CAP UCLA Presents ‘The Plastic Bag Store’ by Robin Frohardt

  • Tickets on sale June 9
  • Installation and Immersive Film Experience June 30 – July 11
  • CAP UCLA Partners with Local Environmental Activists

UCLA’s Center for the Art of Performance (CAP UCLA) presents the much-anticipated arrival of Robin Frohardt’s The Plastic Bag Store, opening tothe public in Los Angeles’ downtown Arts District Wednesday, June 30 – Sunday, July 11. To purchase tickets, make a reservation, contribute or for more information on how to get involved in Plastic Free July please visit  

There are two modes to experience this presentation: timed entry to the “store” itself to wander the aisles and discover the abundant products devised by the Brooklyn-based artist Robin Frohardt; or, a limited number of tickets are available to the ‘live immersive experience’ where a puppet film, performers and handmade sets tell the darkly comedic story of how the plastic waste left behind today might be interpreted by future generations.

Frohardt states, “The Plastic Bag Store is a visually rich and humorous experience that hopefully encourages a different way of thinking about the foreverness of plastic, the permanence of the disposable and that there is no “away” when we throw something out. There is great humor to be found in the pitfalls of capitalism—humor and satire can be powerful tools for social criticism especially with issues that feel too sad and overwhelming to confront directly.”

“We at Plastic Pollution Coalition are excited to collaborate with Robin Frohardt’s ‘The Plastic Bag Store’ because we believe in the power of art, science, and communication,” Dianna Cohen, Co-Founder and CEO of Plastic Pollution Coalition. “This immersive installation and film connect with people’s hearts and with their guts. This show makes you think of plastic in a new way, imagining a future society looking back on how we used plastic, empowering us to create the systems change needed now for a plastic-free planet.”

Co-produced by Frohardt and Pomegranate Arts, The Plastic Bag Store premiered in the heart of New York’s Times Square, a surprise success story in the midst of COVID-19 pandemic. The Plastic Bag Store was created over several years by Frohardt in collaboration with her puppetry ensemble and features original music by long-time creative collaborator, the award-winning composer Freddi Price.

“This has been years in the making, and Robin Frohardt has created something that is singular and amazing. The Plastic Bag Store is the story – one with purpose  – of an artist who put a lot of small things into a rather big thing, thanks in part to friends stockpiling plastic material for her,” said Kristy Edmunds, Executive and Artistic Director of CAP UCLA. “CAP UCLA took up the idea of bringing The Plastic Bag Store to L.A. – not exactly a small gesture, but I have learned so much about how to even comprehend the scale of plastics from working on this project. When we introduced The Plastic Bag Store to organizations working on the environmental side – for me it was like stepping across a threshold of feeling overwhelmed to feeling empowered. When an artist’s creativity is conjoined with research, knowledge and enthusiasm – which is exactly what has happened with our extended collaborators in the advocacy and sustainability communities – the impossible become incredibly possible!”

Timed entry to visit The Plastic Bag Store will be open on a set schedule each day. Advance reservations and a suggested donation of $10 per person is requested. Due to health protocols, at the time of this release, up to 20 people each half hour can explore inside The Plastic Bag Store: Installation. Patrons will be greeted by rotisserie chickens, cupcakes, sushi and popular products such as Yucky Shards cereal and Bagorade sports drink all made from discarded, single-use plastics. Then several times each day, the “store” transforms into The Plastic Bag Store: Immersive Film Experience. This 60-minute experience is currently limited to 20 people per show for a $35 adult or $15 student advanced ticket.  

In association with CAP UCLA and The Plastic Bag Store,  are numerous ancillary events taking place online and in person. In advance of the official opening of The Plastic Bag Store, CAP UCLA has partnered with the Long Beach Aquarium of the Pacific for a special film screening and talk with the artist Robin Frohardt on Sunday, June 27 in the Honda Pacific Visions Theater at 7pm. Tickets are limited, and will benefit the Aquarium. Additional activities, experiences and special events will be available from Art at the Rendon; The Skirball Center; The Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (ICA); Plastic Pollution Coalition, Friends of the LA River and CAP UCLA’s Art in Action space, next to the installation, will provide a dive into local and environmental issues with a mobile pop-up library and art-making tables. 


The Plastic Bag Store is commissioned by Times Square Arts with generous support provided by the Rockefeller Brothers Fund; The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Arts; the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo and the New York State Legislature; the National Endowment for the Arts; public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council. Additional commissioning support has been provided by Carolina Performing Arts, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. It was developed with support from: MANA Contemporary, The Made in NY Women’s Film, TV & Theatre Fund by the City of New York Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment in association with The New York Foundation for the Arts; Olson Kundig; The Jim Henson Foundation; and is sponsored, in part, by the Greater New York Arts Development Fund of the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, administered by Brooklyn Arts Council (BAC). The Plastic Bag Store is a project of Creative Capital.

The Plastic Bag Store film segments were commissioned by UCLA’s Center for the Art of Performance with additional support by the Adelaide Festival.


