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American cities want to recycle their plastic trash in Mexico. Critics call it ‘waste colonialism.’

Just forward of this 12 months’s Super Bowl in February, the City of Phoenix, Arizona, revealed a peculiar press release touting its technique for waste diversion. Thanks to its relationship with Direct Pack Incorporated, an multinational firm that makes and recycles plastic, the town stated it could be capable to ship a lot of its plastic waste to Mexico for recycling.

“[T]he City of Phoenix stands ready to achieve its goal of hosting the greenest Super Bowl events yet,” the announcement from Phoenix’s public works division stated.

The metropolis was referring to a forthcoming Direct Pack facility for recycling plastic objects known as PET thermoforms — clamshells, berry containers, salad bins, egg cartons, and equally formed containers constituted of polyethylene terephthalate, one of many seven foremost sorts of plastic. Direct Pack already has a recycling facility in Guadalajara that it says can recycle tens of thousands of tons of PET thermoforms annually, and it’s been establishing a brand new one in Mexicali, Mexico, simply throughout the border from California. 

The facility is nice information for plastic firms based mostly within the U.S., the place business publications say PET thermoform recycling has remained “a struggle.” These firms face rising scrutiny over skyrocketing plastic air pollution, and have spent a long time making an attempt to persuade the general public that recycling is the reply. Direct Pack says on its web site that it can provide PET thermoforms new life time and again, turning plastic containers like these thrown away on the Phoenix Super Bowl right into a “valuable infinite resource.” 

But environmental advocates in Mexico are much less excited in regards to the concept of processing extra of what they see as rubbish from overseas. “The U.S. shouldn’t send this waste to Mexico,” stated Marisa Jacott, director of the Mexican nonprofit Fronteras Comunes. “We have less money, less infrastructure.” Rather than participating in what she known as “waste colonialism,” she urged U.S. firms to cease producing a lot plastic within the first place and to cease selling recycling as a cure-all to the plastic waste disaster. 

Direct Pack’s Mexicali facility is a component of a bigger plan from the U.S. plastics business to enhance recycling infrastructure for the 1.6 billion pounds of PET thermoforms that the U.S. and Canada produce yearly. Unlike the PET bottles used for bottled water, soda, and fruit juice, that are among the many best plastic merchandise to recycle, PET thermoforms are accepted by simply 11 percent of the United States’ materials restoration services, or MRFs — the vegetation the place blended supplies from recycling bins like paper, aluminum, and plastic are sorted into bales for additional processing. And even that doesn’t imply that these thermoforms will finally be become new merchandise; most recyclers are unwilling to buy and reprocess PET thermoforms because it prices extra to sort, wash, and recycle them than to make new plastics.

The foremost North American commerce group for PET container recyclers lists solely one facility within the United States that can settle for PET-only bales of plastic for reprocessing. The president of one other business group, the Association of Plastic Recyclers, stated final 12 months that PET thermoforms have been a low-volume commodity that weren’t well worth the prices of sorting and storage.

Given such a bleak panorama, Ornela Garelli, an oceans and plastic campaigner for the nonprofit Greenpeace Mexico, says the promise of thermoform recycling is a “greenwashing strategy” from the plastics business — a method to justify the continued manufacturing of plastics. She says it’s time to cease making so many thermoforms within the first place, not maintain out hope that extra recycling infrastructure will ever be capable to sustain with a rising glut of plastic waste.

Still, U.S. plastic makers are doubling down. A U.S.-based nonprofit known as the Recycling Partnership — funded and overseen by plastic and packaging firms, together with Coca-Cola and Exxon Mobil — says it plans to fund a variety of PET recycling efforts this 12 months, starting with a first round of grants introduced in early January for 3 firms centered on PET reclamation. 

One of those firms is Direct Pack, whose headquarters are in Azusa, California, simply outdoors Los Angeles. But reasonably than constructing out PET thermoform recycling infrastructure stateside, the Recycling Partnership’s grant is getting used to assist Direct Pack construct a brand new PET recycling facility in Mexicali, set to start working this spring. According to the Recycling Partnership, the plant will supply thermoforms from throughout the U.S., course of them right into a plastic feedstock known as “flake,” and ship them throughout the road to an current Direct Pack thermoform manufacturing plant, the place they are going to be transformed into new packaging.

