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'Waste' Examines The Global And Local Afterlife of Recyclables


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. I don't know about you, but I've been really confused lately about how and what I should be recycling. And I'm confused about what happens to my recycling after it's carted away. I'm referring to plastics and paper as well as electronics, including old phones and computers. We used to ship a lot of our waste to China for recycling. But recently, China stopped taking it. Now what? What are governments doing and what is industry doing to deal with the problem of waste?

These are just some of the questions I'll be asking my guest, Kate O'Neill, author of the new book "Waste." She's a professor of environmental science, policy and management at the University of California, Berkeley. Kate O'Neill, welcome to FRESH AIR. So I am so confused about what to recycle and what I shouldn't recycle, and I'm worried about contaminating the recycling by recycling the wrong thing. What does it mean to contaminate the recycling?

KATE O'NEILL: Well, first, Terry, you're not alone in that. I think understanding how recycling gets contaminated is a very critical question for a lot of people now. Recycling can get contaminated in a couple of ways. One is you simply put stuff that's dirty. It's still got food on it. Mayonnaise is a good example. Those jars, you put them into the recycling. And then they have to be thrown out later because they can't be cleaned adequately to be recycled.

The other problem is when too many different types of recyclables are mixed together. And that can be different kinds of plastics all in the same bin or plastics, paper, cans, all of those things that can go into a recycling bin mixed together will render it - make it unrecyclable.

GROSS: So help me understand what kind of plastic bottles and containers I can recycle.

O'NEILL: Yeah. The thing with plastics is that it's not easy. Plastics come with different numbers on the base, numbers one through seven. And they're surrounded by a little recycling symbol, which makes it all the more confusing. So the only plastics that are really easily recyclable are the ones that are No. 1 and No. 2. And those are the ones that, if they're clean, sorted and put into the right disposal bin, then they are quite recyclable and also recyclable at facilities within the United States.

GROSS: Now, I know, like, those plastic bags, those flimsy plastic bags that you get at a lot of supermarkets and other food stores, they're a real menace right now.


GROSS: But how come we can't recycle them?

O'NEILL: They cannot be recycled because they are really - the plastic in them is too soft and too low-quality. I think with - one thing with plastics to know is that they are hard to upcycle. They can usually only degrade in the recycling process. So soft plastics like that are even harder to recycle and certainly to recycle more than once than are bottles and the harder plastics.

But the other reason why recycling companies don't want to accept them is very practical. The plastic bags that find their way onto the sorting belts at a sorting facility will tangle up and spoil the equipment, break down the equipment.

GROSS: So in the past, much of our recycling was exported, and exported to China. So before we get to why China is no longer accepting our recycled waste, why was it this import, export business? Why have we been, or had we been, exporting our recycling to other countries?

O'NEILL: Well, we started really exporting plastic and paper waste to China in the early years of the century. And I might add that China has been the lead importer of what we think of as good scrap, like metals, like aluminum, copper, steel. All of those materials have been sent to China to feed its booming manufacturing industry.

So around about that time was when China started really getting involved in trade with the rest of the world. It joined the World Trade Organization. But its economy was also growing at rates of, like, 10 to 15% annually, which of course is huge. So they just simply did not produce enough virgin material or even scrap material of their own to use in this manufacturing.

The other side of the coin is that it was very cheap to transport that scrap to China. When we have container loads of goods coming from China, rather than shipping back empty containers, they went back full of scrap. And that transportation was very cheap, cheaper in fact than shipping a bundle of waste from, like, California to the other side of the country for treatment and recycling.

GROSS: But China stopped taking our recycling waste last year as part of this new policy. They call it the National Sword policy. Why did they stop taking it?

O'NEILL: They stopped for some pretty good reasons. One reason was that Western countries on the whole were pretty much taking advantage of China's willingness to import plastics. So they were receiving a lot of contaminated bales, contaminated in terms of the dirty food, other kinds of actual contaminants as well as very mixed bales of waste.

