The explosion of plastic in our everyday lives has contributed to a relentless growth in waste, and while many people try their best to recycle their trash, a new report estimated that the US only recycles between five and six per cent of the plastic it produces. While the rate is a drop from the 8.7 per cent tallied in 2018, what is actually happening is the statistics more accurately describe how much plastic had always been recycled. The numbers now reflect China’s ban on plastic waste imports introduced in 2018. According to the report from two American advocacy groups, The Last Beach Cleanup and Beyond Plastics, American recycling statistics counted exported plastic waste as “recycled” , despite the reality that, once they left US shores, they were more likely to be burned or dumped than recycled. The US plastics recycling rate peaked at 9.5 per cent in 2014, and a large chunk of that was exported to China. Jan Dell, the lead author of the report said the Chinese ban was a positive move because it forced wealthy countries to “get real” about how much pollution they were creating. “When China accepted millions of tons of imported mixed waste plastic, it gave a false perception that most plastics were recyclable when they never really were,” said Dell, who has worked with companies in southern China since 1987. “In 2018, when China’s ban took effect, the US plastics industry claimed that there would be new investment in plastic recycling across the US. That did not happen, as only a few new plastic bottle recycling facilities were built,” she said. China imported 8.88 million tons of plastic waste before the ban, and a January 2021 study in Nature Communications , a peer-reviewed journal, found that 70.6 per cent of this waste was either buried or mismanaged. Dana Winograd, co-founder and Director-Operations of Plastic Free Seas, a Hong Kong charity, said: “There is still a long way to go before many countries are able to handle all of their waste properly”. “After China’s 2018 ban, countries found other destinations to send their waste to, which did not have as strict regulations as China. The same problems that caused China to stop importing plastic waste were then transferred to other countries,” she said. Edwin Lau Che-feng, executive director of The Green Earth, a Hong Kong advocacy group, said: “The good news was that China no longer had to manage contaminated plastic that had degraded China’s environment and its people’s health for decades. The bad news is that some nations shifted their plastic scrap exports to other Asian countries.” Statistics from the Nature Communications study supported the experts comments. Since the ban, the proportion of plastic waste exports to five Southeast Asian countries – Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Philippines – soared from the US (5.24 per cent to 46.5 per cent), Japan (4.34 per cent to 55.9 per cent) and a group of seven European countries (6.1 per cent to 33.0 per cent). The European countries were Germany, the UK, Belgium, Spain, Italy, France, and Netherlands. That being said, the study pointed to an overall drop in plastic waste exports from those countries since 2018. Total plastic waste exports from the US dropped by 54. 1 per cent, Japan saw a 39.2 per cent drop and the group of seven European countries experienced 29.9 per cent less plastic waste exports. Some of that drop could be attributed to the Covid-19 pandemic, as international shipping became more challenging due to national restrictions that varied from country to country. Countries like Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines filled the plastic waste trade void left by China. Still, if the numbers published by Nature remain the same in the coming years, it would indicate that they are not handling the volume of waste that China once did. Dell, from The Last Beach Cleanup, was very clear to say that, while plastic recycling appears to be floundering, other materials like paper, cardboard, metals and fibres have adapted after an initial period of havoc in the immediate aftermath of China’s ban. “Those post-consumer wastes have real value and are needed to make new products. It is a different story for plastics because post-consumer plastic waste has low-to-no value and costs more to recycle than creating new plastic,” she said. The core argument of Dell’s report is that plastic recycling is not a viable solution to the problem. The report asserts that the best way to solve our plastic addiction is to reduce the volume being produced and consumed through policies like plastic bag bans, building water refill stations to reduce bottled water and creating programmes to encourage the food industry to use reusable products. Winograd, from the Hong Kong charity, echoed these sentiments, and said governments can help by implementing regulations to reduce excessive packaging and “switch to reusable models instead of continuing our reliance on single-use [plastics]”. Dell said a major mindset shift would go a long way, arguing that once people realise that plastic is largely unrecyclable, it will help change behaviours. “The greenwashing of plastic as recyclable is the greatest greenwashing hoax of all time,” she said.