Global recycling crisis: what really happens to our rubbish?

This is a guest post by Magda Strzala

Vietnam was for me a perfect tourist destination – beautiful seaside, sandy beaches, mountains, rice terraces, hospitable people and perfect cuisine. Except for one thing – garbage piling up everywhere, sea with waste floating on the surface and swimming amongst plastic bottles. It was a bitter view that made me question, why Asia has such a big problem with rubbish?

Unfortunately, looking at the statistics, I was not surprised to discover that more than 80% of marine plastic pollution comes from Asia. The International Union for Conservation of Nature calculated that ‘more than a quarter of all the world’s marine plastic waste may be pouring in from just 10 rivers, 8 of them in Asia.’ But whom should we blame for that? There is no doubt that the developed countries play a significant role in this problem. For decades, they have been sending their waste to Asian countries. But, luckily, this situation is changing now as Asian nations are much more reluctant to accept containers with waste coming from the West. Southeast Asian countries have also experienced some of the fastest growth rates in the world, with consumption booming accordingly. In consequence their production and use of plastic has increased significantly. Unfortunately, consumption has outpaced waste management. In many regions, efforts to deal with pollution created by garbage are deficient or non-existent. From a global perspective, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation calculations, only 14% of plastic is recycled, and between $80 billion and $120 billion is lost each year on one-time use items. On top of that, it is estimated that a third of all plastic packaging leaks into the world’s ecosystems.

Short facts about the waste trade in Asia

The export of rubbish to Asia, from the developed countries, is nothing new. The whole process started in the mid-eighties. In a span of 30 years, waste from Europe and America is now piling up at the shores of developing Asian countries.

The European Union is the biggest plastic waste exporter, with the US being the largest exporter as a single country. According to Greenpeace, waste comes from a dozen developed countries such as Canada, France, Belgium, Germany, Spain, the Netherlands and the UK. The largest importer was China who received half of the world’s plastic waste, reaching a peak of nine million tonnes in 2012. This changed in January 2018 when China, due to concerns about contamination and pollution, declared that it would no longer buy recycled plastic scrap that was not 99.5% pure.

This ban caused significant turmoil in the global waste trade. Trash destined to China had to be shipped to other alternative countries – the developed world has started to import their garbage to Southeast Asia, where some countries have loose environmental regulations that simplify garbage disposal. In particular Malaysia, Vietnam and Thailand have picked up a lot of the stack, with Malaysia becoming a top importer. Imports of waste in Malaysia have increased five times, to about 110,000 tons per month, whereas the Philippines saw a three-fold increase in 2018 compared to 2016. At the same time, Thailand’s imports have increased by almost 2,000%. Authorities warn, however, that those numbers are only ‘the tip of the iceberg’ as many ports have no capacity to monitor exactly what comes in.

But why are those countries so attractive for trash exporters? Well, firstly, wealthier countries are taking advantage of the looser regulations in those less developed. From the importers’ perspective, accepting rubbish is also a valuable source of income and products of recycling can be used as material to produce new goods. Sending trash to Asian countries seems like a perfect deal for developed countries – it is cheap, helps meets recycling targets at home and reduces domestic landfill. And, of course, once out of sight – out of mind, right?

Dumping ground for the world’s trash

The 2017 report of the Ocean Conservancy calculated that ‘Indonesia, China, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam dump more plastic into the oceans than the rest of the world combined.’ The reason for that is the fact that in South East Asia environmental regulations are not as stringent as those in Europe or the US. Wealthier countries take advantage of the lack of strict rules in importing countries. Additionally, even though the Basel Convention 1989 put significant restrictions on trash export of dangerous waste to less developed nations (except for the US which did not ratify the treaty), it left a loophole – this convention allowed for shipment of plastic designated for recycling.

