Amazon Packages Burn in India, Last Stop in Broken Recycling … – Bloomberg - 1Home

Amazon Packages Burn in India, Last Stop in Broken Recycling … – Bloomberg

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Connecting decision makers to a dynamic network of information, people and ideas, Bloomberg quickly and accurately delivers business and financial information, news and insight around the world
Americas+1 212 318 2000
EMEA+44 20 7330 7500
Asia Pacific+65 6212 1000
Connecting decision makers to a dynamic network of information, people and ideas, Bloomberg quickly and accurately delivers business and financial information, news and insight around the world
Americas+1 212 318 2000
EMEA+44 20 7330 7500
Asia Pacific+65 6212 1000
Plastic wrappers and parcels that start off in Americans’ recycling bins end up at illegal dumpsites and industrial furnaces — and inside the lungs of people in Muzaffarnagar.
By K Oanh Ha
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Muzaffarnagar, a city about 80 miles north of New Delhi, is famous in India for two things: colonial-era freedom fighters who helped drive out the British and the production of jaggery, a cane sugar product boiled into goo at some 1,500 small sugar mills in the area. Less likely to feature in tourism guides is Muzaffarnagar’s new status as the final destination for tons of supposedly recycled American plastic.
On a November afternoon, mosquitoes swarmed above plastic trash piled 6 feet high off one of the city’s main roads. A few children picked through the mounds, looking for discarded toys while unmasked waste pickers sifted for metal cans or intact plastic bottles that could be sold. Although much of it was sodden or shredded, labels hinted at how far these items had traveled: Kirkland-brand almonds from Costco, Nestlé’s Purina-brand dog food containers, the wrapping for Trader Joe’s mangoes.
Most ubiquitous of all were shipping envelopes thrown out by US and Canadian consumers some 7,000 miles away. An up-close look at the piles also turned up countless examples of the three arrows that form the recycling logo, while some plastic packages had messages such as “Recycle Me” written across them.
Plastic that enters the recycling system in North America isn’t supposed to end up in India, which has since 2019 banned almost all imports of plastic waste. So how did Muzaffarnagar become a dumping ground for foreign plastic?
To answer that question, Bloomberg Green retraced a trail back from the industrial belt of northern India, through the brokers who ship refuse around the world, to the municipal waste companies in the US that look for takers of their lowest-value recycling. Finally, the search arrived at the point of origin: American consumers who thought — wrongly, as it turns out — that they were recycling their trash.
It’s a system that’s supposed to cut pollution, spare landfills and give valuable materials a second life. But in Muzaffarnagar the failures are hard to miss. The region’s other major industry is paper production, with more than 30 mills dotted among the furnaces for making jaggery. Paper factories in India often rely on imported waste paper, which is cheaper than wood pulp. The nation’s paper makers need to import around 6 million tons annually to meet demand, and most of it comes from North America.
This could be a recycling success story — were it not for all the plastic that comes mixed into all the waste paper. Exported paper recycling typically includes loose sheets from offices, old magazines and junk mail. But the bales are frequently contaminated with all kinds of plastic that consumers have tossed into their recycling bins, including the flimsy wrapping that holds water bottles together in a pack, soft food packaging and shipping envelopes.
Demand for paper has created an unaccountably large loophole in the ban on plastic waste from overseas. India may be bringing in as much as 500,000 tons of plastic waste hidden within paper shipments annually, according to a government environmental body that estimated the level of contamination at 5%. While the government allows up to 2% contamination in recycled paper, lax enforcement at ports means no one’s checking. So there’s no way to measure how contaminated the bales really are.
Plastic contamination also comes through in recycled paper shipments sent from North America to other Asian countries, where dirty diapers, hazardous waste and batteries have all turned up. The amount of plastic trash coming into India in waste paper now is almost double the 264,000 metric tons that was legally imported in 2019 to the country before it imposed the ban in August of that year, according to figures from the United Nations Comtrade database. Since the ban, the government has allowed a small number of companies to import recyclable water bottles.
Under the Basel Convention, a UN treaty that regulates international flows of hazardous waste, exporters of plastic are also required to obtain explicit consent from importing countries before shipments are sent.
