How the Global Recycling System Collapsed

The world produces about 300 million tons of plastics every year, of which a mere 10 percent or so is recycled. The rest is added to our oceans, dumped in landfills, or incinerated. Indeed, the global recycling system has effectively collapsed, and without game-changing innovation, will dramatically impact the state of the planet, and its chances of reining in climate change.

We travel to one country on the frontlines of this global crisis: Malaysia, which has absorbed huge amounts of our plastic waste, ever since China shut its doors to plastic-waste imports, sending this huge industry into a tailspin. About 25,000 recycling operators have proliferated across Southeast Asia, many illegal, with drastic consequences for the air quality and river pollution in the area.

To make matters worse, the price of recycled plastic has plummeted—80 percent of the recyclers are losing money—which is making it harder and harder for municipalities across the U.S. to do any form of recycling. Steve Wong, an international plastics trader says, "The market will only get worse. The problem is getting more and more serious."

This project looks at the direct impact of our plastics consumption on people living thousands of miles across the world, and examines how the recycling system collapsed, and who is responsible. And it looks at the race to try to solve the crisis.