While this plastic is designated as recyclable however, most of it actually turns out to be contaminated and of low-quality. On top of that, officials in affected countries frequently complain that garbage received is labelled incorrectly. As a result, such plastic cannot be recycled and end up rotting in landfills or waterways potentially contaminating soil and water resources or is being burned in unauthorized incinerators – in a process which releases highly poisonous chemicals into the atmosphere, creating hazards to the environment as well as public health. Respiratory illnesses, crop deaths, air pollution are a few negative results of that process. As the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA) indicates, many bodies of water with illegal dumping grounds contained dangerous levels of zinc, iron and lead. Entire crop fields had to be removed. Landfills are also generators of greenhouse gases – for example, Mumbai’s Deonar dump is a huge concentration of methane gas which regularly catches fire. Local authorities collecting rubbish do not have enough money and even less knowledge about recycling processes. Furthermore, trash often ends up in illegal and unregulated dumping grounds. Looking at estimates, Thailand fails to manage more than a third of the 27 million tons of waste. Unfortunately, as the Department of Marine and Coastal Resources calculated, up to 60 thousand tons each year flush to rivers and subsequently into the sea, particularly during the monsoon season. Many landfills are also unprotected from torrential rains, mudslides or flooding.

As mentioned above the US did not ratify the Basel Convention. Instead, in cases of waste trading, it operates under bilateral agreements reached with affected countries. The USA, hence, has routinely shipped e-waste including dead car batteries, mercury-laced concrete as well as other highly toxic materials to the shores of Southeast Asia. Study in 2013 conducted by The Lancet Global Health indicated that schoolchildren exposed to e-waste in Chinese Guiyu (a city with e-waste dismantling centre) had bigger concentrations of toxic chemicals such as lead, chromium or nickel in their bloodstream than their peers in non-affected areas. Furthermore, according to the report, populations exposed to e-waste saw an increase in stillbirths, premature births and reduced birthweights. People living in e-waste recycling areas in China evidenced greater DNA damage than those living in non-affected towns. Unfortunately, some countries in Asia lack both funds and proper facilities for e-waste recycling.

Booming economies, growing population and consumerism in Asia as well as trash import from developed countries – have all contributed to Asia becoming, unfortunately, the biggest dumping ground of the world. Adding to that poor waste management, lack of stringent regulations, funds or knowledge and we have a recipe for a disaster that we must deal with now.

Asia turns away from accepting garbage

There is, however, a silver lining in this story. Following China’s ban in 2018, the other Asian nations became new global dump yards for wealthier countries. But, as global plastic consumption reached 400 million tons per year, — an amount that is calculated to double over the next 15 years — no nation in Southeast Asia is able to actually cope with this amount. They cannot match China’s recycling plants or its massive industrial base that converted old plastic into new products. Hence, in recent months, some nations in Southeast Asia have begun sending the waste exports — much of it contaminated plastic and trash that is unrecyclable — back to where it came from.

Policymakers in countries like Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines are increasingly worried that the environmental costs will be greater than money received for importing the trash. Many governments have started rethinking their current policies. For example, Vietnam is going to block all imported plastic waste in the next few years and intends to bar all imports of plastic scrap by 2025. Thailand has temporarily prohibited plastic waste imports and announced that it will implement a full ban by 2021. Taiwan will only accept plastic scrap sorted into a single type so that recycling will be easy. While, Malaysia announced a ban on the import of plastic scrap in October and started cracking down on factories that process such waste illegally. India also expanded its ban on solid plastic waste imports in March.

Some changes have also made on an international law level – the Basel Amendment, which takes effect in January 2021, will require container ships exporting plastic scrap to obtain prior consent from the destination country. It also allows countries to freely refuse unwanted or unmanageable waste. Around 180 parties (except for the US) signed the deal in order to make the waste trade more transparent and better regulated, ensuring management which is safer for public health and the environment. As a result, the global plastic waste exports fell – by almost half by the end of 2018, compared with 2016 levels, according to the recent Greenpeace analysis.