UCLA’s Center for the Art of Performance (CAP UCLA) is the public-facing research and presenting organization for the performing arts at the University of California, Los Angeles—one of the world’s leading public research universities. We are housed within the UCLA School of the Arts & Architecture along with the Hammer and Fowler museums. The central pursuit of our work as an organization is to sustain the diversity of contemporary performing artists while celebrating their contributions to culture. We acknowledge, amplify and support artists through major presentations, commissions and creative development initiatives. Our programs offer audiences a direct connection to the ideas, perspectives and concerns of living artists. Through the lens of dance, theater, music, literary arts, digital media arts and collaborative disciplines, informed by diverse racial and cultural backgrounds, artists and audiences come together in our theaters and public spaces to explore new ways of seeing that expands our understanding of the world we live in now.


Plastic Pollution Coalition is a global alliance of more than 1,200 organizations, businesses, and thought leaders in 75 countries working toward a more just, equitable world free of plastic pollution and its toxic impact on humans, animals, waterways, oceans, and the environment. Join the Coalition and get involved by visiting


An award-winning artist,  puppet designer,  and director living in Brooklyn,  NY.  Frohardt’s performance and puppetry-based  work has been presented at St.  Ann’s  Warehouse and HERE in New  York City,  as  well as national  venues including the Pittsburgh International Festival of  Firsts and the NEXTNOW Festival in Maryland.  Her films have been screened at the  Telluride Film Festival,  Aspen Shortsfest,  Maritime Film Festival at the Parish Museum and Puppets on Film Festival at BAM.  Her original play  The Pigeoning, which debuted in  2013 and  was hailed by  the New  York  Times as “a tender, fantastical symphony  of  the imagination,” continues to tour in the US and abroad,  and has been translated into German,  Greek,  Arabic and  Turkish.  She has received a Creative Capital  Award and a DisTil Fellowship from Carolina Performing Arts  for  The Plastic Bag Store,  which premiered in partnership  with Times Square  Arts in  2020.  She has been the recipient of  Made In NY  Woman’s Fund Grant  Award and a Guggenheim Fellowship.  She is a MacDowell Fellow and a longtime member of  both the  Walgreens and CVS Rewards Programs.

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By Jan Dell, Independent Engineer, The Last Beach Cleanup

As the equivalent of 65 trash trucks per day[1] of plastic waste are dumped into the ocean in the United States (U.S.) via our land, rivers and coasts, companies that make and sell plastic and single use disposable plastic products continue to tell us that recycling is the primary solution to plastic pollution.  The relentless focus on the future path for recycling plastic packaging flies in the face of the hard facts: post-consumer plastic recycling in the U.S. is generally economically impractical. For example, polypropylene #5 plastic cups and lids promoted as recyclable by fast food companies are not recyclable in a growing number of places of the U.S. As a result, about 6 times more post-consumer plastic waste is burned in the U.S. than is domestically recycled.

Most importantly, there is no proof that plastic material recyclability or access to recycling bins genuinely reduces plastic pollution. Conversely, in The Behavioral Economics of Recycling study published in the October 2016 Harvard Business Review, Remi Trudel at Boston University performed tests that showed people used more cups and gift wrap when there was a recycling bin available. The findings suggested that “consumers feel comfortable using a larger amount of a resource when recycling is an option”.  In testimony to the Colorado State Legislature in defense of expanded polystyrene (EPS) foam food containers over replacement by recyclable products, a chemical industry representative stated “This doesn’t mean replacement products will be recycled or reduce litter”.

What does work to reduce plastic pollution? As detailed later in this article, there is abundant proof from numerous studies around the world that legal mechanisms, including plastic bag bans and beverage container deposit laws, do successfully decrease plastic pollution.

Plastic pollution is a blight in our cities and on our landscapes and harms our rivers, ocean and many species who mistake plastic for food.  The U.S. ranks 20th on the list of countries contributing to plastic pollution in the ocean with an estimated 88 to 242 million pounds/year. The annual International Coastal Cleanup confirmed the evidence of plastic pollution on U.S. coasts in 2017 when more than 3.7 million pounds of trash, the majority of it plastic, was collected on a single day. The Chattanooga River, still filled with plastic pollution despite continual cleanups, proves that volunteer efforts aren’t enough.

Making matters worse, plastic pollution is an expanding problem as production and consumption of new plastic grows in the U.S. As an independent chemical engineer on a quest to The Last Beach Cleanup, I believe we can’t afford to be distracted by illusory schemes. We must use sound science, credible data and economic facts to adopt legitimate plastic pollution reduction strategies to make real progress at serious scale now.

The Real Story is in the U.S. Government Data

The U.S. Government publishes two sets of data related to plastic waste and recycling. Each year, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) publishes the “Advancing Sustainable Materials Management: Facts and Figures Report” with details of the fate of municipal waste. The publication of this report lags by about three years. In July 2018, the USEPA published the 2015 Data Tables.  Each month, the U.S. Census Bureau Trade Online publishes export data for shipments of plastic waste (officially called “waste, paring and scrap”) generated in the U.S. and sent to other countries. The plastic waste exported is predominantly low value municipal plastic waste.  Combined together, the two datasets tell the story of the very low domestic municipal plastic recycling rate in the U.S.