China also is increasingly concerned with its environmental image. I think we're all pretty familiar with shots of pollution in Beijing and other signs of environmental crisis. And I think for China, this is one way to say, hey, international community, we're dealing with this. We no longer want to see - be seen as the world's garbage dump. It was quite telling that the initial announcement from the Environment Ministry in China had the phrase no more foreign garbage in it.

GROSS: Well, not everything that we sent to China was recyclable in China. Not all of it could be reused and manufactured into something else. So what was happening with the waste from our recycling that wasn't reusable, and what problems was that causing for China?

O'NEILL: Oh, yeah. Well, I'll start by saying that more of it was recycled in China than would be recycled here. They had maintained more recycling facilities. I think the issue there - and this relates to what happens to the leftover waste too - is the conditions under which it was being recycled, which was often in these informal scrap yards with kids and families and animals around them, very little attention paid to safety, to environmental safety, to workers' health and safety. So that was seen as a big problem.

But also, what happened to the rest of the waste, it's hard to tell. I mean, China incinerates a lot of plastic and other kinds of solid waste. They've got a big program to build waste-to-energy incineration facilities all around the country, so probably some of that. And other plastic, just to landfill, and some of that might be what has wound up in the oceans right now.

GROSS: Since China stopped taking our recycling last year, are there countries that have stepped in to fill the gap? Like, what are we doing with the recycling that we used to send to China?

O'NEILL: That's, again, a complicated but big question. Soon after China announced that it was going to stop importing plastic and paper scrap, the scrap itself started being shipped to other countries almost right away. It was not hard for the exporters to find and the waste brokers to find other markets.

So even from 2017, before the ban was enacted, which was in March 2018, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, other countries that were kind of on those trade routes started accepting, or companies within them started accepting these plastics. And rapidly, those countries got overwhelmed with the quantities and the state of those plastics and just simply ran out of the capacity or desire to actually recycle them. So there's a lot of civil opposition to these plastics.

And quite soon after - like, towards the end of last year - end of 2018 and through the first half of this year, these countries successively announced bans on importing plastic from Western countries - and even going to the extent that Malaysia announced in June that it was going to start shipping these wastes back. It said it was going to - it had eight containers of plastics that were going to be shipped back to the U.S., Australia - wherever they had come from - as a way to say, we do not want to be your dumping ground. Keep your recycling at home.

GROSS: But I read in an article from a couple of years ago - so maybe this has changed - that the U.S. hasn't built a new high quality plastics recycling facility since 2003.

O'NEILL: Yeah. Yeah. That - that was - as far as I can tell, that was true, that we had really just outsourced our recycling to China in particular. So there are a lot of really gloomy assessments around that time and especially as China started making this noise around stopping these imports. It's like, well, what can we do? We just, you know - we just don't - we haven't built, we haven't maintained the recycling capacity that we have. So we're working on rebuilding that pretty quickly, I believe.

GROSS: So after China decided to no longer import recycling from countries like the U.S. - and suddenly we had this, like, huge surplus of recycling and nowhere to go with some of it because other countries stopped taking it, too, what happened to a lot of that recycling? Did we just put it into landfills?

O'NEILL: Yeah, pretty much. I think that a lot of the companies that I've talked to have been very frustrated about this. They had to deal with these huge stockpiles. And the price collapsed, obviously. So there was really nothing to do with it other than send it to landfill. And...

GROSS: And this is the price that countries paid...


GROSS: ...For importing our waste because they could repurpose it into something else.

O'NEILL: Yeah. And specifically it was the price that waste brokers from these countries would pay the recycling facilities to actually take the waste away. So we went from - and companies and municipalities went from making money off plastics to having to pay to get rid of it, and therefore - even though landfills also charged, that became the most economical way to deal with it. So that was very discouraging for an awful lot of people in that industry.

GROSS: You know, when we throw something away or, you know, recycle something, it's kind of gone. Like, we don't follow what happens to it afterwards. But there really is this, like, huge global economy of waste.

