Here's What *Really* Happens When You Toss a Bottle in the Recycling Bin

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Malaysia has a message for the rest of the world: It’s not a trash can anymore.

For years, richer countries have been sending containers full of plastic waste to Malaysia so they wouldn’t have to deal with it. But the country’s environmental minister says that era is over.

Earlier this month, Malaysia not only refused to pay for 150 containers full of plastic waste, but also demanded they be shipped them back to the countries they came from, including 42 back to the United Kingdom and 17 to the U.S. The environmental minister, Yeo Bee Win, told reporters “If people want to see us as the rubbish dump of the world, you dream on.”

Wait ... Why Was Malaysia Getting Our Junk?

Mostly because China started refusing it. But ... why was China getting our junk? Well, they were buying it. When recycling bins in places like sporting arenas and school cafeterias filled to the brim with Diet Coke bottles and newspapers, the U.S. would sell it to China. There, pickers would sort through the waste at far cheaper rates than pickers would in other countries, and sorted the materials so that some of the plastic waste and paper could be sent to facilities that would sustainably reuse them.

But in 2017, China announced that by the end of the year they wouldn’t be buying most of our trash, in an effort to cut down on pollution. So the U.S. had to figure out what to do with it. Some gets incinerated and some gets sent to landfills; both are bad options since they create harmful carbon emissions. And some got sent to Malaysia. Until now.

The areas that are hit the hardest in the U.S. with recent bans from China and Malaysia are small towns, since most have programs that encourage their citizens to recycle, but then can’t afford to pay the higher prices that legitimate recycling programs command. In short, tossing a plastic bottle in a blue bin does give that bottle a new life – just maybe not the one you think you’re giving it.

But it’s Not Just China or Malaysia’s Fault

China and Malaysia are taking stands against being the garbage dumps of the world. And with or without their programs, only a dismal percent of the world’s plastic was recycled anyway. Now, as global citizens in a planet with a massive garbage problem, we have to figure out ways to take stands like China and Malaysia are doing, and most importantly, to reduce.

The situation is pretty grim. But there are still some things you can do to try to make sure as much of your waste as possible gets recycled. Here are a few:

  • Know Your Local Laws: Every city in the U.S. decides how they recycle a little differently. Figure out where your town’s trash gets sent. There could be a nearby site where you can drop off even a small percentage of the waste that your family or classmates create, or you could find a local organization or small business that’s working to reuse different types of waste.
  • Clean Off Your Recycling: Part of the reason that China and Malaysia started refusing plastic trash is that Americans kind of suck at cleaning off their bottles and cans before they chuck them in the blue bin. You don’t have to give them a full soapy wash, but do a rinse and rip off any labels before tossing it in a recycling bin. It’s no guarantee it will end up reused, recycled or reclaimed. But if a bottle is free of gunk like leftover tomato sauce or drops of sugary soda, the less likely it is to contaminate the items around it and the more likely it is to make it into the small pile of bottles that get used for recycling initiatives.
  • Reduce: Since trash is already a massive problem, it’s responsible to think about the ways you can minimize the ways you cause waste. See if there are small sacrifices you can make, like remembering to carry around reusable water bottles and tote bags instead of using single-use plastic, bringing your own sustainable takeout container to a restaurant for your doggy bag, carrying your own bamboo utensils instead of using plastic ones in cafeterias or fast food joints and switching to plastic-free gum.

It's tough to get down to zero waste, but with everyone taking concrete steps to reduce and be conscious consumers, we can do our part to make sure other countries don't turn into our rubbish dumps.

About the Author

Rachelle Dragani is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn with extensive experience covering the latest innovation and development in the world of science. Her pieces on topics including DNA sequencing, tissue engineering and stem cell advances have been featured in publications including BioTechniques: the International Journal of Life Science Methods, Popular Mechanics, Futurism and Gizmodo.