Figure 1 shows that in 2015, before China’s National Sword policy had been announced or enacted, 2.26 million tons of U.S. plastic waste were exported and counted as recycled. Since the USEPA reported that a total of 3.14 million tons were recycled, that means only about 0.88 million tons of municipal plastic waste were recycled domestically in the U.S. in 2015. That is only 2.5% of the total 34.5 million tons of plastic waste that Americans generated. About six times as much municipal plastic waste was burned in the U.S. in 2015 than was domestically recycled.  As exposed in the video documentary “Plastic China” and more than twenty other documentaries and reports, we now know that the exported plastic waste was not all recycled and some of it was also burned.

Now let’s look at 2018: While the U.S. Census Bureau has published plastic waste export data for 2018, the USEPA will not publish the 2018 plastic waste data until 2021. Using industry and news reports, an estimate can be made of how much municipal plastic waste was generated, burned, recycled and landfilled in the U.S. in 2018. While it’s not possible to make an exact prediction of the missing data, a solid engineering estimate of material flows can be made.

In 2018, the total amount of plastic waste generated in the U.S. likely rose to about 39.9 million tons, based on a growth rate of 5% which is equal to the annual growth rate of U.S. bottled water sales. U.S. Census Bureau data shows that plastic waste exports shrunk to 1.19 million tons, primarily because of China’s import restrictions. U.S. plastic waste recycling capacity and production were not reported to have measurably increased by industry and news reports. A sizable new polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic bottle recycler started operations in Los Angeles in late 2018. But, according to the 2016 NAPCOR PET Container Recycling Activity report, 7 of 28 PET recyclers shut down removing 16.6% of processing capacity in 2016.  Based on latest plastics industry recycling reports, domestic recycling of the three top plastic bottle types (#1 PET, #2 HDPE and #3 PP) stayed flat between 2015 and 2017. That means that domestic plastic waste recycling likely remained at about 0.88 million tons. The total amount of plastic waste sent to incineration in 2018 was likely at least as much as in 2015. While two incineration facilities closed during that period, remaining facilities were reported to burn more plastic waste, including about half Philadelphia’s recyclables as reported by The New York Times. In the comprehensive survey of “How recycling is changing in all 50 states”, industry news source Waste Dive reports that plastics collected for recycling are now also being sent to incinerators in Connecticut, Florida, and Wisconsin.

Adding it all together, that means that the U.S. recycled only about 2% of our municipal plastic waste in our domestic facilities and we continued to burn more than six times that amount in 2018.  The ratio may have been even higher, but cities are reluctant to publicize the fact that plastic is being sent to incineration instead of recycling.

Why Isn’t More Plastic Waste Being Recycled in the U.S.?

Product manufacturers prefer new plastic because there is higher material quality and supply certainty at a lower cost.  Using recycled plastic poses contamination and delivery risks and higher costs that manufacturers wish to avoid, resulting in weak demand for recycled plastic.

The costs of recycling include many trucks and drivers to collect the widely dispersed waste, labor and equipment to sort the waste, and processing facilities to clean and convert the material.  Recycling costs are increasing due to tight truck driver and labor markets. Conversely, cheap and abundant natural gas and massive new plastic production expansion is driving the prices of new plastics lower.  These factors work against the key premise that waste plastic will someday have enough value to drive recycling it rather than disposing or destroying it.

The economic realities of cheap new plastic production and low-cost oil and gas production make mechanical and chemical recycling processes economically uncompetitive and impractical at commercial scale.  To quote the chemical industry representative again, “There’s a big difference between what’s technically recyclable and what’s being recycled”. For example, there was a report earlier this year of 10,000 lbs. of unwanted plastic bag waste sitting in a Southern Illinois warehouse because no one wanted to buy it for recycling.

While some companies have made promises to voluntary incorporate more recycled plastic in their products, it isn’t clear that market demand is significantly increasing. In fact, in response to California’s law requiring disclosure of recycled content in beverage bottles, Coca-Cola reported a decrease in recycled content in their soda bottles from 16% in 2017 to 9% in 2018. The company also reported that they still do not use recycled plastic in non-carbonated water, tea, sports drinks and fruit juice beverage bottles sold in California.

Plastic recycling itself also creates plastic waste. The latest NAPCOR report on PET beverage bottle recycling stated that about 29.2% of PET beverage bottles in the U.S. were collected for recycling.  But due to contamination and process losses, not all of that material is actually processed into “clean flake” material for recycling. In fact, about a third of the collected bottle material is disposed to landfill or destroyed in incineration, leaving only 20.9% of the collected bottles converted into recycled material.

What’s Wrong with Incinerating Plastic Waste in the U.S.?

First, incineration is not material recovery, it is material destruction. The plastic waste material is burned into CO2 and water and the heat generated is used to make steam which generates power. While the facilities are called “Waste-to-Energy”, their primary purpose is to destroy material and decrease the volume of waste sent to landfills.  But a significant volume of toxic ash containing heavy me
tals remains when municipal waste is burned – about 10% – 15% of the original volume of waste – and it must be managed and disposed of as a hazardous waste. All but one of the 75 municipal waste incineration facilities in the U.S. were built before 1997 and have had to add pollution controls to address air emissions of heavy metals, SOx and NOx.  Yet concerns of the health impacts from the remaining toxic air emissions and truck traffic is driving the shutdown of some facilities, such as the incinerator in Detroit that exceeded air pollution standards on hundreds of occasions over the past several years. From a climate change perspective, burning plastic is not a smart way to make power. Since a large amount of energy was used and carbon was emitted to make the plastic resin in the first place, the power generated from burning plastic has a higher lifecycle carbon footprint than renewable energy or power generated from natural gas combustion.

