Oceans #5: Plastic in China: Waking the Dragon

Produced by Camille Duran / Published by Eleen Murphy / Senior Editors Eleen Murphy & Camille Duran / Music Credits: License by Ins. Green White Space. Picture credit: South China Morning Post.

Martin Bourque was suspicious about where the plastic from his recycling facility in California was going. He put a tracking device into a plastic bale and tracked it all the way across the world to a rural recycling facility in China. What did he find there?

This is part two of Martin’s story, and it’s an eye-opener. This episode brings up an important point: this is not just an American story – we share some facts from Europe that show we’re in this too. There is way too much plastic being produced that nobody wants. We’re paying to get rid of it, and the price is way too high.

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Transcript from the Episode

Camille Duran [CD]: Hey Eleen, you got your cup of coffee?

Eleen Murphy [EM]: Just tea actually.

CD: Oh you don’t drink coffee?

EM: No, I don’t like coffee. Strange fact!

CD: Alright. So in previous episode we started a story that we did not finish.

EM: Yes, because you like cliffhangers!

CD: Everyone loves cliffhangers!

EM: Hmm, I don’t know. They make me arrrghh! Hulk smash!

CD: Woah, okay…

EM: I’ve been watching too many Marvel movies, sorry…

CD: Okay, just hold on a few more minutes. For those of you joining us just now, you probably want to rewind a little bit to the previous episode.

EM: Episode four.

CD: So you can fully understand what we’ll talk about today.

EM: At this point in the series, we are talking to Martin Bourque who is telling us a story we got in exclusivity.

CD: Martin runs a collection service for recyclables in Berkeley California. His facility is sorting the materials collected from residents and sending them to recycling markets.

EM: He was worried lately because he didn’t know where his plastic was going to end up.

CD: Berkeley residents trust that their plastic is going to be recycled in proper conditions.

EM: Which no one is really sure about lately.

CD: So he put a GPS tracking device in one plastic bale – you know those big cubes of compressed plastic – to see where it would end up.

EM: And here we are, right?

CD: Yes pretty much. The shipment had disappeared from the map two weeks ago.

EM: The tracking device could not pick up any signal,

CD: Or there was a technical problem, battery was dead or device broken, couldn’t really know.



Martin Bourque [MB]:  But suddenly, one day – bingo! It’s in Hong Kong.

EM: Hong Kong.

CD: Kind of expected, no? But really, looking at recycling markets after the crash in 2015, every thing was possible. But yeah, Hong Kong.

MB: And there it is. And clearly at this point it’s picking up a cell signal because it’s got to still be in the shipping container. So it can’t see the sky, it can’t see a satellite, so it’s picking up a cell signal in Hong Kong. [It took] about two weeks to get there. And it sat in that port for a few days, and then it went up the South China sea, into the mainland of China to another port.

CD: I pause here just to mention it’s quite common for containers to go through different ports before destination, or to be brokered on the way. That’s why the data from the customs or whatever you can get from harbours is usually not very telling.

EM: Well I would disagree with that, you can still draw a few conclusions.

CD: You have found something! I know you.

EM: Haha..well, let’s just say I put my hand on three years of plastic export data in a European port.

CD: Oh yeah? Which one?

EM: I don’t really want to tell, I am not sure it’s public information.

CD: North or South?

EM: Benelux.

CD: Okay, there are two main-

EM: No, no, no. Stop. I’m not going to tell you.

CD: Okay. One port in Benelux. What does it say?

EM: It shows a breakdown per type of plastic scrap per destination port, and exact amounts that were shipped each year.

CD: And how much?

EM: Let’s finish Martin’s story first maybe?

CD: Ugh…Eleen!

EM: Haha. Hey, now you know how I feel!

CD: So where were we?

EM: South China sea after the first stop in Hong Kong.

CD: Ah yes.

MB: And then we could track it and it went to a few other locations: it went to a primary sorting facility, and at this point we’re pretty sure it came out of the sea container.

EM: How do they know the bale came out of the container?

