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When Being Green in America Means Wrecking Malaysia


If you want to save the planet and be completely guilt-free about it, conserve. Conserve energy. Conserve materials. Consume less. This leaves natural resources in the ground today so that they can be enjoyed by future generations. This reduces global warming. There is nothing ecologically bad about conservation.

There are a lot of things Americans do that can be green but sometimes aren’t.

It is one thing to do something that actually reduces ecological problems. It is another thing to shift ecological problems from one country to another. The first country feels nice and clean. The second country gets far dirtier because the first country is dumping its dirty production processes and industrial waste on the second.

The process of transferring ecological bads from one country to another is called unequal ecological exchange. Andrew Jorgensen from Boston College has done a lot of the statistical work that shows that unequal ecological exchange is a widespread phenomenon. The pollution problems of the Global South are made far worse from having to clean up the mess from the Global North.

The most obvious example is the migration of dirty production processes from the United States or Europe to India and China. The United States and Europe maintain strict ecological policies concerning air pollution, water pollution and the use of toxic material in the workplace. China and India have laws on the books restricting these; de facto dirty production processes are widespread in both countries. Mani and Wheeler (1997) have shown that the percentage of Japanese, American and European industry that is highly polluting had gone down between 1960 and 1995. In Latin America and Asia, that percentage has risen dramatically. Haitan Lu has written an entire book on dirty industry migration to China, providing case after case after case of polluting or toxic production processes being transferred to China after facing regulatory obstacles in the wealthier nations.

A surprising contributor to unequal ecological exchange is recycling. Many Americans are highly committed to recycling – believing that this is the way they can do their bit to save the environment. Recycling is great when one’s plastic or glass or metal is actually recycled into a new product – eliminating the need to make new products. Recycling is not so great when the old plastic or glass or metal is NOT reused. If your old Coke bottle is just put in a bin with a recycling insignia and shipped to another country, recycling is just a very expensive form of dumping trash. If another country gets American or European trash, it is actually unequal ecological exchange.

The problem with recycling is that recycled materials are often far more expensive than virgin materials, materials made from fresh resources. Sometimes the price differential is not too bad – and recycled products are competitive. But when the price difference between recycling and fresh production is too extreme, the recycling plants become non-viable and their feedstocks of used products have to be burned or dumped. In plastics recycling what matters is the price of petroleum. When oil prices are high, new plastic is expensive since plastic is a petrochemical. When oil prices are low, virgin plastic is extremely affordable. Right now oil prices are at historic lows. This means that recycled plastic is almost impossible to sell.

China used to take the overwhelming majority of the world’s recycling feedstock. With plastic recycling now being economically non-viable, China has refused to accept further shipments of American or European used plastic.

The plastic from your recycling bin now goes to Malaysia. The recycling business in Malaysia is extremely unpopular. The plastic which can not be used, which is most of it, gets burned. The plastic recycling factories are located in slum neighborhoods. The smoke and stench from burning plastic blows out into the residential neighborhoods nearby, making everyone have to breathe and smell plastic chemical waste. In addition, not all of the plastic that arrives on the boats is clean. At best, the contaminants are organic garbage, such as food waste. At worse, the plastic containers once held other chemical products such as household cleaners or industrial reagents. These ingredients too are noxious when burned. There has been substantial mobilization against plastic recyclers in Malaysia. The industry is being increasingly regulated, with some government officials wanting to see recycling operations closed down entirely.

Obviously, this problem would be much less severe if the price of oil were to go up, making virgin plastic less economically viable.

But the larger point is that most Americans and residents of the rich nations of the world don’t think much about where their recycling is going when they put their cans and bottles in the bin. If everything is going to their local recycling depot, then everything must be okay. But everything is only okay, when the price of virgin products is relatively high. That is a conditionality that changes over time. When the recycling market breaks down, the socially responsible thing to do is to take one’s plastic to a landfill near one’s own home, rather than dumping it on poorer countries in the rest of the world. And if we want to reduce global levels of energy use, we certainly do not want to spend hydrocarbons putting old plastic or cans on barges so they can be shipped five thousand miles before being put in a landfill far away.

Ideally, we should use less material. Ideally, we should generate less waste. Ideally, recycling markets would exist. When they don’t, we should dump our waste near our own home so we don’t waste energy shipping trash around.

That is not what is occurring in the world today. Which is why plastic fumes stink up the poorer neighborhoods in Asia.

For More Information

For a good introduction to the social scientific literature on unequal ecological exchange, see the special double issue of the 2014 International Journal of Sociology edited by Andrew Jorgensen and his frequent collaborator Brett Clark, “Ecologically Unequal Exchange in Comparative Perspective.”

The full reference to the Mani and Wheeler study is Muthukumara Mani and David Wheeler. 1997. “In Search of Pollution Havens: Dirty Industry in the World Economy 1960-1995.” Workshop Paper at the OECD Conference on Foreign Direct Investment and the Environment. The Hague. January 1999.

The full reference to Haitan Lu’s book is Role of China in Dirty Industry Migration. 2008. Witney, U. K., Chandos. Take it out from your library. The cost will bankrupt you.

On the current crisis in plastic recycling, see the April 2020 Fortune magazine article “Vicious (Re)Cycle: Plastic That Travels 8000 Miles and the Global Crisis in Recycling”.

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