Where does an empty plastic water bottle go when you throw it into the nearest recycling bin? When the bins are emptied, where does all that trash end up? Most Americans have no idea that it is all being sent to various other countries to be recycled. The garbage is being exported to Asia from several developed nations including the U.S., Canada, France, the U.K., Germany, Spain, Belgium, and the Netherlands. Recently, many Southeast Asian countries have decided to send cargo ships full of trash – much of it is contaminated waste and plastic – back to the western countries that originally sent it to them. Most of the waste being sent to these countries turns out to be unrecyclable, so landfills are increasing, destroying the environment as well as the lives of those living in these countries. China was the first to deny the continuous shipment of trash to themselves, in order to clean up its own environment. Since then, others, such as Malaysia and Cambodia, have been returning our trash and reducing the intake of waste into their countries.

Many workers in these Asian countries make a living sorting through western trash, however, America and other countries have been sending more trash than can be handled. The leaders of the Asian countries have realized that they do not want to continue being a dumping ground, so many have begun to close their recycling centers. They are becoming increasingly aware that the income they receive from importing waste is not as important compared to the great environmental costs the trash is causing. Malaysia’s Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad stated, “We don’t need your waste because our own waste is enough to give us problems.” However, some of the poorer communities in Malaysia, have begun creating their own trash centers, where they are illegally accepting western trash without the consent of their leaders because it is valuable to them and they can make money from reusing it or reselling it.

There is not a lot of information about what is happening once the trash is back in America. Most of it is ending up in recycling centers as workers try their best to sort through it. Unfortunately, we do not know exactly how to recycle everything that comes in, so much of the trash in the recycling centers is not actually being recycled. I feel that the average American is not fully aware of this – we assume that because we have put something into the recycling bin, that it is going to be recycled.

This issue is important to the public at large because we need to stop living in denial. We, as a society, are allowing our own waste to cover the earth’s surface. The public needs to know about where their plastic waste is really going, and the fact that much of it is not actually getting recycled. We need to become more educated on what can and cannot be recycled in order to make the lives of those who work at recycling centers easier, as well as being able to keep our earth clean. Hopefully these news articles on the trash overflow, and the effect that it is having on other countries, not just our own, will inspire the American people to take action in their own homes. There are many people around the world who have already begun working to keep our earth beautiful and to educate people more. For example, the marches led by Greta Thunberg, known as #FridaysForFuture, have inspired all generations and countless countries to focus on our environment.

Essay by: Lauren Thorburn
Santa Ynez Valley Union High School

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