CD: Well, from the GPS location they can go on Google Maps and see in satellite view what the area looks like…

EM: Ah, smart.

MB: We could see that there were sea containers, or shipping containers, at this facility. And we could also see from the mapping, from the satellite imagery, that there were bales of plastic in a yard. But then from that place it went to another location-

EM: Another location?

CD: Yep.

MB: – and probably went as open bales or maybe they had even cracked open the bales and started to sort. And it moved from there to a secondary facility where it finally died, and I don’t know if it died because of the battery, or because they dismantled it, or somebody found it and they crushed it – we just don’t know.

EM: So at this point we have no tracking device anymore.

CD: The device is dead.

EM: But?

CD: But, luckily it seems like this was the final destination!

EM: Tell me more!





MB: So it’s in Southern China, and in a rural community in – not a backyard facility but a pretty informal sector industrial area in a rural community. So there’s lots of little sheds and shacks…

CD: So not crazy rural, not crazy industrial,

EM: But informal?

CD: Informal.

EM: And that’s all you can see from the imagery, right?

CD: Yes, but it’s not over…

MB: So we then connected with some partners through the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives and a colleague of our s who is a specialist on plastics in China went to visit the facility. But this was months later when she got there. It was very interesting; she got photos of the location and got to talk to people there.

EM: Wow…

MB: [She] could see, basically, everything was sorted on the ground. They had one washing facility and the water from that went straight into the river – there was no environmental controls on the washing.

CD: So just to put things back in perspective: plastic that was put in the recycling bin in the western world, is now on the ground in South China in an informal facility with no environmental control. That’s what we’re trying to prove here.

MB: So, they would take a bale of this plastic which probably has maybe seventy thousand pieces of plastic in it. Everything from strawberry containers to take-out containers, to yogurt tubs…all kinds of little things that get in there like caps, lids, forks, spoons, plastic utensils. Different colours – you’d have clear, black, green, yellow…. And each of those have those have to be sorted. So they’re probably sorting into thirty or forty different categories of different resins of plastics that can be put together for recycling.

EM: What? Thirty to forty categories?

CD: Yes, so those workers have developed skill to recognise what kind of plastic they have in hand, which is quite tricky to be honest.

MB: Different colours of plastics, different grades of plastics – whether it’s flexible plastic or really rigid plastic with different kinds of additives in it. And so all that’s being just on the open ground with people squatting on it. Sometimes, to figure out what kind of it is, they’ll burn a little bit of it and smell it, which is really horrific and very toxic.

EM: What?

CD: Yes you haven’t seen this in the documentaries?

EM: No.

CD: Smell is a great way to identify plastic, yes you need to burn a little bit of it first but hey – it’s recycling! Actually it reminds me of the old days – I used to do this as well at school, um….not for recycling, but…[laughs].

MB: But that’s the way the categorisation of some of the plastics is done if they can’t figure out what it is by sight, or sometimes by tapping it for the sound it makes. And so they’re touching everything, and it’s all food contaminated, it’s pretty dirty. It’s got a lot of grime on it.

EM: Ugh…

MB: So that’s being sorted into bags or bigger baskets or buckets, and then those get aggregated into larger bags, gaylords, or some kind of container. Then once they’ve got enough of one kind of material, they’ll put it through a grinder that chops it up into the size of a quarter or maybe half an inch in diameter.

CD: That’s about one centimetre.



MB: And then they put that into their washing tub and they wash it and get it all nice and clean. And then they will dry it. That dry [stuff] is called flake – when it’s all chipped and clean. And that flake would either be sold as is (depending on the kind of plastic), or it would be taken to a nearby facility where they melt that down and extrude it out into long strings – they look like spaghetti noodles. As those cool, they get chopped up into tiny little pellets that are called nurdles. Then that gets put into bags and then those bags are sold.

EM: Wait wait wait: from those bags with thirty to forty different categories, to grinding in small one centimetre pieces, to melting, to…

CD: …to spaghettis….

