Now that China slashed its recyclables imports, western nations are starting to embrace a new reality.
For decades, the world had praised recycling as the best way for dealing with waste. Now, a year after China slashed its recyclables imports, countries are starting to embrace a new reality.
Used to thinking that somehow recycling is a form of green magic, many people rarely think about what happens to the waste they produce and then sort into categories. Here’s the sordid truth: many countries were happy to recycle so much waste because they could ship a large share of it abroad to countries like China.
In other words, many developed nations were not really ready to deal with their own waste. That led to plastic waste exports whereby rich nations paid poor ones to do their recycling for them. Once China decided not to accept any more such imports, rich nations ended up with far more waste back home.
Other countries that have served as dumping grounds, such as Thailand, Malaysia, and Vietnam, are following suit. Facing immense pollution and deteriorating health standards, these countries are starting to resist being the “dumpsite for the developed world” in the words of Bee Yin, Malaysia’s Minister for Energy, Technology, Science, Climate Change, and Environment.
As a result, another worst-case waste scenario for the developed world is a new reality: hundreds of cities globally and especially across the U.S. are shutting down their recycling programs simply because they can no longer send the waste abroad and nor can they recycle it locally with the available infrastructure, manpower and technology. Dumping and burning waste are newly attractive options, which could have stark environmental consequences.
Many European countries are used to burning anything they can’t recycle, which is not the most sustainable option. Incinerators are now working at full blast, burning mixed piles of otherwise useful materials. Meanwhile, many countries without developed waste-to-energy infrastructure are busy calculating the limits of their landfills. Australia can serve as an example of how 12% of plastics going to a landfill can easily turn into 87% in just one year.
Considering these trends, it is clearer than ever that only our own efforts will save us from problems of our own making. Countries are realizing this and starting to rethink how they address the issue of waste at home. For starters, more communities and more people are adopting zero-waste choices.
Cities like San Francisco and Amsterdam are embarking on ambitious programs of no waste sent to landfills or incinerators, showing that the challenges are resolvable with sufficient levels of effort and dedication. The EU, too, is driving bold new policies aiming to phase out disposable plastics in the next couple of years. It’s also striving to make all locally made and sold plastics reusable and recyclable by 2030.
Overall, 127 countries globally have at least some form of legislation to regulate plastics, while 27 have advanced plastics regulations banning or strictly limiting certain types of products or materials, according to a recent UN report. Social initiatives are also having their say in global plastics agendas: Greenpeace has exposed the crimes of waste trade and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation Plastic Pact has offered a bold vision for the sustainable future of materials: reusable, safe, well-recyclable and easily compostable.
A week ago WWF launched its major ReSource initiative to help companies “maximize, measure and multiply their impact” measures to address plastic pollution. The Alliance to End Plastic Waste has committed to allocate $1.5 billion over the next five years to support the cause. As a boost to those efforts, a recent amendment to the Basel Convention seeks to improve the legality and transparency of the international plastic waste trade. However, with no mechanism to control violations the non-binding nature of the amendment and the previously negligible impacts of the Convention on the trade in hazardous waste means it can only be an add-on, not a foundation for global plastics politics.
All things considered, now is the time to scale up prevention, reuse, and repair at home. Circular business models, reusable packaging and producer responsibility can support the creation of new green jobs and speed up the adoption of sustainable practices across the industry. At the same tiime, novel developments in the chemical recycling of plastics into advanced oils, solvents and waxes might bring about a whole new market for crude oil alternatives, giving us another reason to cut down on fossil fuels.
According to a recent Recycling Reimagined guide designed for scaling up a circular economy in cities, reaching a 75% diversion rate by 2030 can reduce CO2 emissions by 276 Mt, while generating over 1 million new jobs just in the U.S. alone. The recycling myth carefully nurtured by the plastics industry for the past decades will persist, yet countries will need to play it safe at home by producing less waste in the first place.
At stake is something more than just a circular economy. We’ll need to relearn the true value and price of what we produce and consume. It’s also about sustainability politics in the global economy. Developing countries have showed developed ones that exporting pollution is no longer an option. Concerns over the environment and health in these poorer nations have finally outweighed economic incentives, which means national priorities in one part of the world can stimulate immediate action elsewhere.
The impacts of waste are now everyone’s personal and immediate concerns in developed nations again. It is our chance to embrace the challenges responsibly.