Lesson for waste exporters

From the Asian perspective, things have started to change for the better, as Southeast Asia keeps closing its ports from unwanted tonnes of plastic scrap. But what happens to those countries that kept sending that trash to the shores of the developing nations?

It is easy to blame waste shippers or policymakers for reacting too slowly. But in my opinion, the real problem lies with excessive consumption. It is not hard to realize that if we produce less trash in our houses, less trash is being shipped abroad and, consequently, less trash would end up in the oceans or would contaminate the soil. For too many years countries exporting waste were turning a blind eye to the fate of its plastic bottles, grocery bags or food wrappers. I hope that this new situation in global waste trade will be a wakeup call that will make us rethink our plastic addiction but will also force makers of plastics and disposable goods to take responsibility for the environmental damage inflicted. Authorities need to change their ‘out of sight, out of mind’ attitude to a more sustainable disposal and recycling systems in the country.

Extreme weather conditions and link to climate change

This is a guest post by Magda Strzala

The World Resources Institute warns that if we don’t act against global warming to keep the average temperature increase well below 2 degrees, the consequences will be very severe. Two degrees warming will rise the sea level above 0.46m by 2100, 8% of vertebrates, 18% of insects and 16% of plants will lose at least half of their range, 37% of the world’s population will be exposed to severe heat at least once every five years. The Arctic will be ice-free during summer every 10 years. The coral reef will virtually disappear, and fisheries will experience 3 million tonnes decline. Allowing 2 degrees warming will negatively impact ecosystems (13% of Earth’s land area will see a shift of ecosystems into new biomes), 6.6 million km2 of Arctic permafrost will thaw and maize harvests in tropics will be reduced by 7%.

Even though there is more than a 98% consensus among scientists that climate change is a real threat, there are still people denying that global warming exists. But I looked closer at some natural disasters that occurred in 2018 and there is no doubt that this crisis already exists, and that climate change worsens some types of natural disasters. And unless we act, it is only going to get worse.

Within the last decade, an average number of natural disasters in the world in one year rose from 447 to 556 and financial costs were increased from $104 to 123 billion in comparison to the average from the last 30 years. According to data from the Centre of Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters, in 2018 approximately 5,000 people died and around 29 million needed emergency assistance or humanitarian aid as a result of extreme weather. The so-called ‘the Beast from the East’ – a strong blast of cold air from Siberia in February and March and series of heatwaves in Europe during summer affected the whole continent, causing death and bringing chaos to the infrastructure. While in Africa, record-breaking rains in northern Kenya and Somalia displaced more than 200,000 people and caused a cholera outbreak.

It got even worse! Drought in Central America led to 2 million farmers being at risk of hunger, with many fleeing to the USA in July. Deadly hurricanes hit the USA, Central America and the Caribbean, killing 88 people and causing damages which estimated worth exceeded $32 billion. And even though it is challenging to link any one storm to climate change, scientists predict that hurricanes could become more intense and destructive as the climate warms. Argentina suffered from the biggest drought in the past 50 years. The key agriculture sector plummeted by 31%, severely affecting Argentina’s economy, pushing the country into recession.

In Asia, a powerful monsoon rain caused the worst in the past 80 years flooding in Kerala state, South India. Almost 500 people died and over million were relocated too temporary camps: the cost of damages exceeded $3.7 billion. A drought left Afghanistan with a food shortage forcing 300,000 from their homes. The strongest storm of the year also wreaked devastation on Guam, the Philippines, and parts of south China in September. Super typhoon, Mangkhut, recorded wind speeds of up to 175mph, the equivalent to a strong category 5 hurricane, and was responsible for more than 100 deaths. A study published this year by the World Bank suggests that climate change is already affecting more than 800 million people living in South Asia, and the situation will get worse in the future.

Looking from a global perspective, 2018 year was the fourth hottest on record. Global Mean Sea Level (GMSL) for 2018 was around 3.7 millimetres higher than in 2017 and the highest on record. I have listed only a few deadly disasters that occurred last year. Indeed, the causes of these and the other major disasters of 2018 were complex, with many contributing factors but, without doubt, climate change played a significant role in many of them, creating riskier conditions for storms and fires to arise in.