EM: That are then chopped into small pellets…

MB: …that are called nurdles. Then that gets put into bags and then those bags are sold. And in China, mostly that goes for low-grade domestic manufacturing goods you could think of, like cheap kids toys or hair combs, things like that. Semi-durable plastics that probably end up in the garbage pretty quickly.

CD: Yeah basically, since we can swear on the show, I would call this: all the sh*t plastic that is really the last thing you want in your home.

EM: Okay…so this is what Martin’s colleague saw when she got there, or?

CD: No, so this is how this kind of operation is running when they receive plastic bales. The thing is…

MB: She’s not seeing any imported plastic there, she’s not seeing anything from the U.S. So she asks them, “Well, do you get import-grade materials?” And they said, “No, no, we haven’t got that for several months. That market is totally shut down. We wish we could get that stuff, but we can’t get it anymore”.

This was a big concern for us, because first of all we had a facility that we felt okay about. It wasn’t great, it wouldn’t be permitted in California.





CD: So here he is talking about the facility they were working with at the very beginning, before the market crashed.

MB: But it at least had some water quality and air quality controls, and decent labour standards. But now we don’t even know where it’s going, because our last tracker made it to China, and now somebody goes to look at the facility, and they say, “Oh, we can’t even buy that stuff anymore”.

CD: So that’s one first thing to learn from plastic scrap markets in Asia. They are impossible to control, you think you know where your stuff is going, but it’s changing all the time.

EM: I see.

MB: And what’s happened in the meantime is while the amount of stuff that we’re collecting keeps going up – every month we get more and more of it – but the price of it keeps going further and further down. We used to get twelve dollars a tonne for it, which is not very much at all. And then we weren’t getting anything for it, we just had to give it away. And now we have to pay to get rid of it.

We’re starting to pay almost as much as it costs to send something to the landfill. It takes about sixty dollars a tonne to send garbage to the landfill in this area.

CD: And we’ll get back to this debate about shipping it to pseudo-recycling versus landfill, versus incineration, because it deserves its own discussion.

EM: Okay.

CD: I stay on markets because then they found out their stuff is not even going to China anymore.

MB: When we heard that our stuff wasn’t even going to China anymore, that gave us great pause. Because we know that in Southeast Asia there are a lot of countries that don’t even have the level of development and the regulatory context or infrastructure capacity that China has. So when you’re paying to get rid of it, you’re paying somebody to take your scrap, there’s an incredible incentive for them to get paid to take that scrap and then just get rid of it in the cheapest possible way.

That sounds to me like a race to the bottom.

CD: This is fundamental. You don’t need to be a Harvard economist to understand that if something is put on the market, has no value (actually the contrary), you are paying someone to get rid of it, and this negative value chain is not controlled – then you have a serious problem.

EM: And we are talking about millions of tonnes every year.

MB: And so that made us even more concerned. So we sent out another tracker. Actually, we sent out a few, but one of them succeeded.



CD: I stop here.

EM: No don’t do that!

CD: Not only for the pleasure of the cliffhanger. But also because there are quite a few conclusions to unpack here and I want to make sure we look at this with a constructive mind.

First of all – if you are interested in tracking stories: we were invited to host a live talkshow about this in a few days. A few partners coming together, and Martin may even be with us in person to tell us how this ended. This will be in Brussels on November 6th, it’s coming very soon, link in the episode notes.

EM: I can’t wait!

CD: Next point: imagine a properly funded research program that could deploy these trackers at scale…

EM: Yeah…?

CD: That’s all, just imagine.

EM: Not sure people want to know where their plastic stuff is going….

CD: Something else I wanted to mention at this point:

I hear a few sceptical voices: “this is a U.S. story, who is telling me the same may be happening with the European plastic recycling?”

EM: In the previous episode we shared some public numbers about all the plastic that is going to Asia.

CD: Right.




EM: And in case it’s not enough, maybe now is a good moment to share some of the figures I got from this port in Benelux that I can’t name.

CD: Please!

