Oceans #4: Where Our Plastic Goes: GPS Tracking on a Global Scrap Market
Millions of tonnes of plastic enter our ocean every year. If we’re going to stop this flood, we need to know where the leak is. Is the in countries where huge amounts of plastic enters the sea? Would that explain how a plastic wrapper dropped in a recycling bin in England ended up on a Chinese beach thousands of kilometres away? No, it is more complicated than that – time to cast a wider net.
We’re not the only ones looking for answers. In this episode, we share the story of Martin Bourque: the man who put a GPS tracker into his plastic bale in California, and found out the truth about where his plastic was going.
Produced by Camille Duran
Published by Eleen Murphy
Senior Editors Eleen Murphy & Camille Duran
Music Credits: License by Ins. Green White Space.
Camille Duran [CD]: Hey do you like facts?
Eleen Murphy [EM]: I prefer stories.
CD: I tell you a short one, it’s the story of human society dropping four hundred kilograms of plastic in the ocean every second.
EM: Yes I heard this scary number. From our EU First Vice President at the Ocean conference in Malta, right?
CD: Yes. Should we double check his calculation by the way?
EM: I don’t think it’s necessary.
CD: How many seconds in a year…?
EM: Come one….
CD: Help me out!
EM: Okay fine…I would say 31,536,000.
CD: Okay so he is on twelve million tons a year, which is a bit above what we’ve found out. But yeah, let’s say everyone seems to agree it’s more than eight million tons of plastic a year that end up into the ocean.
EM: Who cares about the exact number. It’s millions of tonnes, it’s way too much, let’s fix it!
CD: Right. Welcome to our ocean series, a fifteen episode investigation where we tell the truth.
EM: That’s your tagline?
CD: Uh, a fifteen episode investigation where we tell the truth and talk to interesting people.
EM: Wow. I think our listeners are really impressed by now. Why don’t you tell us what’s on the menu for today?
CD: In the previous episode, we got to the conclusion that the best thing we can do to solve plastic pollution is working upstream. Making sure no plastic enters the ocean in the first place.
EM: Never ever again.
CD: So for the rest of the series, I am taking you upstream. Starting now.
CD: On the menu for the upcoming episodes: we’ll look at a map and point fingers; then we’ll realise we’re are pointing fingers in the wrong direction; we’ll follow plastic upstream, all the way up to your kitchen.
EM: What? My kitchen?
CD: We explain why recycling markets will have a big, big big problem starting January first, 2018.
[News Audio Clip]: China has notified the World Trade Organisation that it will ban the import of twenty four different types of garbage.
CD: Which means we will all have a big, big problem as well. We discuss how the EU Commission is integrating (or not) this big, big problem into the upcoming Plastic Strategy. But before that, I will tell you a story we are the first ones to break:
Martin Bourque [MB]: This is the first public interview, and I figured; a podcast within the industry is a little different than the New York Times [laughs].
EM: Oh that’s the story of the recycler who hides GPS tracking devices in his plastic bales.
CD: Yes, we should call it a guide actually: how to find the final destination of your plastic bale if you are on a tight budget?
EM: I love it.
CD: We’ll make a few episodes out of all this.
EM: Let’s get started I can’t wait.
CD: Where does ocean plastic come from?
CHINA, ASIA, EUROPE, USA – WHERE DOES OCEAN PLASTIC COME FROM?
CD: So Millions of tonnes of plastic enter the ocean every year. I am sure you will agree that the first logical thing to do is looking at where this is happening?
EM: What countries let that plastic fall into the ocean you mean?
CD: Yes, and how exactly? Rivers, shore, how the hell did we get to such big numbers?
EM: Yeah, it’s not like a small leak into the system. Good place to start!
CD: Well… let’s get to the point, no need to drag it out. It seems that 80% of ocean pollution comes from land activity.
EM: So the rest comes from maritime activity,
CD: Yes, and we’ll get back to this later in the series. Looking at land: China, Indonesia, Philippines, Vietnam, and Thailand are the countries where most plastic enters the ocean, accounting for more than 60% of the total.
