: https://www.parley.tv/updates/parleyair-socialjusticerecycling