Food security is being threatened, extreme weather is causes millions of people to be displaced, communities are being exposed to heatwaves, and there is coral bleaching and reduced levels of oxygen in the oceans. All those adverse effects of climate change are no longer a future threat. It is something happening now. I feel that in public debate there is too much focus on future problems, predictions and years left until we experience threats of global warming: In my opinion, we should however also highlight the problems that we are already facing due to climate change like the disasters in 2018 that negatively affected 29 million people around the globe.

There are still too many climate change sceptics and deniers but more than that there is a need for a change in public perception so that everyone realises that climate change is not a future problem for other generations but a contemporary issue. I hope that by focusing our attention on disasters and weather extremes that have already taken place, more people will start acting to mitigate the impact of climate change on our planet and to prevent further climate change.



Direct Action: What, Why, Who and How

Climate Cafe, 6 August 2019.

Who must act to tackle climate change? All of us. When? Right now. Why? Because there is no more time for waiting for plans or solutions. Climate change is happening now. Millions of living beings are currently suffering or dying because of climate change. We need to engage with our community to have a broader impact with our voice and actions. But how to act? Well, this was one of the questions discussed at the Climate Cafe in August. Aberdeen Climate Action gathered activists from different organizations who shared their perspectives about direct action. There were speakers from Faslane Peace Camp, the Scottish Palestinian Solidarity Campaign, and Extinction Rebellion Aberdeenshire.

Direct action comprises of a wide array of different tactics and actions. Using historical examples, Fiona Napier, showed us the impact and importance of some of the biggest examples of direct action and how different actions interact with each other: it is how all of these combine, which leads to success. The common characteristic of all though has been to raise awareness, gathering people, drawing attention and having an impact through the media leading to action from those in power. Gillian Siddons spoke on her ideas about wealth creation and invited us all to think about the foundations of our society. Paul Matter, Extinction Rebellion, reiterated the need to have direct action taken with love and respect at the very heart of it and spoke about the XR way and their ‘near’ future plans for action, which we were all invited to join in with. 

While it is clear that it was felt by all that our governments have not taken sufficient action on climate change, it was emphasized that everyone should be involved in this matter. As citizens, we can encourage the government to take public actions, nonetheless, it is not an exclusive matter of the government, it is about individual behaviour. All of us are facing climate change, so all of us need to act now.

This cafe was a passionate one, where the public discussed the actions already taken, and the actions needed still to be taken. Although there was a variety of perspectives on how to take direct action, there was a consensus about why and who needs to take action on the climate. This is about climate action, a matter that concerns everyone, so that everyone needs to act. To find out more on how you can live sustainably visit our sustainable Aberdeen website: and keep appraised of actions in our local area on the Aberdeen Climate Action facebook page.

Behind the Great Wall of Smog: Air Pollution in Beijing, China

This is a guest post by Magda Strzala for Aberdeen Climate Action

I moved to Beijing in February. Grey sky and bad air quality became everyday life. Smog has affected my lifestyle significantly. I cannot open my window whenever I want. I cannot go jogging whenever I want. Before going outside even for brief shopping errands, I need to check the air quality index (AQI) to know whether it is necessary to put my mask on.

All these changes made me reconsider what I was told before moving here for a semester abroad. Were they right? Is there no blue sky in China?

First things first. According to recent studies by the Greenpeace, China is indeed a country with one of the worst air qualities on the planet. The autumn of 2018, for instance, saw a sharp decline in air quality compared to previous years. More astonishingly, but somehow unsurprisingly, both the WHO and the Berkeley Institute concluded that more than 1 million Chinese people, and around 22 million tons of crops, fall victim to air pollution annually. Such studies show that dealing with poor air quality is not merely a matter of culture shock but a serious and hazardous problem.