Perhaps one reason why the system is failing in India is that there are end users for plastic that mostly can’t be recycled. “There’s value in all plastics,” says Pankaj Aggarwal, the managing director of a local paper mill and chairman of the Paper Manufacturers Association for the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. “There are people who will buy it and have use for it.”
Still, Aggarwal says, he isn’t in the recycling business. That’s why he sends the unwanted plastic that comes through with the imported waste paper by tractor to a cement factory more than 400 miles away, where it ends up incinerated for energy. It’s a legal method of disposal in India. Other countries allow it too, though typically impose strict environmental standards. Cement kilns are hot enough to completely consume plastic, though the process is hardly climate positive. The greenhouse gas emissions from burning plastic are about the same as burning oil.
Most of Muzaffarnagar’s paper mills have workers do a first-pass sift for the most valuable plastics such as water bottles, which can be recycled. The rest is carted off by unlicensed contractors who dump it at illegal sites throughout the city. There, it will be further sorted by laborers who are paid about $3 a day for potentially recyclable materials and dried out. The bulk is resold to paper and sugar mills to burn as fuel.
The heat in boilers and furnaces at paper and sugar mills do not generate enough heat, however, so microplastic ash from the unconsumed remnant perpetually falls across the city. The mills also aren’t equipped with sufficient filtration to capture toxic emissions, equipment that can cost millions of dollars. In October alone, the Uttar Pradesh Pollution Control Board fined nearly half of the mills in the city for burning plastic, improperly disposing of the waste and failing to manage the ash.
“So much of the plastic waste from abroad has no saleable value, and it can’t be recycled,” says Ankit Singh, regional officer for the Uttar Pradesh Pollution Control Board. “It’s just being dumped here and then will get burnt.”
More from Bloomberg Green’s Big Plastic series:
A Plastic Bag’s 2,000-Mile Journey
West Africa Is Drowning in Plastic
TerraCycle’s Recycling Dream
Thailand Is Tired of Recycling Your Trash
Big Plastic’s Faltering Global Cleanup Effort
The long journey taken by most of the plastic that reaches Muzaffarnagar is difficult to trace, even when branding indicates a North American origin. But every so often an identifying mark provides a clear starting location.
One plastic envelope with a United States Postal Service label stood out from the piles at a local dump site because it still had a name and address printed directly on it. The parcel had been shipped to Laurie Smyla, a 73-year-old retiree from Sloatsburg, New York.
There was no doubt in her mind: Smyla had put that envelope into her recycling bin. “That’s polyethelene, and I’d recycle that. If it’s got the recycling symbol on it, into the bin it goes,” she says. “I get a lot of Amazon packages, and they all go into the bin, too.”
Smyla has a degree in environmental science and even served as coordinator for the local recycling program in the late 1980s, as she explains when reached by phone. She was able to quickly identify the envelope as polyethylene, the most common type of plastic. It arrived in September with prescription medication.
Most consumers like Smyla have been lulled into thinking that the three-chasing arrows, a marketing symbol created by the petrochemical industry, found on many packages means it’s recyclable. In fact, it simply indicates which type of plastic it is. She was dismayed to learn that the plastic packaging she put into her recycling bin had traveled thousands of miles to pollute someone else’s backyard.
“That is really a shame, considering that that stuff is not biodegradable and is going to last a millennium,” Smyla says. “I feel sorry for anyone who lives within a 5-mile radius of the site you’re standing on.”
That would include Bobinder Kumar, a 35-year-old mechanic who lives with his wife and three kids in a bare two-room home. The plastic dump that had the envelope addressed to Smyla is just a few hundred feet from his home. Nearly every inch of the 3-acre site is strewn with trash.
“We can’t escape the smell of the trash, even in our home,” he says. “It’s very terrible to live close to the site, but what can we do?”
By far the most common logo in the heaps just outside the Kumar home is the curved line and arrow of Inc. The blue-and-white plastic shipping envelopes favored for small parcels by the online retail giant were easy to spot on visits to six illegal dump sites in Muzaffarnagar. The logo was evident in piles of plastic waiting to be burned at several sugar mills. The charred, half-melted remains of an Amazon envelope could be picked out from fly ash at a dump used by a local paper mill.