CD: Now those stats usually don’t include what’s coming from rivers. There is some discussion at the moment about how to account for rivers, we’ll get back to this later on in the series.
EM: Okay so the problem mainly comes from South East Asia?
CD: Right. That’s what people tend to think “Ocean Plastic? It’s because of the Chinese. At home I separate my plastic waste and then it gets recycled”.
EM: Okay, are you saying my plastic doesn’t get recycled?
CD: Less than 6% of your plastic gets recycled, Eleen.
EM: What? Less than 6% What happens to the rest of it…!?!?
CD: Hmm… Let’s take it step by step so we don’t lose anyone. And this way we can also be precise and accurate.
EM: Man, I can’t believe it.
CD: Let’s break it down. What we can say for sure is that in Europe, roughly 45% of our plastic is exported to Asia. This is public data. Links in the episode notes. The US also exports massive quantities of plastic to Asia, we’ll get back to that.
EM: So if most of the ocean plastic comes from China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam, and we export millions of tonnes to those countries, then chances are…our plastic ends up in the ocean too?
CD: Chances are, as you’re saying. Actually, it’s more than “chances are”. China, for instance, imports at least 55-60% of the rest of the world’s plastic. It’s not like if there was a sign on Chinese beaches and rivers saying, “Asian plastic only, European plastic gets recycled according to human rights and planetary boundaries”.
EM: No, I get you. From the point plastic enters those markets in the first place it’s difficult to track.
CD: Difficult but not impossible.
EM: I see you coming…
EM: Wait before we look at final destinations for our plastic, could you explain how things for post-consumer plastic? For those who may not be aware.
CD: Yes sure.
EM: Let’s say, all I know is…I buy products at the supermarket, with all their beautiful packaging, and now it’s in my home.
CD: Well, all this single-use plastic probably ends up in the bin shortly after…
EM: It does…
CD: Okay, so let’s take the scenario where your city placed a separate bin for plastic, or a bin for all recyclables. Then you sort your plastic and throw it in there.
CD: You did the job, you’re a good citizen. And regardless of what happens after and what I am going to say now – you should keep being a good citizen, it really matters even if only 6% gets recycled, tomorrow it may be seven, then eight, etc.
EM: Hm yeah?
CD: So you’re plastic packaging is in the bin, useless.
CD: It’s at this very moment that the real adventure starts.
CD: It starts there, in this street container, with all of the other unhappy plastic packaging items
CD: Yes, because they have been used for a few seconds only, and we already call them waste.
CD: They get picked up by a truck. This is where they meet a lot of other unhappy friends, unhappy because they too-
EM: -have been used a few minutes only. Okay, keep it moving…
CD: Ok, they all travel together for a few kilometers to a sorting station, or what we call a MRF: A Municipal Recycling Facility.
EM: Ah that’s where all those trucks go.
CD: Yes. Trucks enter the yard, get on a huge scale so the station can track how much material is coming in, and then they go drop all the materials in a pile. From there the materials get sorted into different fractions, sometimes using automated systems. Sometimes with human workers that separate by hand the different materials from conveyer belts.
CD: From there plastics are regrouped by types. Typically they are compressed and tied into plastic bales to optimise their handling. You can just imagine big cubes of compressed plastics, of various qualities. From there, each type of plastic is going to take a different road.
EM: Where do they go next?
CD: Well, it depends on a number of parameters, like where is the sorting station located, the shape of the regional markets for materials, disposal options etc. To make it simple: the plastics that are easily recyclables in Europe will go to a European recycler if it makes economic sense to recycle them. That’s often the case for the PET for instance, which is the plastic type one.
EM: Plastic type one? What’s that?
CD: If you look under a plastic bottle for instance, there is small triangle printed on the plastic with a number inside it.
Number 1 means it is PET – Polyethylene terephthalate.
EM: So that’s easily recyclable.
CD: Let’s say it’s what has most value on European recycling markets today. Typically water bottles for instance – which by the way do not get recycled into other bottles. But that’s another story.
EM: Okay so type one is the most valuable. What happens to the other plastic types?
