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. Less likely to feature in tourism guides is Muzaffarnagar’s new status as the final destination for tonnes of supposedly recycled American plastic.
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 travelled: Kirkland-brand almonds from Costco, Nestlé’s Purina-brand dog food containers, the wrapping for Trader Joe’s mangoes.
Most ubiquitous of all were Amazon.com 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 papermakers need to import around 6 million tonnes (mt) annually to meet demand, and most of it comes from North America.
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 tonnes of plastic waste hidden within paper shipments annually, according to a government environmental body that estimated the level of contamination at 5 per cent. While the government allows up to 2 per cent 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 mt 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 (UN) 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.
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 labourers 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 the paper and sugar mills does 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.
The long journey taken by most of the plastic that reaches Muzaffarnagar is difficult to trace.
Amazon wouldn’t comment on the presence of its packaging in Muzaffarnagar. The company “is committed to minimising 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 per cent and eliminated over 1.5 mt 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 per cent 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 per cent in 2021, resulting in 97,222 mt of single-use plastic being used across Amazon-owned and operated global fulfillment centres to ship orders to customers.
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.