What are Proven Solutions to Reduce Plastic Pollution?

The estimated 2% U.S. domestic plastic recycling rate in 2018 should be a wake-up call to the false promise that the existing voluntary, economic-driven U.S. recycling system is a credible solution to plastic pollution. It’s time to implement real solutions to plastic pollution, particularly the reduction of single use plastics in “on-the-go” situations that have the highest likelihood of polluting our environment.

Bans on plastic bags, straws and EPS foam containers: Many single-use plastic items are made of low-value material that makes them widely available but economically impractical to collect and recycle.  When there are reusable alternatives or better materials available, the best solution is to eliminate the items from use. Plastic straws, plastic bags and EPS foam food containers quickly fall into the better-to-eliminate category, as described in the Ban 2.0 List.

Legislative action to restrict single use plastic bag distribution has resulted in a reduction of plastic bag pollution around the world:

  • United Kingdom and Ireland: According to a 25-year study from the United Kingdom government’s Center for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science, there are significantly fewer plastic bags on the seafloor after European countries introduced bag fees.  The study was based on 39 independent scientific surveys of the distribution and abundance of marine litter between 1992 and 2017.

  • Suffolk County, New York:  The number of bags found polluting shorelines fell steeply in the first year after a 5-cent bag fee was enacted.

  • Austin, Texas: the Austin Resource Recovery study found that the Single Use Bag Ordinance was successful in reducing the amount of plastic bag litter in the city. Austin Parks Foundation reported a 90% reduction in plastic bag litter in the first six months after the ordinance had been passed.  (Austin and other local bag ordinances in Texas have since been nullified due to a Texas Supreme Court decision).

  • San Jose, California: Plastic bag litter was cut by 89% in the storm drain system, 60% in the creeks and rivers, and 59% in city streets just 1-2 years after a single-use plastic bag ban took effect.

  • Washington, D.C.: The Washington Post reported about a 30 percent drop in bags collected in cleanups.

  • Folly Beach, South Carolina: Fewer plastic bags found in beach cleanups after plastic bag ban was enacted.

Driven by the motive to reduce plastic pollution and plastic waste generation, over 300 U.S. cities and a few states have passed plastic bag, straw and EPS foam ordinances. The National Coalition of Environmental Legislators (NCEL) reports that 34 states are now considering over 200 pieces of legislation to address plastic pollution. Legislation toolkits for communities and states to create ordinances to restrict or ban plastic items have been developed by Surfrider, Plastic Pollution Coalition and others.

Water refill stations and deposits on plastic beverage bottles: The best strategy to cut plastic beverage bottle pollution is to make it easy for people to use fewer disposable bottles and to ensure that no bottle is left behind.

Public water refill stations are key to decreasing single use plastic water bottle consumption.  Cities and their water agencies benefit from installing water refill stations which offer a filling function in addition to a drinking fountain.  People are provided with free sources of high-quality drinking water and plastic waste is decreased. For example, Eastern Municipal Water District in Southern California has installed nearly 120 water bottle fill stations at schools and popular community facilities.

Container deposit laws (also known as bottle bills) require the collection of a deposit on beverage containers at the point of sale and refund the deposit when the container is returned.  Like plastic bag bans, container deposit laws have also been proven to cut down on plastic beverage bottle pollution.  According to NCEL, ten states and Guam have a deposit-refund system for beverage containers.

Beverage companies should support container deposit laws if they are serious about delivering on their recycled content promises. While beverage companies and their trade associations have fought bottle bills in the past, plastic recycling experts have stated that container deposit laws are needed to collect sufficient used PET bottles to meet the company goals for recycled content.  An industry expert analyzed recycle rates and clearly states in this November 13, 2018 Amcor podcast that voluntary and curbside recycling will not collect sufficient PET bottle material.

What are we waiting for?

Another half of a dump truck of U.S. plastic waste entered the ocean in the ten minutes it took to read this article.  Proven solutions that will reduce U.S. plastic pollution exist and can be swiftly enacted. The success of plastic bag bans and plastic container deposit laws can be extended nationwide and to other most commonly polluted plastic items: EPS foam and other plastic food containers, plastic straws, plastic bottle caps, plastic lids and plastic food wrappers.

It’s time to accept what the facts tell us: plastic recycling is not a serious or realistic solution to reducing plastic pollution in the United States.


Jan Dell, PE, is an independent chemical engineer and founder of The Last Beach Cleanup, a non-profit organization that collaborates with shareholders and environmental groups on initiatives to reduce plastic pollution. Jan has worked with companies in diverse industries to implement sustainable business and climate resiliency practices in more than 40 countries. Appointed by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, Jan was a member of the US Federal Committee that led the 3rd National Climate Assessment from 2010 to 2014 and the Vice Chair of the US Federal Advisory Committee on the Sustained National Climate Assessment in 2016-2017.

[1] Extrapolation of Jambeck, et al data to 2019 and assumes large dump truck capacity of 28,000 pounds.

For more information, visit GAIA – The Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives.