Strawberries packed in plastic clamshells.
Getty Images

Andrew Jolin, Direct Pack’s director of sustainability, informed Grist that “the whole process is environmentally sound,” including that the corporate has been “embraced by the local community with our competitive pay scale and benefits.” He stated considerations in regards to the recyclability of PET thermoforms are “disinformation” propagated by Greenpeace and that Direct Pack plans to open an analogous recycling plant in North Carolina by the top of the 12 months.

Critics, nevertheless, have raised authorized and moral objections. Jim Puckett, founder and government director of the U.S.-based nonprofit Basel Action Network, informed Grist it was “disgusting” that the City of Phoenix and the businesses represented by the Recycling Partnership have been touting the Mexicali facility. “Of course it’s wonderful for them, they get to sweep their garbage across the border,” he stated.

Puckett says the Mexicali facility might run afoul of a global settlement known as the Basel Convention, which regulates the worldwide plastic waste commerce. Although the U.S. hasn’t ratified the settlement, Mexico has — that means it’s unlawful for Mexico to import plastic waste from the U.S. except it’s “almost free from contamination and other types of waste” and “destined for recycling in an environmentally sound manner,” reasonably than incinerated or dumped. Bales of PET that comprise greater than 2 p.c different kinds of plastic, paper, metallic, meals, or different supplies are typically regulated below the Basel Convention as “hazardous waste” and are banned from U.S.-Mexico commerce.

“It’s really difficult to achieve that level of cleanliness,” Puckett stated. In California, MRFs are unable to type bales of PET past a median of about 10 percent contamination — and that’s once they embrace PET bottles. There’s just about no information on contamination in thermoform-only bales — since most recyclers within the U.S. gained’t purchase PET thermoforms, they’re usually not sorted into bales on their very own.

Craig Snedden, Direct Pack’s president, stated the corporate doesn’t test PET bales earlier than they’re imported from the U.S. to the corporate’s Guadalajara facility, however he’s assured that they comprise lower than 2 p.c contamination, based mostly on information on the burden of PET collected in comparison with the burden of all of the nonrecyclable supplies Direct Pack sends to a landfill.  Adam Gendell, The Recycling Partnership’s director of supplies development, stated the commonest kinds of contamination are from meals, which “doesn’t sink anybody’s ship” or “cause deleterious effects to the natural environment.” 

In response to an in depth listing of questions, a spokesperson for the City of Phoenix referred Grist to Direct Pack and highlighted its purpose of attaining “zero waste” by 2050.

Environmental teams have additionally raised considerations that PET thermoform recycling might divert tens of millions of gallons of water from residential use in Mexicali, which was declared to be in a state of emergency drought final summer season. Multiple washes are required to take away sticky glues and labels from PET thermoforms, making them considerably extra water-intensive to recycle than bottles.

Jolin stated the Mexicali facility would “not us a lot of freshwater” — about 800 gallons per day. He stated it’s extra environmentally pleasant to recycle PET thermoforms than to make packages out of different supplies like paper, as a result of doing so requires extra bushes to be harvested. (The U.S. recycling charge for cardboard is bigger than 90 percent, in comparison with 5 percent for plastic.)

Garelli, with Greenpeace Mexico,  stated supporting a PET thermoform recycling plant in Mexico permits Direct Pack and its funders by the Recycling Partnership to skirt labor laws which can be harder within the U.S. The minimal wage in Mexicali is about $17 per day — $2.12 an hour, based mostly on an eight-hour workday — in comparison with $15.50 an hour in California.

“Instead of forcing their own companies to make the transition toward reusability, they are sending all their plastic waste to countries where there are more flexible laws,” she stated. “They can pay low salaries to the workers.”

Federal data compiled by the Basel Action Network reveals that U.S. plastic waste exports to Latin America have grown by some 90 million kilos per 12 months since 2017, when China stopped accepting it with its “National Sword” coverage. “It is not fair for countries — not only Mexico but other Latin American countries — to keep receiving this waste from the U.S.,” Garelli stated. 

Editor’s observe: Greenpeace is an advertiser with Grist. Advertisers haven’t any position in Grist’s editorial selections.


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