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U.S. Recyclers in 'Mounting Crisis' After China's Plastic Waste Ban

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U.S. Recyclers in 'Mounting Crisis' After China's Plastic Waste Ban
A recycling center worker separates plastic and aluminum materials into different bins. U.S. Air Force photo by Kemberly Groue

After China's crackdown on foreign waste earlier this year, the United States has turned to poorer countries mostly in Southeast Asia to send its used plastics, according to a new report.

This research, authored by Greenpeace's investigative team Unearthed, is the first comprehensive analysis of where U.S. recyclers are sending its trash since China introduced the ban, which took effect on Jan. 1.


Citing data from the U.S. Census Bureau, the researchers found a year-on-year drop of 92 percent in the amount of plastic sent to China and Hong Kong. That corresponded to a dramatic increase of scraps being sent instead to Thailand (1,985 percent), Malaysia (273 percent) and Vietnam (46 percent).

"It is an embarrassment that the government of one of the most powerful countries in the world feels it must depend on others to take out our trash," said Greenpeace Oceans campaign director John Hocevar in a press release emailed to EcoWatch. "This is a wake up call for corporations, and the governments that allow this practice, to stop producing packaging and products that no one is willing to properly dispose of. It makes no sense to keep making products that we use once and throw away out of material that lasts forever."

"In the first six months of this year, 81% of plastic waste exports from the US went to Asia, a 7% drop on 2017."—UnearthedGreenpeace

Due to this massive influx of trash, the governments of Thailand, Malaysia and Vietnam have recently implemented their own policies to restrict the world's waste.

Roughly 8 million tons of plastic is dumped into the world's oceans every year, with the majority of this waste coming from Asian countries, a 2015 study found.

As China and Southeast Asian countries focus on their own pollution problems, exporting countries are

scrambling for solutions for their growing stockpiles of trash.

"With these Southeast Asian countries moving to impose import restrictions and plastic scrap piling up from California to Florida, the U.S. recycling industry is talking about a mounting crisis in the country," the Unearthed report says.

The researchers found that plastic waste exports in the U.S. dropped by almost a third, from 949,789 metric tons in 2017 to 666,760 metric tons in 2018. That means about 280,000 metric tons of plastic is no longer being exported by the U.S., and has not been accounted for, Greenpeace said.

The pile-up has resulted in various schemes, including recyclables being directly sent to landfills, as Unearthed wrote:

In towns and cities across the U.S., firms have been taking a variety of steps to deal with the backlog. Some have suspended their recycling schemes, begun education campaigns or refused to accept certain types of plastic waste. Others have refused to pick up rubbish from outside houses, sent recycling to landfill or burned it.

By 2030, an estimated 111 million metric tons of single-use drink bottles, food containers and other plastic junk will be displaced around the globe due to China's ban on other countries' trash, according to a paper from University of Georgia researchers.

Environmentalists are calling on a significant reduction on the use and production of nonrecyclable materials.

"We know that our waste ends up in countries that lack the infrastructure to process foreign waste, or gets dumped in U.S. landfills," Greenpeace plastics campaigner Kate Melges said in the press release. "As cities and states around the country increasingly suspend or reduce their recycling programs, it's time to stop churning out so much plastic to begin with."

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In the age of consumption, sustainability innovations can help shift cultural habits and protect dwindling natural resources. Improvements in source materials, product durability and end-of-life disposal procedures can create consumer products that are better for the Earth throughout their lifecycles. Three recent advancements hope to make a difference.

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A net-casting ogre-faced spider. CBG Photography Group, Centre for Biodiversity Genomics / CC BY-SA 3.0

Just in time for Halloween, scientists at Cornell University have published some frightening research, especially if you're an insect!

The ghoulishly named ogre-faced spider can "hear" with its legs and use that ability to catch insects flying behind it, the study published in Current Biology Thursday concluded.

"Spiders are sensitive to airborne sound," Cornell professor emeritus Dr. Charles Walcott, who was not involved with the study, told the Cornell Chronicle. "That's the big message really."

The net-casting, ogre-faced spider (Deinopis spinosa) has a unique hunting strategy, as study coauthor Cornell University postdoctoral researcher Jay Stafstrom explained in a video.

They hunt only at night using a special kind of web: an A-shaped frame made from non-sticky silk that supports a fuzzy rectangle that they hold with their front forelegs and use to trap prey.

They do this in two ways. In a maneuver called a "forward strike," they pounce down on prey moving beneath them on the ground. This is enabled by their large eyes — the biggest of any spider. These eyes give them 2,000 times the night vision that we have, Science explained.

But the spiders can also perform a move called the "backward strike," Stafstrom explained, in which they reach their legs behind them and catch insects flying through the air.

"So here comes a flying bug and somehow the spider gets information on the sound direction and its distance. The spiders time the 200-millisecond leap if the fly is within its capture zone – much like an over-the-shoulder catch. The spider gets its prey. They're accurate," coauthor Ronald Hoy, the D & D Joslovitz Merksamer Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences, told the Cornell Chronicle.

What the researchers wanted to understand was how the spiders could tell what was moving behind them when they have no ears.

It isn't a question of peripheral vision. In a 2016 study, the same team blindfolded the spiders and sent them out to hunt, Science explained. This prevented the spiders from making their forward strikes, but they were still able to catch prey using the backwards strike. The researchers thought the spiders were "hearing" their prey with the sensors on the tips of their legs. All spiders have these sensors, but scientists had previously thought they were only able to detect vibrations through surfaces, not sounds in the air.

To test how well the ogre-faced spiders could actually hear, the researchers conducted a two-part experiment.

First, they inserted electrodes into removed spider legs and into the brains of intact spiders. They put the spiders and the legs into a vibration-proof booth and played sounds from two meters (approximately 6.5 feet) away. The spiders and the legs responded to sounds from 100 hertz to 10,000 hertz.

Next, they played the five sounds that had triggered the biggest response to 25 spiders in the wild and 51 spiders in the lab. More than half the spiders did the "backward strike" move when they heard sounds that have a lower frequency similar to insect wing beats. When the higher frequency sounds were played, the spiders did not move. This suggests the higher frequencies may mimic the sounds of predators like birds.

University of Cincinnati spider behavioral ecologist George Uetz told Science that the results were a "surprise" that indicated science has much to learn about spiders as a whole. Because all spiders have these receptors on their legs, it is possible that all spiders can hear. This theory was first put forward by Walcott 60 years ago, but was dismissed at the time, according to the Cornell Chronicle. But studies of other spiders have turned up further evidence since. A 2016 study found that a kind of jumping spider can pick up sonic vibrations in the air.

"We don't know diddly about spiders," Uetz told Science. "They are much more complex than people ever thought they were."

Learning more provides scientists with an opportunity to study their sensory abilities in order to improve technology like bio-sensors, directional microphones and visual processing algorithms, Stafstrom told CNN.

Hoy agreed.

"The point is any understudied, underappreciated group has fascinating lives, even a yucky spider, and we can learn something from it," he told CNN.

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