CD: Well there are the ones we don’t really know how to recycle. All the multi-layer packaging for instance, you know? Where plastic is mixed with layers of other materials
EM: Right, I hate those.
CD: Well now you hate them more, because they cannot really be recycled and the sorting station is either going to send it to a landfill, to an incinerator – not to say a cement kiln – or ship them to Asia.
EM: So the plastic that is not recyclable goes to Asia…
CD: We are generalising a little bit here. Let’s say it has no value what so ever, so you are going to pay someone to get rid of it. If your local landfill is cheaper than sending it to China, then you will landfill it. If a cement kiln is offering to burn it for fuel and you don’t mind the illegal part, that is what you will do. The thing about shipping it to Asia is that it’s extremely cheap.
Ships come from China to deliver goods in Europe or to the U.S., instead of going back to China empty, they fill the containers with plastic scraps and make a business out of it.
EM: Some people would call this carbon emission reductions…
CD: Right. There is also the plastic that we could technically recycle in Europe if it made economic sense,
EM: But it doesn’t,
CD: So they are getting the same treatment as the ones that are not recyclable. This is how your little friend the plastic packaging ends up in places where you don’t really want to send it in the first place: a Chinese dump, a landfill, an incinerator, the ocean, a dirty beach somewhere.
EM: I don’t know what to say. Is there a positive side to the story?
CD: Uhh… no. Basically, the conclusion is that European plastic scraps enter a commodity market. So typically sorting stations and recyclers are in touch with brokers who will coordinate the shipping of those plastic scraps all around the world.
EM: Okay, so basically if I run a Municipal Recycling Facility, I’m looking for what is the best value I can get for my plastic bales?
EM: And there are brokers specialising in finding destinations for those materials.
EM: So the brokers should know where it’s going, no?
CD: Sort of. You get a destination port and you don’t know what’s happening next.
CD: This is where Martin comes in.
EM: Martin? Oh yeah the man behind the GPS tracker story…
CD: Yes. [Movie trailer voice] “Coming next, a recycler puts a GPS tracking to find the final destination of the plastic bales he is exporting every week.”
EM: Okay, keep it moving!
CD: That’s Martin. Just to recap before we switch to spy-mode:
- We started from the countries that are dropping most plastic into the ocean.
- We looked at the contribution of European plastics to their recycling markets – if we can call them as such.
- We now understand the basics of recycling markets in Europe, we are able to track the containers back to the first destination ports.
I think that’s not too bad for a start!
EM: Yes and we we stuck at the destination port.
CD: Until I heard from that man.
MB: My name is Martin Bourque, I’m the Executive Director at the Ecology Centre in Berkeley, California.
CD: He found a way to track some of his shipments, all the way to their final destination.
TRACKING PLASTIC BALES – MARTIN’S STORY
CD: And in Berkeley they have been recycling since 1973.
CD: Martin and his team are deep into the recycling mindset. He operates an organisation called Ecology Centre, which among other things collect the recyclables in Berkeley. I think I actually met Martin and visited the station in 2013, when I was starting to get interested in materials…
EM: Wow you’re an old man!
CD: Right. Anyway, I want to thank him because he is not public about this story and he accepted to talk to us and let us publish it.
MB: This is the first public interview, and I figured; a podcast within the industry is a little different than the New York Times [laughs].
EM: Yes but New York Times is listening and is going to chase him now!
CD: It’s s an exciting story.
EM: Let’s get to it.
MB: Hey there!
CD: [To Martin]: Hey Martin, how are you?
MB: I’m good, how’s it going?
CD: Yes so first i asked him why he wanted to track his plastic bales, why was he suspicious about their destination?
MB: In 2013 we started collecting mixed “recyclable” plastic, and I say recyclable in quotes. At that time we had a pretty clear line of site to a facility in China where our broker out of the port of Oakland was sending the materials. And we had actually worked with partners in China, the Wuhu Ecology Center. And those folks had gone over and inspected the facility in China, and found pretty good labour standards and pretty decent environmental controls on the plastics recycling facility. They were actually making export-grade pellet and flake.