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Photo of a Waste Plastic Sorting Facility in Indonesia. Photo by Dianna Cohen.

By Jan Dell, Independent Engineer

China implemented the National Sword policy at the beginning of 2018 to protect their environment and develop their own domestic recycling capacity by restricting imports of waste. Since exporting plastic waste is a convenient way for the United States (U.S.) and other industrialized countries to count plastic waste as “recycled” and avoid disposal costs and impacts at home, there has been in a significant increase of plastic waste shipments to other countries instead of China. Unfortunately, most of our plastic waste is still shipped to countries that are not equipped to safely and securely manage it.

The U.S. Census Bureau recently published complete 2018 export data for shipments of plastic waste (officially called “waste, paring and scrap”) generated in the U.S. and sent to other countries.  As shown in Figure 1, 78% (0.83 million metric tonnes) of the 2018 U.S. plastic waste exports were sent to countries with waste “mismanagement rates” greater than 5%.  That means about 157,000 large 20-ft (TEU) shipping containers (429 per day) of U.S. plastic waste were sent in 2018 to countries that are now known to be overwhelmed with plastic waste and major sources of plastic pollution to the ocean. The actual amount of U.S. plastic waste that ends in countries with poor waste management may be even higher than 78% since countries like Canada and South Korea may reexport U.S. plastic waste. The data also indicates that the U.S. continued to export about as much plastic waste to countries with poor waste management as we recycle domestically [1].

Plastic pollution activists and the chemical and plastic product industries commonly agree that countries without secure waste management systems are not currently equipped to safely and sufficiently manage plastic waste. So why is the U.S. still adding to the problem by shipping our plastic waste to those countries?

Numerous investigations have exposed that plastic waste exports have been crudely processed in unsafe facilities and have created pollution and social harms in the receiving countries. While some countries are starting to restrict plastic waste imports, the flow of plastic waste to countries with high waste mismanagement rates continues with 49 million kg (9,173 TEU containers) shipped in December 2018. There are compelling reasons for the U.S. and other countries to stop exporting plastic to these countries, including reducing plastic pollution to the ocean, increasing the focus on development of domestic waste management and recycling systems in the importing countries and spurring solutions in the U.S. to responsibly address our plastic use and waste.  The U.S. should follow the lead of the United Kingdom (U.K.), where there is a bill before Parliament, to end plastic waste exports to countries with poor waste management systems and not wait for those countries to refuse our waste.

Figure 1: Destination of 2018 U.S. Plastic Waste Exports (U.S. Census Bureau data) and Country Waste Mismanagement Rates (Jambeck, 2015).

Waste mismanagement rates were estimated from World Bank data by Jambeck, et al., in their groundbreaking study “Plastic waste Inputs from land into ocean”.  The study found that between 8 to 12 million metric tonnes per year of plastic enter the ocean from land sources.  Jambeck defines mismanaged waste as “material that is either littered or inadequately disposed. Inadequately disposed waste is not formally managed and includes disposal in dumps or open, uncontrolled landfills, where it is not fully contained. Mismanaged waste could eventually enter the ocean via inland waterways, wastewater outflows, and transport by wind or tides.” Brooks, et al. point out that “there is no global standard for the classification of countries that have sufficient infrastructure to manage imported plastic waste”.  The lack of such a global standard allows the practice of exporting plastic waste to any country to continue.  In this assessment, high waste mismanagement rates are considered 5% and larger.  This is a reasonable assumption since industrialized countries like the U.S. (at 0.0000001%) typically have waste mismanagement rates far below 0.1% yet still suffer from plastic pollution. Waste mismanagement rates are very high in many countries that currently accept U.S. plastic waste, such as India (85%), Indonesia (81%), Vietnam (85%) and Malaysia (55%).

Plastic Waste Exports Have Been Shipped Off and Counted as Recycled for Decades

Plastic waste has been exported and counted as “recycled” by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) and the waste and recycling industry for decades. The U.S. Census Bureau data shows exports to China and other countries dating back to 1992, the first year in the database.  Without documented traceability of the final fate of the plastic waste, bales of waste plastic collected from municipal and commercial recycling systems were loaded onto trucks and shipped to buyers in foreign countries, many of which had inexpensive labor, no health and safety standards, few environmental regulations and no guarantee that the plastic waste would actually be recycled.  The Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI) publishes a Scrap Specifications Circular which provides detailed specifications for scrap plastic materials as a basis for certifying scrap quality and valuation for buyers and sellers.  It does not, however, address requirements or assurance for recycling facilities receiving scrap plastic.

While a review of the credibility of the final recycling facility destinations of U.S. plastic waste has not been found, the U.K.’s National Audit Office criticized the rigor of the U.K.’s Environment Authority (EA) oversight of plastic waste exports in 2018. The EA is now investigating allegations of U.K. plastic waste exports being left to leak into rivers and the ocean in destination countries.

U.S. plastic waste exports have declined by nearly half between 2015 and 2018 (from a high of 2.05 million metric tonnes to 1.07 million metrics tonnes). The primary reason for the decline is China’s strict scrap import policies which have reduced imports of plastic waste from the U.S. with a reduction of 96% since its peak in 2012. The decline is positive news for the ocean, rivers, ecosystems and the people of the receiving countries and world: less plastic waste was sent to places that do not have secure waste management systems such that all of the plastic waste will be responsibly recycled into new plastic products.