Amazon wouldn’t comment on the presence of its packaging in Muzaffarnagar. The company “is committed to minimizing waste and helping our customers recycle their packaging,” a spokesperson said in a statement. “Since 2015, we have invested in materials, processes, and technologies that have reduced per-shipment packaging weight by 38% and eliminated over 1.5 million tons of packaging material.”
Amazon generated 709 million pounds of plastic packaging waste in 2021 from all sales through Amazon’s e-commerce platforms globally, according to a report by international environmental group Oceana, up 18% from the prior year. At that volume the company’s air pillows to protect packages alone could circle the Earth more than 800 times. In a December blog post, Amazon said it reduced average plastic packaging weight per shipment by over 7% in 2021, resulting in 97,222 metric tons of single-use plastic being used across Amazon-owned and operated global fulfillment centers to ship orders to customers.
Amazon’s bubble-lined plastic bags carry the recycling logo that’s often criticized for confusing consumers into thinking its packaging is easily recycled. Soft plastics used in bags and wrappers are some of the hardest and least economically viable materials to recycle. Most American recyclers can’t process them.
Closer inspection of Amazon’s envelopes shows “Store Drop-off” printed with a link to How2Recycle, a third-party organization that offers educational material on recycling. Users who want a list of drop-off locations are directed to another website for locations that accept plastic items with the Store Drop-off logo, including big-box retailers such as Safeway, Target and Kohl’s. Amazon said it doesn’t control the management of plastics waste once it’s dropped-off by customers.
By the time plastic parcels arrive in India, though, there’s no question of reusing the material for anything other than fuel.
It’s been routine practice for Mohammad Shahzad, a sugar mill owner in Muzaffarnagar, to burn bagasse — dry sugarcane pulp — mixed with plastic scrap to fuel his furnace. Next to Shahzad’s furnace sits a large pile of bagasse mixed in with bits of plastic packaging to go into the fire, including an Amazon package envelope, Capri Sun drink pouch and the outer layer of plastic that held together a 12-pack of bottles of Kirkland-brand juice drinks.
The remnants of sugarcane aren’t quite combustible enough for the process, and wood is expensive. Mixing in plastic economizes the operation. “Plastic heats up the sugar well,” says Shazad, whose crew of six works while a group of children run about. “We make very little money.” He says other sugar mill owners use the same approach.
Shahzad’s mill sits off a stretch of road lined with sugarcane fields and operations that are practically open-air except for a thatched roof. Such mills are rudimentary: sugarcane is fed by hand into a machine that squeezes juice from it, leaving behind pulpy remnants that will be dried and later on burned as fuel to boil the juice down to what will become raw sugar when cooled.
In the villages around the sugar and paper mills, residents say they usually know when plastic has been burnt overnight because they wake up to a layer of ash that coats terraces, crops and anything left outdoors. Burning plastic releases a slew of toxins into the air, including dioxins, furans, mercury and other emissions that threaten the health of people, animals and vegetation, according to multiple studies. Exposure to burning plastic can disrupt neurodevelopment as well endocrine and reproductive functions, according to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences in the US. Other chemicals emitted in burns, including benzopyrene and polyaromatic hydrocarbons, have been linked to cancer.
The burns, along with other industrial pollution, leave a thick gray-yellow smog over Muzaffarnagar that rarely lifts. On most days the air-quality index in the city is above 175 — or “unhealthy” — and there are often warnings to limit exposure outside. Around Muzaffarnagar, respiratory problems such as asthma and bronchitis along with eye infections associated with air pollution and the burning of plastic are on the rise, up as much as 30% over the last few years, according to Muzaffarnagar’s chief medical officer.
District officials have started visiting factories overnight to identify culprits and fine them. But it isn’t enough to clear the air.