O'NEILL: Oh, goodness yes. I think one of the biggest things I found when writing this book and even thinking about it for a while is that we really need to change our thinking about waste, that it's not something, again, that we throw out, someone takes away and deals with. All of these many wastes - particularly wastes that are goods in a sense - have an afterlife, in fact, it always does. Even sewage has an afterlife as a type of fertilizer.

So I think once you throw something away, it - you've got to think about, well, where's it going to go next? And thinking about that and following those paths is really fascinating.

GROSS: Since our options are now limited in terms of exporting our recycling and since right now we don't have enough American recycling plants to deal with all recycling, the emphasis on not using - you know, not purchasing or manufacturing certain kinds of plastics is increasing. One of the big rallying points is plastic straws. How did plastic straws, which are comparatively small compared to plastic bottles, become such a rallying point?

O'NEILL: Yeah. I think that plastic straws have really been a fascinating case to really start enacting some of these measures to restrict single-use plastics. I think plastic straws - a couple of actual youth organizations began to pay attention to plastic straws and the extent to which they get into the ocean. There are a lot of really wrenching photographs of, like, a turtle with a straw in its nose. And that sort of galvanized this particular issue.

But I think the sheer visibility of straws, the fact that, you know, we don't really think about the fact that we will grab them every day but we don't pay attention. So I think now we're focusing on the billions of straws that are produced and used. That creates a campaign that people can pay attention to, and it really affects them on a daily basis. So it grabs attention much more easily than laundry bottles or other things that are less part of our daily lives.

GROSS: Well, let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us my, guest is Kate O'Neill, author of the new book "Waste," which is about recycling and the global politics of waste. She's a professor in the Department of Environmental Science Policy and Management at UC Berkeley. We'll be right back after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, we're talking about recycling, waste and the global politics of waste. My guest is Kate O'Neill, who writes about all of this in her new book, "Waste." She's a professor in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management at the University of California, Berkeley.

The European Parliament, the parliament of the European Union, approved a law banning a variety of single-use plastic items by 2021. Has anything similar ever been introduced into Congress in the U.S.?

O'NEILL: The short answer is no. The U.S. is one of the few countries that has very little waste regulation at the federal level, particularly of this category of municipal solid waste to which paper and plastic belongs. Obviously there's regulations around hazardous waste, nuclear waste. There's Superfund. The EPA does collect a lot of data and best practices. So there is some of that there, but no.

Although, interestingly, in recent months, there have been some moves in Congress to add recycling measures - for instance, creating some kind of harmonized national standard for recycling - to congressional appropriations bills. And Representative Ilhan Omar has also introduced a circular economy, no plastic bill that has also highlighted the issue in Congress and brought the issue to the attention of a wide audience at the national level, not just at this local level, where we mostly see waste politics in the U.S.

GROSS: So just a few months ago, 186 countries signed an amendment to the Basel Convention that restricts international trade in hazardous waste. So what's this new edition?

O'NEILL: This new edition was quite a surprise to those of us who follow these issues. It's very true that there's no global legislation around plastics. And many people were kind of looking for a way to create some international treaty or law, whether it deals with plastics or - directly or ocean plastics - anyway - specifically.

But the Basel Convention is a convention that's been around for a while - since 1989. And it aims to stop hazardous waste, traditional, like, industrial sludge - that kind of thing - being dumped on poor communities in countries in the global south. But it became kind of the venue where countries like Norway and other kind of activist groups were, like, pushing to include some measure that tried to categorize - that would categorize plastic waste or scrap as hazardous and therefore subject to import restrictions.

So what they did in this most recent meeting was to add plastics to, not quite a list of hazardous waste, but to a list they have of waste that are subject to restrictions if a country does not want to import that waste. So it's quite significant because it really does require any country wanting to export plastic scrap to get written consent from the importing country before it can be shipped.

So it's quite a significant shift. There's some argument about whether or not it's symbolic, whether it'll have any real effect. But it is certainly a strong recognition by the international community of the stance of countries like Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam to give them the power to say, no, we do not want these shipments.