Exposed: Plastic Waste Creates Plastic Pollution and Social Harm in Importing Countries and the Ocean

The documentary “Plastic China” by Wang Jiuliang debuted in China in 2014, exposing the environmental and social harm caused by plastic waste imported by China. The film premiered at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam in November of 2016, and was shown at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. It is available online for viewing in the U.S. on Amazon. Some waste experts believe that the documentary was a motivation for China’s strict National Sword regulations to end China’s unofficial role as the world’s “dumping ground” for waste.

China’s strict plastic waste import regulations have done more than reduce environmental and social harms within the country. The National Sword has exposed the fallacy and flaws of the international flow of plastic waste exports as a responsible method of recycling plastic and creating a so-called “circular economy” of plastics.

As summarized in Table 1, additional documentaries and reports have shown similar environmental and social harms of plastic waste exports to other countries.

Table 1: Destination of 2010 – 2018 U.S. Plastic Waste Exports (U.S. Census Bureau data), Country Waste Mismanagement Rates (Jambeck, 2015) and Mismanagement Evidence

The Conversation reports that in Vietnam “more than half of the plastic imported into the country is sold on to “craft villages”, where it is processed informally, mainly on a household scale. Informal processing involves washing and melting the plastic, which uses a lot of water and energy and produces a lot of smoke. The untreated water is discharged to waterways and around 20 percent of the plastic is unusable so it is dumped and usually burnt, creating further litter and air quality problems. Burning plastic can produce harmful air pollutants such as dioxins, furans and polychlorinated biphenyls and the wash water contains a cocktail of chemical residues, in addition to detergents used for washing. Working conditions at these informal processors are also hazardous, with burners operating at 260-400℃. Workers have little or no protective equipment.”

The evidence in the documentaries and reports clearly and credibly shows that plastic waste shipped to these countries should not all be counted as “recycled” as is common practice by the U.S., U.K., European Union (E.U.), Australia, New Zealand and Japan.  Plastic waste exports should also not all be counted as “recycled” by companies who are promoting the circular economy scheme to defend their single use plastic products.

Asian Countries Taking U.S. Plastic Waste Blamed for World’s Ocean Plastic Pollution

 In 2016, before China’s National Sword restrictions were implemented, University of Georgia waste experts estimated that plastic waste imports added another 10.8 percent to the plastic waste China generated domestically, an additional 7.4 million metric tonnes on top of the 60.9 million metric tons of domestic plastic trash created in China that year.

At the same time that the U.S. and other countries have been exporting plastic waste to Asian countries which are ill-equipped to manage it, those same Asian countries are being blamed as the leading polluters of plastics to the ocean. This editorial on Earth Day 2018 from the Deputy Editorial Director of the USA Today tells Americans not to feel guilty about our plastic trash because “Asian countries and messy fisherman are destroying the world’s oceans”. U.S. chemical, plastics and consumer product companies highlight Asian countries as the major source of ocean plastic pollution in their industry-funded “Stemming the Tide” report from 2015, while recognizing that there are insufficient plastic waste management systems in those countries.

Reasons to End Plastic Waste Exports to Countries with Poor Waste Management Systems

Governments in Malaysia, Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam, concerned by the flood of imported plastic waste into their ports in the first half of 2018 and pushed by citizens like Daniel Tay in Malaysia, are beginning to place restrictions on imports of plastic waste. Figure 2 shows declines in U.S. plastic waste exports to two countries (Malaysia and Vietnam) from monthly highs in mid-2018. The declines are partly due to government-induced import restrictions and partly due to congestion in ports and existing recycling facilities from the increased shipments in the first half of the year.

But firm and effective bans are not yet in place and the end of plastic waste imports is not certain.  Local businesses in some countries, who would prefer cheap plastic waste imports instead of investing in their own country’s waste and recycling system, are fighting against the proposed plastic waste import restrictions.  In Indonesia, the plastics industry is pushing to overturn restrictions on plastic waste imports, which were introduced in June 2018. As shown in Figure 2, plastic waste imports in Indonesia continue to increase from the U.S. The export of plastic waste to Thailand more than doubled between November 2018 (2.9 million kg) and December 2018 (7.9 million kg). According to Resource Recycling, “Asian buyers, including those in India, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Vietnam, are now back and knocking on doors to purchase North American bales”.

Beyond legal exports, reports of rising illegal plastic recycling factories in Malaysia and “traders fudging paperwork to skirt import limits” indicate that import restrictions may not be respected as “some exporters in the U.S. and elsewhere, and their importing counterparts in the destination countries, are reportedly falsely identifying scrap plastic as another product in shipping paperwork”, according to recycling industry journal Resource Recycling. In Malaysia, Suddeutsche Zeitung (SZ) reports that “people complain that the state does not enforce its own rules. They have little faith in the authorities. Two SZ inquiries to the relevant ministry in January (2019) remained unanswered, so there is no official information, whether the import ban imposed in the fall actually affected all deliveries from abroad”. In February 2019, a Malaysia official noted that 139 illegal plastic recycling operators had been found, that they quickly move from one location to another and stated “Wherever there is a port, you will have the import of plastic waste”.

