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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 they have accumulated (Park, 2018). So, What Happens After You Toss Your Trash?

A Temporary Solution

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 to sort the waste from the recyclables. Unfortunately, much of the recyclables become contaminated during shipment—rendering batches of otherwise recyclable items unrecyclable.

The History of Plastic Production

To understand our dilemma, we must recognize how much our plastic consumption has increased over the years. From 1964 to 2014, global plastic production increased from 16.5 million tons to 343 million tons (Cho, 2017). With plastic consumption expected to double by 2036, the accumulation of single-use plastic has become detrimental to the environment (Cho, 2017). Since plastic takes anywhere from 500 to 1,000 years to decompose, the plastic we produce today will continue accumulating and wreak havoc on our delicate ecosystem for decades.

Shipping Litter Overseas

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.

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 trash collection 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 trash containers to Southeast Asia, to countries such as Malaysia and Thailand. Unfortunately, these countries also began to feel the strain of these imports.

Recycling Issues

More often than not, recyclable and non-recyclable items are not separated before the residue of food and liquids contaminates the entire batch. When this happens, the workers who 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 many 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, 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 from Columbia University, polyethylene terephthalate (PET) and high-density polyethylene (HDPE) are the most widely recycled plastics. PET plastics create water bottles, while HDPE produces jugs and caps (Cho, 2017).

Now think of all the things 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.

Ending Plastic Waste

What if we eliminated our single-use plastic consumption instead of recycling plastic? Think about it: As a consumer, you have the final say on what companies choose to produce and how they package their products. When you refuse to purchase items that are not made or packaged sustainably, producers will start making more eco-friendly brand adjustments. Remember, it only takes a single person to start a ripple effect that can inspire change worldwide. With a little bit of effort, we could put an end to plastic waste.


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