GROSS: So in other words, there can't be just, like, a business in Thailand that says, yeah, we want your waste. The government has to approve it.

O'NEILL: Yeah. And that's the problem (laughter) in some ways. Yes. I mean, that's the advantage, it's the strength of this measure that companies cannot just simply say, yes. The disadvantage is, well, who in the government is going to issue this approval? Is it someone in the national government? Or is it a customs official?

And if it's a customs official, can they be slipped a little nice envelope full of cash to make a different signature? And I think that's one of the issues that the Basel Convention has to kind of confront.

I'm exaggerating it a little bit there. But on the whole, yes, import restrictions are great. But they can totally be manipulated in many ways. So that's something that I believe that the convention itself, the people who run the convention are trying to figure out.

GROSS: My guest is Kate O'Neill, author of the new book "Waste." After we take a short break, we'll talk about e-waste from computers, devices and appliances and unique problems we face with waste from disasters. Also, Ken Tucker will review the new Ken Burns' history of country music that begins Sunday on public television. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Kate O'Neill, author of the new book "Waste" about the global politics of waste and recycling. She's a professor of environmental science policy and management at the University of California, Berkeley.

So let's talk about e-waste and some of the complicated issues that that presents, both in terms of recycling but also in terms of the value of what's in that recycled material and the toxins that are in that recycled material. So what comes under the category of e-waste?

O'NEILL: E-waste is a very general category that encompasses a lot of different things. We tend to think of it primarily as consumer electronics, laptops, iPhones, all the devices that we carry around with us. Those are the things we most often think about. But by volume, the e-waste stream also contains, like, a lot of old appliances, old TVs, old washing machines. All of these devices are technically part of this stream, too.

And also, what we don't really realize is that vehicles and other - even sort of some of the smart appliances we have these days are e-waste themselves because they contain computers and electronics in them, too. So you're seeing this very varied waste stream that goes from, like, your huge, old cathode-ray TV to your smartphone and to your car. That's a lot of different items that are kind of categorized under this.

GROSS: And what are the valuable materials that can be reused within these electronics and the toxic materials in it that are very hazardous?

O'NEILL: Well, a lot of these devices contain valuable metals - gold, copper, a lot of metals that can be extracted and reused. Also, a lot of them contain the so-called rare earth metals. Coltan, for example, is also common in this equipment. And one of the things about a mineral like coltan is often it is mined in its pure form from parts of the world that are in the middle of conflict and are used - and various sides in that conflict will sell that coltan for money to carry on with the war.

So sort of blood - we've heard of blood diamonds. Well, there's blood coltan and other sorts of metals. So actually, extracting and reusing these metals from e-waste, hard as it is, can have not only value from recycling but value in terms of avoided costs, social costs at the extraction level.

GROSS: So what. Are the toxic materials in e-waste?

O'NEILL: Quite plentiful. And sometimes the level of toxicity depends on how the e-waste is handled. But they contain elements that are toxic in their own right like lead, but also plastics and other materials within them are toxic when they are burnt.

They emit the smoke rather like incineration. And treatments like acid baths under conditions where workers are not protected, acid baths to strip off the material that isn't valuable. Those are also very hazardous. So the potential for toxicity from dealing with e-waste is very high, especially when it's - they're not managed in a healthy and safe way.

GROSS: So how are we dealing with all of our e-waste? I'm sure that a lot of it's being generated in America. China is no longer taking our recycling. I assume that includes e-waste, too.

O'NEILL: Yeah. China actually stopped importing e-waste - so put a ban on e-waste importing back in 2015.

GROSS: So even sooner than other recycling.

O'NEILL: Oh, yeah. I mean, there's some...

GROSS: Other countries too - did a lot of other countries who were taking it put a ban on it?

O'NEILL: They've tried. The interesting thing about e-waste rather than plastics is that they can be very small. They can be - and they can be labeled very differently. So the thing with a lot of trade in e-waste, quote-unquote, is that it's often labeled as for charity, for refurbishment. Like my own very first Mac computer, I shipped - I sent off to a charity to be shipped to Ghana for distribution to kids that didn't have computers. And now I'm like, well, what really happened to it?

