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.