Figure 2: Destination of 2018 U.S. Plastic Waste Monthly Exports (U.S. Census Bureau data) and Country Waste Mismanagement Rates (Jambeck, 2015).

The U.S. and other industrialized countries should not wait for the countries that we blame for plastic pollution to implement restrictions on importation of our plastic waste. We should follow the lead of the United Kingdom, where there is a bill before Parliament, to end plastic waste exports to countries with poor waste management systems.

The evidence of plastic waste mismanagement and continuing high waste mismanagement rates shows that recycling of imported plastic waste has not led to creation of a strong domestic waste management system in destination countries.  Beyond reducing plastic pollution in importing countries, ending plastic waste exports will provide benefits to the destination countries by spurring investment and local employment in waste and recycling systems in their domestic markets. Funding from international and in-country government sources is growing for improvement in countries with high waste mismanagement rates. To reduce plastic pollution and improve waste management system infrastructure and operation in the countries, it is critical that the funding be invested in improving domestic waste systems, not recycling businesses for imported waste.

 Ending plastic waste exports to countries with poor waste management will also benefit the U.S.:

·       We will have a clearer picture of our plastic waste generation volume. That will drive reduction in the generation of low value single-use plastic waste that is economically unrecyclable and commonly polluted, like single use polyethylene bags, expanded polystyrene (EPS) foam food containers and plastic straws. City and state laws are spreading across the U.S. now to restrict free distribution of these items to prevent plastic pollution and reduce waste to landfills.  New Jersey and Vermont have proposed plastic pollution “trifecta” legislation to reduce waste generation from plastic bags, straws and EPS foam food containers.

·       The need for legislation to strengthen U.S. recycling systems to recover higher value plastic will become evident. As detailed in a recent Plastics News article, a plastics recycling expert has calculated that container deposit laws are required across the U.S. to increase PET beverage bottle recycling above 40% from the current rate of about 29%.  Washington State’s proposed Plastic Packaging Stewardship legislation requires extended producer responsibility (EPR) to develop local recycling infrastructure which has been neglected because of the cheaper option of exporting plastic waste.

·       Reduction of plastic pollution in the ocean that causes many harms to human, ecosystem and marine health and economic and social costs will benefit Americans.

Companies selling products in plastic packaging in industrialized countries should publicly support ending plastic waste exports to countries with poor waste management. This would reduce plastic pollution and support the development of domestic plastic recycling capacity in every major market country.  As shown in the compelling images in Greenpeace’s The Recycling Myth report and BBC video, many companies are receiving negative product advertising from exposure of their plastic packaging from the U.S., U.K., E.U., Australia, New Zealand and Japan in open dumps, burn pits and beach cleanups in Asia. It should be a matter of course that companies selling products in plastic packaging in developing countries should financially support the development and operation of proper management of their post-consumer waste management in those countries.

States and Cities Can Lead, If U.S. Commerce Department Will Not

The U.S. Federal Government can restrict plastic waste exports via Commerce Laws as is done for some types of electronic waste, but is not expected to in the near future. Instead, U.S. cities and states can follow Washington State’s proposed Plastic Packaging Stewardship legislation and employ their legal rights to require that “plastic packaging exported for recycling is managed in an environmentally sound and socially just manner at facilities operating with human health and environmental protection standards that are broadly equivalent to those required in the United States” to ensure that U.S. plastic waste does not directly contribute to plastic pollution in other countries.  Cities can also follow Palo Alto’s new waste management contract model that requires the contractor to track the final destination of waste and assess environmental and human-rights violations in the final destinations. The city retains the option of directing the contractor to use different waste purchasers if any environmental and social issues are identified.

If we are serious about ending plastic pollution to the ocean, the U.S. must stop exporting our plastic waste to countries that we know are ill-equipped to manage it.


Jan Dell, PE, is an Independent Engineer on a Quest to The Last Beach Cleanup. Jan has worked with companies in diverse industries to implement sustainable business and climate resiliency practices in their operations, communities and supply chains in more than 40 countries including throughout Asia. Appointed by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, Jan was a member of the U.S. Federal Committee that led the 3rd National Climate Assessment from 2010 to 2014 and the Vice Chair of the U.S. Federal Advisory Committee on the Sustained National Climate Assessment in 2016-2017. Send her an email here.


[1] The 2018 domestic recycling figure is estimated from the latest 2015 USEPA waste data combined with U.S. export data.

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Plastic pollution is a growing global problem, and recycling rates for plastic are dropping across the U.S. and the world. The concept of using discarded plastic to pave roads has been hailed as a solution by viral videos and think pieces alike. But is using plastic for roads a viable solution to our global plastic pollution crisis?

Plastic Pollution Coalition’s Scientific Advisor, Pete Myers, Founder and Chief Scientist of Environmental Health Sciences calls it a “quintessentially bad idea.”

“For this to make a difference, it would have to go to scale, with massive numbers of roads being made of recycled plastic,” said Myers. “If it didn’t go to scale, it would become a boutique band-aid, allowing us to feel good about a faux solution but not really solving anything.”