So they're easy to ship under different guises. And that kind of creates a different set of problems in terms of tracking what is being shipped as waste and what is actually genuinely repairable and refurbishable. But China was able, I think, pretty much to stop imports. But the issue with China, as with many other developing countries, is that they produce far more e-waste on their own than we necessarily produce ourselves.

GROSS: And once the materials are stripped, the valuable materials are stripped from the computers and appliances and devices that are part of the e-waste - exported of that to other countries, what happens to the remains? Are they incinerated?

O'NEILL: They're often burnt or buried, left just sort of in open dumps. Now, I think though that there are some misconceptions about all of these, like, horrific wastelands that exist in Ghana, Nigeria and other countries, that there's - certainly, yes, there are some terrible dumps there. But there's also a repair economy going on there where more equipment than we often think is actually repaired and refurbished and sold back on.

So there is not as much dumped as there could be. And certainly, recycling rates are very high. I've read one statistic that in Ghana, 95% percent of the e-waste they produce domestically is actually repaired, refurbished, reused and recycled, which is a pretty impressive statistic, even if it's not entirely that level, it's - I'm sure it's very high.

GROSS: I wonder how they repair it 'cause I know a lot of devices seem unrepairable. They need to be replaced.

O'NEILL: Yeah. In fact, that's becoming a very real issue because the old, clunky computers that I'm sure you're familiar with, I'm familiar with, actually were much easier to dissemble, pull out parts, plug into other computers or TVs, whatever it was you're repairing. There was a lot more interchangeability where you could pull out the good parts and use it to fix or put together a new machine. And the way - our current generations of consumer electronics are very different.

And I think many of us feel very problematic in that they are hard to dissemble, disassemble. We have - the companies don't always give us the instructions or the repair parts to disassemble. For example, with my laptop, if the battery goes, then the whole laptop is essentially useless. So we're actually in a bind now where we're creating these electronics that cannot or cannot easily be repaired and refurbished in the way that we could 10, 20 years ago.

GROSS: There's a movement to change that to be able to reuse rather than replace electronics. Tell us about that movement.

O'NEILL: Yeah. The Right to Repair movement is a really fascinating movement that has sprung up around the world in different ways. And with respect to e-waste, we've actually seen a lot of activism in the United States aimed at changing rules, pressuring the big electronics companies to make their devices more repairable, to allow access to them, to get rid of the screws that you need highly specialized equipment to actually remove.

And some of this began actually with farmers who found that, once their tractors broke down, they could not actually repair them. And you think about farmers as quite a - an important constituency and also that surely repairing a tractor is a basic part of being a farmer. So you saw from that activism and from other kinds of urban activism a movement in the U.S. basically designed to change laws and, as I said, to pressure companies into changing their practices.

In other parts of the world, it's taken on the guise of tax incentives to repair goods, encouraging secondhand supermarkets, all of these great things that also include passing on the skills. I mean, I think for current generations, we're often losing those skills and tools to actually engage in repair ourselves. And often that's become a community mobilization form as well. Like, bringing people together to repair stuff, to swap tools has been an important movement in Australia, for instance, and also other parts of the world.

GROSS: Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Kate O'Neill, author of the new book "Waste," which is about recycling and the global politics of waste. She's a professor in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management at UC Berkeley. We'll be right back after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, we're talking about recycling, waste and the global politics of waste. My guest is Kate O'Neill, who writes about all of this in her new book "Waste." She's a professor in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management at the University of California, Berkeley.

So in countries that have imported a lot of recycling and there were huge dumps from the waste of recycled materials - well, the contaminated recycled materials - there's a whole kind of, like, underground economy that has grown up around them of people who are very poor and who pick through it looking for things of value that can be sold. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

O'NEILL: Yeah. Actually, this practice, which is called waste picking - some people call it scavenging, but waste picking is the term that people who do this work have chosen for themselves - is one of the oldest, most longstanding and honorable professions that we have. And for a lot of these waste pickers, you see informal waste workers around the world. They have traditionally made their living as communities for a very long time off the trash that is thrown out locally.

