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Where Do Recycled Items Go? What Happens After You Toss Your Trash?

Many people believe that the trash they throw away will be dealt with domestically; however, that is not always the case. With global plastic waste reaching 8.3 metric tons annually, many wealthy countries have become overwhelmed by the amount of plastic waste that they have accumulated (Park, 2018). To solve the trash dilemma, some countries have devised a plan to ship their trash to other countries, in exchange for monetary compensation. China, Malaysia, and Thailand have agreed to accept these unwanted items with the intention of sorting the waste from the recyclables. Unfortunately, much of the recyclables become contaminated during shipment—rendering batches of otherwise recyclable items unrecyclable.

Plastic Production

To understand the dilemma we’re facing, it’s essential to recognize how much our plastic consumption has increased over the years. From 1964 to 2014, global plastic production increased from 16.5 million tons of plastic to 343 million tons of plastic (Cho, 2017). As if this number was not detrimental enough, plastic consumption is estimated to double by the year 2036 (Cho, 2017).

Shipping Litter Overseas

cargo ship carrying shipping containers over the ocean

To solve this plastic problem, countries such as the United States have begun to pay China to take their recyclables and other trash off their hands. The original plan was to ship these items overseas where recyclables would be sorted from waste at low labor costs. By accepting these imports, China would increase its revenue, and save other countries from dealing with the problem themselves.

China’s strategy was to sort the recyclables from the non-recyclables—then throw the non-recyclables in a landfill or burn it to produce energy. While this worked for a while, the collection of trash became too overwhelming for them to handle. By January of 2018, China declared a ban on all imports of trash and other debris. As a last-ditch effort, the U.S. and others began to ship containers of trash to Southeast Asia, to countries such as Malaysia and Thailand. Unfortunately, these countries also began to feel the strain of these imports.

Recycling Issues

landfill full of trash

More times than not, recyclable and non-recyclable items are not separated before the residue of food and liquids contaminate the entire batch. When this happens, the workers that separate trash at the recycling plant must toss everything into a trash pile. This causes plants to become oversaturated with an ever-increasing collection of rubbish.

While contaminated recyclables are a significant issue, many countries are also faced with a multitude of single-use plastic containers that are not widely acceptable to recycle. On the bottom of each plastic container, you will find a triangle with a number inside of it, indicating what type of plastic it is. Here’s where you need to pay close attention because only two of these seven types of plastics are widely accepted at most recycling plants. According to an article released by Columbia University, both polythene terephthalate (PET) and high-density polyethylene (HDPE) are the most widely recycled plastics. PET plastics create water bottles, while HDPE is used to create jugs and bottle caps (Cho, 2017).

Now think of all the things that you have thrown into your recycling bin with the belief that all plastics are created equal such as, plastic bubble wrap, straws, single-use toiletries, toothbrushes, etc. While your effort to help the environment is noteworthy, tossing incorrect or contaminated items in the recycling bin can create havoc for the foreign countries accepting the materials.

The Solution

What if, instead of recycling plastic, we eliminated our single-use plastic consumption? Think about it, as a consumer; you have the final say of what companies choose to produce and how they package their products. When you refuse to purchase items that are not made or packaged sustainably, then producers will start to make more eco-friendly adjustments to their brands. Just remember, it only takes a single person to start a ripple effect that can inspire change around the world.


Cho, Renee (2017). What Happens to All That Plastic? State of the Planet. Retrieved from

Joyce, Christopher (2019). Where Will Your Plastic Trash Go Now That China Doesn’t Want It? National Public Radio. Retrieved from

Park, Laura (2018). Here’s How Much Plastic Trash Is Littering The Earth. National Geographic. Retrieved from

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