How Mountains of U.S. Plastic Waste Ended Up in Malaysia, Broken Down by Workers for $10 a Day
How scrap from California ended up in a junkyard 8,500 miles away, broken down manually by workers earning $10 a day, is the story of the reshaping of the global garbage and recycling system. For three decades the United States and other industrialized nations have shipped most of their plastic waste overseas — primarily to China, where cheap labor and voracious factories dismantled the scrap and turned it into new plastic goods.
But 12 months ago, China banned nearly all plastic waste imports amid concern that emissions from processing were harming the environment. Many scrap dealers rerouted their cargo to smaller recyclers in nearby Southeast Asian countries, which were suddenly overwhelmed by tides of foreign refuse.
Malaysia became the top destination for U.S. plastic waste, importing more than 192,000 metric tons in the first 10 months of 2018 — a 132% jump from the year before, according to federal government data. Thailand took in more than four times as much American plastic as it did in 2017, Taiwan nearly twice as much.