And so therefore, you know, this culture of disposability that we experience in the West is actually fairly new, and the way that we don't necessarily have much of these informal systems to gather waste and recycle it at a very local level. But around the rest of the world, that's still very common. There are millions of waste workers in the informal sector around the world.

So again, sort of an honorable profession, but one that has gotten more dangerous, not only with any waste we might ship but also just generally the way that we use more hazardous materials, medications, sharps. All of these things get into the normal waste stream and can be dangerous, and also things like plastic, which, again, is also growing in countries' use of plastics in the Global South - not much you can always do with those.

So there's a bit of a sense in which, as waste streams change, it gets a little harder for waste pickers to really go through and do their job. And there's a sense too that if there are valuables to be collected, that big companies, big mining companies have actually moved into this business in countries in the Global South to displace waste pickers who've traditionally worked those dumps and say, no, we're going to gather these metals ourselves and smelt them ourselves and resell them ourselves.

GROSS: You have a section in your book devoted to disaster waste. What is disaster waste?

O'NEILL: The category of disaster waste is a particularly complicated and even a sensitive one. And it is a problem that has been really coming to the forefront in the last few years and will continue to expand and increase as a problem as we are seeing all of these extreme weather events as a result of climate change. Hurricane Dorian last week in the Bahamas is just going to be a case in point.

So disaster waste is a mix of rubble from buildings that have blown down, biodegradable waste, hazardous waste from facilities that may have been there already, from hospitals, all kinds of sources of hazardous waste. But most poignantly, it often contains human remains. And that creates waste that has to be dealt with in many different ways and very carefully.

It can also be overwhelming. Last year, after Hurricane Florence in the Carolinas, it hit - the hurricane itself hit a huge pig factory, essentially. So then you had, like, thousands of pig carcasses afterwards creating, like, this - essentially a toxic stew, huge one, following the hurricane that had to be cleaned up.

So I think disaster waste, for me, is a category that we really need to be thinking about as - from the perspective of the waste industry, as people who are really interested in waste policy, how to deal with it because it really does fall between a category of immediate disaster relief and long-term recovery but is significant. It's huge and very difficult to deal with.

GROSS: How did waste become your subject?

O'NEILL: Well, waste has been something I've been kind of obsessed with since I was a kid in the playground. I used to get - at the age of 6 or 7, I would get gold stars for picking up litter. And I think for me it was something that I have in common with a lot of other people who work on waste is a kind of childhood connection somehow.

But it wasn't really until I went to grad school, actually, in New York City and started to think about both global politics but also about waste and about the impacts of waste and toxic waste on low-income communities. I took an environmental justice course that involved a tour of New York, a toxic tour of New York City to show how these impacts were felt in all sorts of ways. But the waste - the turning of landfills into public parks without necessarily much consideration for impacts was something that grabbed me.

But as someone who studied international politics, the toxic waste trade was really an attention grabber and figuring out that actually not just poor countries but also relatively rich countries like the U.K. were receiving this toxic waste. To me, that was fascinating because wastes themselves and to study wastes provide a window into all aspects of a society and its politics.

Everybody has a story about waste, but we can also see when waste piles up in streets, governments often fall. This is true of city governments. It was true in the U.K. in the late 1970s. A garbage strike where piles of garbage were in the streets is seen as one of the events that precipitated the election of Margaret Thatcher as prime minister in 1979. So wastes are really important, and understanding that they're all around us but they also say a lot about the society in which there they are found to me as a political scientist as deeply fascinating.

GROSS: Well, Kate O'Neill, thank you so much.

O'NEILL: Oh, thank you very much, Terry. Thanks for having me on.

GROSS: Kate O'Neill is the author of the new book "Waste." She's a professor of environmental science, policy and management at the University of California, Berkeley. This is FRESH AIR.


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