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Opinion

Editorial: China is putting the U.S. to shame in the fight against plastic trash

A waste management worker in Shenyang, China, sorts through plastics collected for recycling.
A waste management worker in Shenyang, China, sorts through plastics collected for recycling.
(European Pressphoto Agency)

Two years ago, China stopped accepting imports of most recyclable plastic and paper. Up until that point, the country had been the world’s biggest importer of single-use plastic discarded by developed countries such as the United States. That move threw the global recycling market into a crisis from which it has still not recovered.

It was a rude awakening for countries trying to deal with their trash, but one that had to come sooner or later. The fact is that recycling efforts weren’t making much of a dent in the ever-increasing production and sales of single-use plastic. Nor was most plastic really being recycled. Most of it — indeed, the vast amount of all the disposable plastic ever produced — was still with us, in some form: buried in landfills, loose in the landscape or filling up the oceans, rivers and lakes. And with China getting out of the market, it seemed, things would get even worse.

Since then, several nations across the globe have announced initiatives to reduce their use of disposable plastic. And this month, China announced what is perhaps the boldest action of all: It will stop the production and sale of all single-use plastic bags and straws and other utensils in major cities by the end of the year, and then work to cut all disposable plastic by 2025, except for bioplastic that can be composted. Even if the country doesn’t reach its goal of zero plastic (a heavy lift even for an authoritarian regime), getting even halfway there would be remarkable. China is the world’s largest generator of single-use plastic waste. We hope that, as part of the effort, the Chinese government will also build the infrastructure for industrial composting of bioplastics. Otherwise, the country will simply be trading one trash problem for another.

Beijing’s announcement should shame the U.S., whose disposable plastic habit is second only to China’s. Instead of bold action, the response of federal environmental officials to the recycling market meltdown was to produce an embarrassing and largely irrelevant plan that focuses on outdated ideas such as encouraging the public and local government to do a better job of recycling. And then do what with it? The “Save Our Seas” plan passed by Congress in 2018 was equally weak, focusing on cleaning up the plastic in our oceans, not stopping it from getting there in the first place. Perhaps someone should tell President Trump that China is winning the war on plastic.

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Even more shameful are the backward steps that some U.S. states have taken to prevent their local governments from adopting plastic-reduction policies. While a number of coastal states such as California and Oregon have adopted bans on specific single-use plastic items such as grocery bags, legislatures in Texas, Arizona and other conservative-leaning states have passed laws, at the behest of the plastics industry, forbidding cities and counties from approving such policies, even though local governments bear the brunt of cleaning up plastic trash.

In this country, the best hope for action on single-use plastic lies with the California Legislature, which is currently considering a comprehensive plastic packaging reduction proposal that would require by 2030 that most products sold in the state be contained in plastic packaging that manufacturers can show is being successfully recycled or composted. If the legislation doesn’t pass, and it really should, anti-waste advocates have launched an initiative to put an even more far-reaching measure on the November ballot that would include a tax on plastic packaging. (They’re gathering signatures now.)

This important legislation would go a long way toward reducing disposable plastic generated in California, but also potentially across the nation. Because California is such a large market for consumer goods, the expectation is that manufacturers of products such as laundry detergent and potato chips would find it more cost effective to retool their packaging for products nationwide, rendering even the most ignorant pro-plastic laws moot.


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