But why? What is the cause of this worrying development? Well, for one, China’s almost miraculous economic ascent in the world does not come cheap. With its economic development as one of the key producers for, well, everything, China’s march to the peak of exporting nations has come at a price. While the country leads the world in exports with 2.1 trillion dollars (compared to all the EU with 1.9 trillion), it also is among the world leaders in air pollution. While different studies will place China at different ranks, it usually ranks in the top 20 (mind you that China has vast, unindustrialized region in the West and Southwest lowering the overall country average). However, the fact that 22 Chinese cities are listed in the top 50 of the most polluted cities on the planet (with 25 being attributed to India) speaks volumes.

So where does the smog come from? Well, all that development requires energy, and the country’s goods and people require transportation. So, these worrying developments of the air quality does not come as a surprise considering that the population of the 21 million large city of Beijing has increased by 74%, and the number of vehicles by 335% by 2017 compared to 20 years earlier.

Beijing, the capital of the country, offers a fascinating glimpse at this very dirty problem. On the surface, the city’s AQI can still exceed 680 on the AQI scale (150 is considered hazardous according to the WHO) on some days. However, on other days, patient observers can catch a bit of blue sky, especially during the summer months. So which one is it? Dirty or clean? Both or neither?

Officially, China has attempted to tackle the air pollution problem since 2000. However, only since 2010 has the approach made its way into the country’s agenda (one could speculate if the eyes of the world resting on the Olympics in 2008 played a role), with binding targets for harmful particles for carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxides as well sulfur dioxides. With these commitments, as well as immense investments in the following years (e.g. 54bn USD in 2013), Beijing has seemingly solved its problem and reduced its count of the most dangerous PM2.5 to an average of 50-100 on the AQI in 2018, compared to 150 in 2008. But this exemplifies the greater issue at hand. Contrary to what official sources try to make you believe, Beijing has not completely solved its problem, but partially pushed it away- quite literally! According to recent studies, the greater Beijing area has seen improvements of 34% between 2012 and 2017 while the rural provinces surrounding the mega city have seen increases of 5% annually. Clearly there have been improvements in the bigger cities that can be seen and felt, but rural areas in the country increased their production, and with it their pollution, to relieve bigger cities.

The apparent duality of solution and problem is visible in the root cause of it all: The energy demand fueled by coal.  As China ramped up its production at staggering rates, so its demand of coal increased and thus creating its air quality problem. After years of supplying the world, China has realized the killing consequences of its industrial growth and is taking steps to ameliorate it: China has become both one of the greatest manufacturers and applicants of renewable energy technology. From as far back as 2013, China has been the largest producer of renewable energy on the planet however, because of its massive demand for energy, renewables only accounted for 26% of its 2017 power production. And while in 2014, the Chinese Energy Counsel agreed that no more coal plants would be built after 2030, a recent request by the industry demands the building of 300 to 500 new plants before 2030, which, according to Greenpeace, would equal a new coal plant being built every 2 weeks for 12 years!

What that means for the air quality problem for China is evident. While the country has arguable invested in the renewables sector, and making major cities cleaner, any threat to the country’s economic growth – such as the trade war with the US in 2018 – or any sign of a slowing growth rate are met with investments in quick and dirty energy, such as coal.

This behavior extends far beyond China’s borders though. This is not about me, not being able to run or shop when I fancy. This is about the collective, our planet. While every country, trying or not, is currently struggling to meet the demands of the Paris Accords to combat Global Warming and Climate Change, the rate of China’s continued investment in fossil energy could undo the rest of the world’s efforts to limit our planet’s warming to 1.5°C by 2030. If the Chinese industry demands are met, China, who is required to drop 20% of its coal capacity in the next 12 years, would actually increase its coal powered capacity by 20% instead. If that happens, failing both the 1.5°C target and the 2°C goal for 2050, having to wear a mask when shopping will be the least of our problems!