EM: Well thanks to our in-house spreadsheet consolidation capabilities, we can say that…

CD: Drumroll….

EM: Out of all destinations for exported plastic scraps, almost 60% was going to China,

CD: Surprise.

EM: 18% to Hong Kong.

CD: Probably before going somewhere else.

EM: Yes. And if you sum China and Hong Kong, it’s more than a quarter million tonnes of plastic. Just for 2016, just from that one port in Benelux. I’ll let you imagine.

CD: Hmm.

EM: And then smaller percentages go to Vietnam, Malaysia, India…less than 5% each time.

CD: So it’s safe to say that our plastic scraps probably receive the same treatment as Martin’s plastic bales.

EM: Yes, definitely. Why would it be different?

CD: The only thing that matters is what’s in the container. If it’s in a container to Asia first of all it’s that it makes financial sense to send over there.

If it’s clean material and is a valuable type of plastic on asian markets, it will probably be recycled in some way.

EM: Downcycled, actually.

CD: But impossible to know how, where, in what conditions, following what standards.

If it’s not that clean and valuable, then first of all you are probably paying to get rid of it rather than selling it for a good price. And secondly, you can imagine what happens to it when it reaches Asian megacities where they won’t know what to do with it.

EM: That’s the part you see in documentaries and YouTube videos.

CD: So take all that plastic that has no value whatsoever, and that we basically dump on Asian waste markets every year. Add all the low-grade plastic that other western countries send over there. Add up all the post-consumer plastic scraps produced within those asian countries,

EM: By their own population, you mean.

CD: Right. You get millions and millions of tonnes of plastic every year that recyclers don’t want, that informal waste pickers don’t want and…

EM: Hey, wouldn’t that correspond to the millions of tonnes ending up in the ocean every year from those five Asian countries we named in last episode?

CD: I feel like Sherlock Holmes.

EM: Well, millions of tonnes of worthless plastic dumped on the shore or river sides, and millions of tonnes of worthless plastic enter the ocean every year.

CD: There must be a connection?

EM: I would think so…

CD: Well, some stakeholders do not want to see it.

EM: No?

CD: Yeah we are going to have to tell the truth… again.

EM: Another annoying journalist telling the truth, eh?

CD: At this point we just wanted to demonstrate that what you see in the ocean is actually western plastic waste. Not only asian plastic waste.

EM: I think this is very clear by now.

CD: In the next episode, we are going to keep climbing upstream and start talking about what European industry and policy makers can do right now to face this reality.

EM: It’s now clear that this is where actions are needed.

CD: Not in pretending we are going to help asian countries fix their problem.

EM: It’s also about what’s going on in our continent.



CD: Eleen, I forgot to tell you one detail.

EM: What?

CD: It’s a little parameter we should take into account…

EM: Come on, tell me.

CD: China doesn’t want our plastic anymore.

EM: What?

CD: Millions of tonnes are going to stay at the Chinese border as of January first 2018.

EM: I’m sorry!?

CD: Official order. All that trash woke the dragon, as we say. The Government announced late June that they are banning imports for twenty-four categories of materials, including all the plastic crap we have been sending for years.

EM: I can’t believe it.

CD: This is a huge shake on recycling markets.

EM: They are tired of being the trash pile of western countries maybe?

CD: Maybe…. So that’s something we are going to talk about in next episode.

EM: I bet.

CD: And most importantly what we can do about it, or what we should do about it!

EM: How do you fight a dragon right?

CD: Coming soon on Green Exchange!

EM: In the meantime, don’t forget to sign up for our live talk show in Brussels on November 6th. Link in the notes.

CD: And you can tell the truth to your neighbour about his yogurt tub floating in a Chinese river, but just make sure he keeps being a good citizen. Separating your waste at home is important.

EM: Even if the system is still far from perfect

CD: Thanks again to Martin and everyone who is helping us with this series.

EM: A lot of research is going on right now

CD: We’ll be back soon with more green knowledge, inspiration – and dragon moves. Keep up the good work in the meantime!


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