human rights waste

The scandal of plastic waste exports

In the early years of this century, China emerged as a destination for plastic recycling. The practice was taking off in Europe and the West, and China had manufacturing industries that could use the plastic. A global trade developed where we sent China our plastic recycling, and bought back plastic products in return.

That trade lasted until 2018, when China abrubtly declared an end to it. Under a new policy called National Sword, the country would stop importing the world’s waste. It caused a degree of panic in places like Britain and America, where exporting our plastic to China had been an easy answer. As I wrote at the time, this should be an opportunity to get serious about plastic, and to recycle more of it locally, creating new jobs and new businesses out of the resource.

Instead, plastic is now piling up elsewhere. Boatloads of plastic waste started turning up in Malaysia and Thailand, causing such a massive pollution crisis that they rapidly brought in their own restrictions. By the end of 2018 it was flowing into Indonesia instead.

A heartbreaking recent report called Discarded provides first-hand accounts of what that can look like:

A year ago, North Sumengko in East Java, Indonesia was a village of maize and rice fields. Today, there are piles of plastic waste, heaped into mounds two meters high in the middle of the road, collecting in slopes and valleys of front-yard scrap shops, scattered along the roadsides or smoldering in sprawling makeshift dumps among banana trees and soot-covered bamboo stands.

Whole villages and towns have been transformed into hellish wastelands in the last 18 months. There is the pollution of land and water, the visual impact, the loss of farmland. Much of the plastic is contaminated recyclate which is simply burned, leading to serious air pollution and all the health implications that implies. Since a lot of this ‘recycling’ is only borderline legal, many places report a spike in organised crime. Local enforcement systems are overwhelmed, meaning that some of what is happening is essentially fly-tipping at a global scale.

A couple of weeks ago I was at my local recycling depot for a meeting, and we saw the mountain of waste that Luton creates in a single day. I have no idea where Luton’s waste goes. The council picks it up, but once the lorries enter the depot, it’s the responsibility of the waste contractor. I wonder how much of it is exported, and where it all ends up – and who else is asking those questions?

What do we do about it? First, all the opportunities to recycle better still stand. There are all kinds of circular economy business opportunities if Britain were to recycle more locally. Second, the government really needs to pull its finger out and clamp down on plastic, as many developing countries have done already. And third, we need to move beyond plastics. As the Discarded report warns, we can’t recycle our way out of this problem if recycling itself isn’t working. We have to be tough on plastic itself, and tough on a throwaway culture.

Plastic campaigns in Britain have focused almost entirely around the oceans and the wellbeing of marine life. It’s also a justice issue, and a human rights problem. Consumer societies are treating poorer countries as a bin, and ending our dependence on plastic is a moral imperative.

  • Feature image by Greenpeace/GAIA

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