CD: But market crashed a couple of years ago, you may remember that?
EM: Yes, I was still young but I remember. And?
MB: We found out that our materials were no longer going to that facility at [indistinct], and that raised a lot of concerns for us. We had recently encountered the filmmaker of Plastic China and seen some pretty horrific footage of the informal sector in China.
CD: Plastic China is a film to watch if you are interested in those questions.
EM: Link in the episode notes.
MB: Where materials are being sorted by hand in backyards in pretty horrific conditions. They would pull out whatever was valuable and then the rest of it would just get dumped onto the side of the road or pushed into a canyon. So we were very concerned, as an environmental organisation that pioneered recycling and was the first kerbside recycler in the U.S.. We were very concerned that things we were telling our residents were being recycled, might actually be contributing the problems of ocean pollution and problems with air and water quality – as well as some horrific labour standards.
CD: Imagine a world where everyone in waste management cared the way Martin cares? About where materials go I mean!
EM: Yeah…it takes courage to face the truth, and not everyone is courageous.
CD: This is the least we can say.
EM: So, they knew and controlled where their plastic was going, market crashes, big mess, they don’t know anymore?
MB: So, when we found that out, we started thinking: how can we find out where our stuff is going? Because, basically, the way it works is that we collect the stuff at the kerb; it goes to our sorting and processing facility and it gets baled up into these big bales that get put into shipping containers. Then, those shipping containers are sold as units and they get brokered by a brokerage firm here in California, and then they get sold to a broker in some other port in Asia.
Historically that had been Hong Kong, and from Hong Kong they’d be shipped to the mainland in China. But we couldn’t tell where it was going, we had no way of tracking. Once it left our broker’s line of sight, there’s no chain of custody that made it possible for us to see where it actually ended up.
CD: Same problem that everyone has, you don’t know what’s going on beyond the destination port.
EM: Tracking is difficult.
CD: Difficult, but not impossible.
MB: So we started looking around for some kind of GPS tracking device that could locate a bale of this plastic at its final destination.
CD: And they finally found one that matched their needs.
MB: So we really needed something that had satellite GPS location as well as an international cellular plan so that it could locate itself and send out a signal to be picked up and put on a map.
CD: So yeah, we won’t get too technical but basically there are two ways you can locate a tracking device: using GPS (the satellite), or using cell phone towers, which the devices connect to when they are in reach and the exact position is triangulated. It’s important for the rest of the story.
MB: We were inspired in part by the work of the Basel Action Network, who had recently done a very extensive tracking program with electronic waste. It turns out they found a lot of U.S. electronics recyclers were actually exporting into some pretty bad situations in Asia, which they claimed they weren’t doing. And so that was inspiring to us. We looked at a number of devices. They actually worked with M.I.T. to build their own platform, but we found a private provider out of the San Francisco Bay area called Tracking The World.
It’s just a small company that has developed a GPS tracking device – if you remember what a pager looked like, it looks like that. It’s a small black plastic box that’s about two inches, by three inches, by an inch. Inside it has a SIM card and GPS tracking technology. We worked with them to make sure it would only ping, or send out a signal, when it moved, and/or once a day.
CD: That’s important. It sends a signal only when it moves and/or once a day.
EM: Oh ok, so you can stay tuned to what’s going on.
MB: And that way you could really conserve the battery, because we knew we needed at least a couple of months of battery for it to get through the ports and end up at its final destination.
CD: Yes, I asked how much they cost.
MB: They run about 250 bucks with a three-month plan, and we thought, let’s just try out a few of these. We got some individual donations from our members to support the work-
EM: Wait $250 with a three month plan?
CD: Yeah for the communications, like a SIM card. That’s pretty affordable no?
EM: Yeah! I was expecting a bigger investment.
CD: The thing is you probably need a few of them because it takes some trial and error.
MB: We tried a few different approaches. We discovered that getting them through the processing facility basically destroyed them. So we had to attach them to the bales after they’d been processed and baled – we couldn’t threw them in through the processing bin and expect it to end up a bale and still be alive.