According to Dr. Myers, using plastic for roads would even contribute to the problem:

“Roads degrade because they get abraded by vehicular traffic. That becomes massive amounts of micro and nano plastic particles as plastic dust. Storm runoff would carry it into the wastewater system or directly into surface waters. Air currents would transport it in the wind … Sooner or later a lot of it would wind up in the oceans. It would become even more of a problem than what we have today. Exactly how much of a problem would depend upon what mix of polymers were used and what additives might be in the plastics, as that would determine the particles’ toxicity. It’s terrifying to think about, frankly.”

The ultimate solutions to plastic pollution are the systemic ones that require individuals, businesses, and government officials working together, said Dianna Cohen, CEO Plastic Pollution Coalition.

“The idea that we can recycle our plastic into roads is just another false solution promoted by industry that does nothing towards source reduction,” she said. “It’s time to turn off the tap. We need a systems shift away from toxic plastics and towards systems of reuse.”

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Survey is the first of its kind to rank global fast food companies on the ‘takeaway trifecta’ of plastic straws, plastic bags, and foam cups and containers

Nov. 28, 2018 – LOS ANGELES, CA – Plastic Pollution Coalition has launched the first-ever Global Fast Food Plastic Survey tracking the progress made by companies on eliminating single-use plastic. Starting with the world’s 25 largest companies with more than 270,000 fast food outlets spread across the globe, the survey will be continually updated and expanded to the largest 100 companies.

Widespread distribution of “on-the-go” single-use plastic is universally acknowledged as a major source of plastic pollution on land and in water. Yet, Fast Food Companies do not consistently or comprehensively report on their global plastic practices.

“The mission of Plastic Pollution Coalition’s Global Fast Food Survey is to reduce plastic pollution that originates from Fast Food business operations through transparent data collection and comparison of individual company practices,” said Jan Dell, a chemical engineer and the survey creator. “It’s time to eliminate the ‘takeaway trifecta: plastic straws, plastics bags, and expanded polystyrene foam cups and containers.’” The 25 companies included in the survey distribute millions of these items every day.

“Plastic straws, plastic bags, and expanded polystyrene foam cups and containers can be easily eliminated or replaced with materials that are less harmful to species and our environment,” said Dianna Cohen, CEO of Plastic Pollution Coalition. “It is critical that global Fast Food companies enact good plastic practices consistently across the world because many countries do not have adequate waste management systems, and plastic pollution does not stop at country or state borders.”

Fast food companies that show leadership on key plastics practices will benefit from brand enhancement and customer, employee, and shareholder support, said Dell. “Transparent reporting of global practices will ensure that Fast Food Companies are meeting their Corporate Social Responsibility and Sustainability commitments. The comparison between companies will provide peer pressure for companies to match the progress made by their competitors.”

Plastic Pollution Coalition is a global alliance of over 750 organizations, businesses, and leaders working toward a world free of plastic pollution and its toxic impacts on humans, animals, waterways, oceans, and the environment.

The Kroger Co. (NYSE : KR ) announced today it will phase out single-use plastic bags and transition to reusable bags across its Family of Stores by 2025.

Seattle-based QFC will be the company’s first retail division to phase out single-use plastic bags. The company expects QFC’s transition to be completed in 2019.

“As part of our Zero Hunger | Zero Waste commitment, we are phasing out use-once, throw-it-away plastic bags and transitioning to reusable bags in our stores by 2025,” said Rodney McMullen, Kroger’s chairman and CEO. “It’s a bold move that will better protect our planet for future generations.”

Some estimates suggest that 100 billion single-use plastic bags are thrown away in the U.S. every year. Currently, less than five percent of plastic bags are recycled annually in America, and single-use plastic bags are the fifth-most common single-use plastic found in the environment by magnitude.

Kroger will solicit customer feedback and work with NGOs and community partners to ensure a responsible transition.

“We listen very closely to our customers and our communities, and we agree with their growing concerns,” said Mike Donnelly, Kroger’s executive vice president and COO. “That’s why, starting today at QFC, we will begin the transition to more sustainable options. This decision aligns with our Restock Kroger commitment to live our purpose through social impact.”

Kroger’s announcement follows several other Zero Hunger | Zero Waste initiatives at scale, including:

  • Kroger’s goal to divert 90% of waste from the landfill by 2020. Of the waste diverted today, 66.15 million pounds of plastic and 2.43 billion pounds of cardboard were recycled in 2017.
  • Kroger’s Zero Hunger | Zero Waste Food Rescue Program sent more than 91 million pounds of safe nutritious food to local food banks and pantries in 2017. Kroger provided more than 325 million meals to families in need last year, in food and funds combined.

Earlier this week, Kroger was named to Fortune magazine’s Change the World 2018 list, debuting in the sixth spot. The recognition highlights the work of 57 big companies across the world using their resources to solve societal problems. The company was recognized for its social impact plan Zero Hunger | Zero Waste.

At The Kroger Co. (NYSE : KR), we are dedicated to our Purpose: to Feed the Human SpiritTM. We are nearly half a million associates who serve over nine million customers daily through a seamless digital shopping experience and 2,779 retail food stores under a variety of banner names, serving America through food inspiration and uplift, and creating #ZeroHungerZeroWaste communities by 2025. To learn more about us, visit our newsroom and investor relations site.

SOURCE The Kroger Co.

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