Waste Inequality


 

Imagine, you’re out exploring New York City, taking in the sights and sounds of the city, and you just finished your bottle of water.  You look to throw it away in a recycling bin, but you can’t find one anywhere, so you throw it in the trash can.  You think, “a worker will take it out when they sort the trash and they’ll recycle it, right”?  Wrong.  There is only a small chance that your water bottle will be recycled, but it's more likely that your water bottle will take a trip overseas to get sorted and recycled.  Unfortunately, this is the fate of most solid waste in the United States and many other developed countries in Europe and Asia.  

Why does this happen?  Why can’t they sort the trash in a facility in the .U.S. and recycle it there?  Well, it's often cheaper for companies to send the trash overseas where developing countries, like India, Vietnam, or Malaysia will buy, sort, then sell the recyclables to companies for repurposing. So everybody wins, right? The developing countries have somewhere to put their trash, and the developing countries have another source of income.  Unfortunately, it's much deeper than that, as this creates waste inequality. 

 With this current set up, developed countries can send their trash to developing countries for them to deal with, thinking that their trash will be recycled and managed accordingly.  However, developing countries have to deal with huge amounts of imported waste on top of their own, and they’re starting to run out of space and the capacity to take in all of the trash.  Some are also getting contaminated shipments, making it increasingly difficult to sort the recyclables from the nonrecyclables.  Others have even received shipments labeled recyclable waste, but were in fact just piles and piles of trash.  As a result of pollution and the rising difficulty of recycling soiled goods, China had to close down, forcing smaller developing countries to take on the brunt of the waste situation.  And with that huge flow of plastic comes many other issues.  Developed countries, like Canada, have labeled containers of trash as recyclable waste and sent them over to the Philippines.  But, the president of the Philippines said he would send back 69 containers of garbage to Canada to be left in international waters if Canada doesn't accept them.  If they do this, close to 140 metric tons of waste will end up in the oceans, creating further ocean pollution and reversing the progress we’ve made on cleaning up our oceans.  

As of 2019, an ocean plastic clean up company, 4ocean, has removed 4.7 million pounds (2100 tons) of plastic since 2017.  Furthermore, these shipments can become contaminated on their journey to recycling, making it more difficult and resource-intensive to process the waste.  For example, according to the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA), bodies of water in the worst affected villages in Malaysia, Indonesia, and Thailand have registered dangerous levels of zinc, iron, and lead. According to an interview conducted by wastetradestories with a local in Malaysia, “... the pollution became the talk of the town. She heard one farmer’s prawns had all died; crops wilted in the fields of others…”  showing that the pollution is a threat to local livelihoods.  

The other issue is the environmental impact of shipping waste overseas.  According to a study in 2015 by the International Council on Clean Transportation, shipping accounted for around 3% of the world’s total CO2 emissions, around 812 million tons.  Shipping 69 containers of waste from Canada to the Philippines would emit close to 40 tons, which does seem low but does not account for a lot of the environmental effects that come from maritime shipping.  These effects include air pollution, ballast water (the water used to balance a ship) contaminating habitats, oil and chemical spills and so much more. 

Shipping vessels release exhaust into the air, and that exhaust contains not only carbon dioxide, but nitrogen oxides(NOx), sulfur oxides(SOx) and carbon monoxide(CO).  NOx causes eutrophication, which is when a body of water becomes overly enriched with minerals that allows the excessive growth of algae.  These growths, called algae blooms, can produce toxins that are harmful to animals and people.  SOx when oxidized, will form sulfuric acid, a major cause of acid rain.  Acid rain will kill crops and plants with its high pH levels.  Ballast water, the water used to balance ships, are often collected in one region and can contain microorganisms native to that region.  When the ballast water is expelled during the journey, these organisms are released into a new ecosystem and become invasive species.  Invasive species cause the native ecosystem to lose biodiversity and disrupt the habitat and the food chain, causing issues for the native organisms in the area. 

So what can we do about this situation?  

  • Cut down on our waste, whether organic or inorganic.  One of the most common items in landfills and trash are single-use plastic water bottles. Instead of buying a 24 pack of water bottles, choose to buy a reusable water bottle and fill it up whenever you run out of water.  
  • Recycle correctly.  If you don’t know if something is recyclable, look it up!  Throwing it in with your recycling causes more harm than good because it contaminates the recycling and causes the waste management companies more money to wash and recycle it.  Also, wash out your recyclables before putting them in the bin!  The residues make the plastics less valuable to recycle and more likely to be thrown away.  Every state has different recycling policies, but below are some links that can help you get a gist of what is recyclable and what is not.
About Megan:
Megan is a junior chemical engineering major studying at Stevens Institute of Technology.  She’s really passionate about sustainability and hopes that with her degree she will be able to help make the transition from fossil fuels and our current technologies to more sustainable methods of producing energy that will help reduce climate change. 

At Saathi, we developed all-natural biodegradable and compostable sanitary pads made of banana and bamboo fiber which are good for the body, community and environment. When you purchase Saathi pads, you are not just getting a soft, rash-free product, but you’re also helping an Indian farmer, enabling a village girl to attend school because she has access to pads, and reducing plastic pollution and CO2 emissions!

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