Above: South Tangerang, Indonesia/ Tom Fisk
Legislation is increasingly being enacted around the world to prevent wealthier nations from exporting difficult-to-recycle or contaminated plastic waste to poorer countries. For many years, developing nations accepted this waste to boost their economies regardless of whether they had the requisite infrastructure for sorting and recycling. The overwhelming quantity and poor quality of this waste resulted in much of it being burnt or sent to landfills close to waterways and residential areas, causing environmental degradation and health side effects.
Pre 2018 the developed world exported 45% of its plastic waste to China. In early 2018 Beijing started phasing this out with a view to zero imports by 1 January 2021. Dubbed China’s “National Sword” policy, this was an effort to curb the import of contaminated plastics which were overwhelming the country’s waste processing facilities and exacerbating environmental problems.
One of the wealthy countries reconsidering the practice of exporting plastics, is Canada. 103 shipping containers of what was labelled as ‘recyclable plastics’ were shipped from Canada to the Philippines during 2013-2014. Instead, these containers contained household waste including trash, plastic bottles and bags, newspapers, and used adult diapers. After years of protesting, outrage and pressure on the Canadian government, 69 containers of the trash arrived back in the country in June 2019. A bill is currently making its way through the Canadian parliament, C-204, proposing the prohibition of the export of non-recyclable plastic waste.
The US and the UK are the largest producers of plastic waste in the world, most of which is shipped to less developed countries. The US exported 225 containers per day in 2019 to countries ill-equipped to deal with this waste, generating 120 million kilos of carbon emissions. 180 nations have agreed to amendments to the Basel Convention, which took effect on 1 January this year, that restrict the exporting of contaminated plastic waste to poorer countries. The US did not ratify this amendment and the UK is using its Brexit status and independence from the EU, as a loophole to continue exporting its waste. Last year, Britain received 22 requests from seven countries to take back plastic exports.
Prior to the 2018 ban, China took in about 30% of Australia’s waste. With this no longer an option, the Australian government introduced legislation banning the export of waste and pushed to find localised recycling solutions. Australia is in the process of phasing out the export of waste, glass, plastic, paper and tyres, looking to complete this by 30 June 2022.
According to the latest South African State of Waste Report, South Africa has made great strides in how it treats waste. In 2011, 90% of waste went into landfills but by 2017, 40% was being recycled. The report puts this down to conscious consumerism, media pressure and better policies.
Rolph Payet, executive director of the Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm conventions says that in the short term, there will be landfilling and incineration of the plastic waste. “But in the long term, if government policies are right and if consumers keep applying pressure, it will create the environment for more recycling and a circular approach when it comes to plastic.” Without the infrastructure for sorting and recycling, activists argue that the developed countries will resort to burning or sending their waste to landfills. In the medium term however, this could lead to innovation and business opportunities in the plastic recycling sector in countries which no longer have the option to dispose of their waste externally – and a healthier planet.
How does your organisation dispose of its plastic waste? How can your organisation be part of the growing global movement towards recycling plastic within its borders?
By Faeeza Khan
Image credit: Tom Fisk