In the Trump era, the American garbage business is changing in ways that Tony Soprano never could have anticipated. And it's creating serious problems for American cities, who might soon find themselves with nowhere to turn to export their trash and recyclables (most of which have almost no value above rubbish due to contamination, and are typically disposed of in the same fashion).
And while an unrelenting river of garbage with nowhere to go might be a mafioso's dream, small towns like Chester City, PA., a small town in Delaware County that is best known as Philly's waste pit, is demanding that something be done since China's sleeper ban on recycling imports - which arose from Beijing's desire "not to be the world's landfill" - has led to a host of new deadly contaminants polluting the impoverished town's air as its incinerators now burn more of the plastics that China will no longer accept.
As we explained last year, since 1992, China and Hong Kong have taken in approximately 72% of global plastic waste according to a study in the journal Science Advances. However, since January 2018, Beijing stopped accepting most paper and plastic waste in accordance with new environmental policies.
What they do still accept: cardboard and metal, now has an extremely low contamination threshold of just 0.5% - a level far too low for current US recycling technology to handle. Where China used to take 40% of the US's paper plastics and other trash, that trade has now ground to a halt.
It is “virtually impossible to meet the stringent contamination standards established in China”, according to a spokeswoman for the Philly city government. Because of this, the city's garbage problem has become a “major impact on the city’s budget”, at around $78 a ton. Now, half of the city’s recycling is going to the Covanta plant.
Making matters worse is that US waste handlers believe that China is on track to close its doors to all recycled materials by 2020, an impossibly short deadline to build new incinerators or find somewhere else to dump America's garbage (other than the ocean).
Since China implemented the ban last year, about 200 tons of recycling material are incinerated every day at the Covanta plant in Chester, according to the Guardian.
The incinerator's impact on public health in Chester is already staggering: Nearly four in 10 children in the city have asthma, while the rate of ovarian cancer is 64% higher than the rest of Pennsylvania and lung cancer rates are 24% higher. And community activists worry that could get worse: Experts believe the burning of the "recyclable" plastics could unleash a new fog of toxic dioxins in to the town's air.
So they're organizing to do something about it, as one local told the Guardian.
"People want to do the right thing by recycling but they have no idea where it goes and who it impacts," said Zulene Mayfield, who was born and raised in Chester and now spearheads a community group against the incinerator, called Chester Residents Concerned for Quality Living.
"People in Chester feel hopeless – all they want is for their kids to get out, escape. Why should we be expendable? Why should this place have to be burdened by people’s trash and shit?"
Of course, this dilemma isn't unique to Philly and Chester. The problem of what to do with the growing backlog of American waste is playing out across the country.
Contrary to the common wisdom that recycling will save the sea turtles, the reality is that most of the recyclables collected in the US are incinerated or thrown in a landfill (sorry, turtles).
Ironically, while China has a reputation for being inundated with pollution and smog according to the American popular perception, now that the Chinese aren't taking our trash, we have no idea what to do with it.
“The unfortunate thing in the United States is that when people recycle they think it’s taken care of, when it was largely taken care of by China,” said Gilman. “When that stopped, it became clear we just aren’t able to deal with it.”
To make waste disposal in the US more palatable for small towns, incinerators will need to be reengineered to meet higher environmental standards, and the whole US recycling system will need to be overhauled.
There isn’t much of a domestic market for US recyclables – materials such as steel or high-density plastics can be sold on but much of the rest holds little more value than rubbish – meaning that local authorities are hurling it into landfills or burning it in huge incinerators like the one in Chester, which already torches around 3,510 tons of trash, the weight equivalent of more than 17 blue whales, every day.
"This is a real moment of reckoning for the US because of a lot of these incinerators are aging, on their last legs, without the latest pollution controls," said Claire Arkin, campaign associate at Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives. “You may think burning plastic means ‘poof, it’s gone’ but it puts some very nasty pollution into the air for communities that are already dealing with high rates of asthma and cancers.”
If a solution isn't found soon, garbage will continue to eat up a larger share of city budgets, pushing them further toward financial instability.
Or towns like Chester might follow the example set by Sopranos antagonist Richie Aprile.