CD: Those good learning lessons for our listeners who I am sure are going to try this at home.
EM: Disclaimer message?
CD: Please try this at home.
EM: Or at your recycling facility!
CD: Here is how exactly:
EM: All you need is a plastic bail.
MB: The bales are pretty dense, so the plastics are crushed really tightly and then they’ve got baling around them. These are big blocks of compressed plastic. They’re about four or five feet long, by three feet wide and four feet high, something like that. So we had to actually wedge them into the side of the bale. I thought initially we might need some kind of adhesive to hold them in there, but just the pressure of the bale, if you can get it wedged in there, they’re not coming out.
We also wanted them near the surface of the bale so that they could get a better GPS or cellular signal. Some of the limitations with the technology is that to get a satellite GPS location which is really accurate, the device needs to see the sky.
CD: It’s a bit like your children, they need to see the sky sometimes.
EM: Yes it’s a bit like children, if they don’t see the sky they start to triangulate.
MB: They can’t be under a roof, or inside one of the shipping containers. So they’re not very accurate unless they’re seeing the sky directly. And if they don’t see the sky and can’t see the satellite, then they start trying to figure out where they are by triangulating off of cellular towers. So if there are cellular towers nearby and they get a cell signal, they get a pretty close reading in terms of their location, but they could be as much as a couple of hundred yards off when triangulating off of cell towers. And if the cell towers are further away, it gets less and less accurate. But, once they’re in the sea container, they lose the satellite and so then we’re locating off of cell towers, and it gets a little less accurate.
EM: I feel like in a spy movie.
CD: Yes that’s exactly what I told him…
MB: Yeah, it felt pretty stealthy, like, okay we’re actually going to see where these things go. And more than feeling like a spy, there was a real curiosity to where is this actually going to end up in the world. Because we just see it for that minute between the recycling bin and when we send it to the brokerage firm. And then it’s off to the port of Oakland and we don’t see it anymore. So, to be able to see a longer life of where this stuff actually goes was pretty exciting. I know it sounds a little nerdy, but…
CD: How exciting is your morning coffee now right? you have this tracking device somewhere in the world, opening the computer to see where it is.
EM: I want one!
MB: At first I didn’t want to share it too widely. So it was just me and a couple of people. We had a link from the provider that took us to a map, like a Google-style map on the desktop. And I could see it sitting there in our recycling yard, and it would ping once a day and get a little signal. I could download a table and it would show me the GPS locations and the times that it located. And for about a week I’m just sitting there watching it sit in our yard, and then when the shipment was going out and suddenly it starts pinging in a storage yard near the Port of Oakland, getting ready to get on a ship. It’s sitting there for a good week or two weeks, and I’m checking it every day – when I have a little break I take a look and see.
And then, one day it’s just gone. And I’m like, okay that either means that it’s broken and it’s no longer working – and we had a number of them that failed for a number of different reasons. So maybe it just stopped working, maybe the battery went dead, maybe it got moved around and crushed – or it’s on a sea container on a ship, out in the middle of the pacific. I just didn’t know, so I keep checking everyday, and nothing new, nothing new, nothing new.
Frankly, we didn’t know where it was going. We suspected it would be going back through Hong Kong and into China, but it could have gone to India for all we knew, you know? We had no idea. And, frankly, we didn’t know how long it took a ship to get across the pacific ocean, or if it made multiple stops, or if it would stop in, who knows, Honolulu and get put on a different ship. We just didn’t have any idea.
CD: So at this point, Martin doesn’t know if the tracker is dead, broken, without battery. Or somewhere out in the ocean where the satellite or cell towers cannot get the signal….
CD: but suddenly
CD: But suddenly I think it’s time to close this episode.
CD: We’ll find out soon, Eleen.
EM: This is mean!
CD: This is fun! And remember we said we would try to keep our episodes short.
EM: Okay, okay….
CD: If you have any questions, if you need tips for your own GPS tracking experiment, please don’t hesitate to get in touch,
CD: We’ll be back very soon with more green knowledge, inspiration & GPS tracking. Keep up the good work in the meantime.