Parmanand Jha makes surprise inspections of paper mills suspected of burning plastic and shuts them down on the spot. The subdivisional magistrate in charge of Muzaffarnagar city has disconnected conveyor belts and chutes that sent plastic into the boilers at several paper mills this year. He knows his interventions are not a real deterrent. “They can save money burning plastic,” he says, “even with the fines.”
The furnace operators of Muzaffarnagar have found a way to profit from a waste stream that municipal collectors thousands of miles away see as valueless. The broken pathway that takes would-be recycled plastic from a town in New York to the furnaces of India first passes through a county recycling program that — understandably — doesn’t want to deal with plastic envelopes and packaging trash.
The sorting center that took in Smyla’s envelope and other discarded materials for recycling from the homes in Sloatsburg doesn’t take soft plastics because it wraps around the sorting machines and snarls them up. Soft plastics “constitute contamination because of what it does to the equipment,” says Gerard M. Damiani Jr., executive director for Rockland County Solid Waste Management Authority, which handles waste for 332,000 residents, including Smyla. “They’re not acceptable items in our program.” Most recycling centers in the US won’t accept soft plastic.
Damiani says consumer packaging and bags are the responsibility of retailers who sell the products. Under New York state law, retailers are required to offer store drop-off points for consumers to bring back and recycle soft plastics and shopping bags. He says the county isn’t responsible for handling the retailers’ recycling bins, and he has no idea what happens to those items once they’re dropped off.
Just because most consumer packaging waste isn’t eligible doesn’t mean that it stays out of the system. It’s possible Smyla’s envelope got mixed up with a paper load collected by the county, which has a contract with a New Jersey-based company called Interstate Waste Services to handle recycling. It’s also likely the plastic pouch was sorted at the recycling facility and accidentally sent into the paper stream. According to Damiani, the Interstate representative who handles Rockland’s waste told him it does export some paper recycling overseas.
Interstate’s facility in Airmont, New York, recycles commingled paper of all grades from Rockland County and lists N&V International and N&V Syracuse as the destination for most of its recycled paper waste in 2020, according to an annual report filed to New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation. It was not possible to confirm the chain of custody for Smyla’s shipping envelope, and N&V didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Rockland’s contract with Interstate doesn’t preclude sending materials overseas, but Damiani is against it. “You should deal with your own waste within your own borders,” he says. Bloomberg Green contacted several Interstate executives to ask how plastic waste from suburban New York could have ended up dumped in a field in India. None responded.
The movement of waste from rich countries to poorer ones with laxer enforcement tends to be facilitated by brokers, who either charge a fee to dispose of unwanted material or buy it cheaply and sell it overseas. The Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime has called brokers “key offenders” in the black-market waste trade, with links to major fraud and criminal gangs.
The trade in residential waste paper is volatile, with aggregate prices for mixed paper dropping to zero in the last two months, compared to $80 a ton this time last year. Most brokers are giving it away, with importers paying just the shipping cost, says Bill Moore, president and owner of Moore & Associates, a paper industry consultant in Atlanta. That translates into meager incentives for recycling centers and brokers to make sure that plastic contamination in bales of recycled paper is low and meets India’s little-enforced legal threshold.
At many older facilities in the US, residential recyclables that get mixed together at collection are sorted into glass, metal and plastic. Paper, magazines and mailers are weeded out for recycling. But flat plastic packaging and shipping envelopes can easily pass as paper.
“Shipping envelopes and thinner plastic materials act like paper, and it floats into the paper stream,” says Moore. “It’s exactly the type of plastic that will be contamination in a paper bale and get shipped to India.”
Smyla felt manipulated to find her carefully sorted waste had joined the mountains of trash at Muzaffarnagar. “I feel betrayed as a consumer,” she says. “That recycling symbol — it’s all a marketing feel-good message and very deceptive. It should not be harming other people in other parts of the world.”
For Kumar, the mechanic living beside heaps of North American plastic waiting to burn, those good intentions can’t blunt the harm that’s an everyday fact of his life. “My kids and the neighbors all have allergies and breathing problems,” he says. “I worry about diseases.”
—With assistance from Leslie Kaufman and Manoj Kumar
The visual media in this project was produced in partnership with Outrider Foundation.