Modern impracticality of recycling

28th Jun 2019
Modern impracticality of recycling

Jakarta, Indonesia (Photo: Jonathan McIntosh/WikiCommons)

The global recycling system is in crisis. Recycling seems like such a simple thing to do, a way to be more conscious of your ecological footprint, regardless of how much meat you eat, the energy you waste, or miles per gallon your car gets. Yet much of the West’s recycling systems have relied on exporting their recyclables to developing Asian countries.

In January 2018, China announced its National Sword policy, stating that it would no longer accept imports of most plastic and paper waste. This spurred a worldwide crisis that shed light on how reliant many countries were on China’s acceptance of their recycled waste. Exporting nations turned to places like Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines. This year, even some of those countries have put their feet down, refusing to be the dumping ground for the world. Now that these south-eastern Asian nations are refusing to purchase the waste — which is often contaminated or accepted illegally — countries like the US, UK, Canada, and even Germany are being forced to rethink their waste management infrastructures.

The recycling issue has even set off diplomatic rows between nations.

Malaysia’s Environment Minister, Yeo Bee Yin, told the UK that it would no longer accept shipments of recyclable materials. The Daily Telegraph reported that “Like many Western countries, the UK, which is expected to miss EU targets to recycle 50 per cent of household waste by 2020, has become reliant on exporting its waste there.” But Malaysia won’t stop there. It plans to return 3,000 tonnes of rubbish to the US, UK, Canada, Japan, China, Australia, the Netherlands, Germany, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Bangladesh, Norway and France in the near future.

The Philippines demanded that Canada took back a shipment of 69 shipping containers filled with contaminated recycled waste from 2013-14. When Canada stalled on reclaiming the shipment, Manila even recalled an ambassador to Ottawa, which finally triggered Canada’s acceptance of the rubbish. They agreed to pay the full cost of its journey and disposal.

Earlier this year, the Philippines also returned another shipment of more than 6,000 tonnes of contaminated waste to South Korea. The Korean company in question came under fire for illegally exporting the mislabelled rubbish, which included plastic straws and batteries when it was purported to be recyclable plastics.

Contamination is a major issue for recycling companies. People often recycle improperly. There’s a feeling that putting anything and everything in the recycle bin, whether it can be recycled or not, is being “better safe than sorry.” But that contamination leads to many tonnes of partially recyclable waste being dumped in the landfill or incinerated because it’s not cost effective for recycling companies to sift through it all. According to Vox, “Due to the falling costs of oil prices, virgin plastic is actually cheaper to make than using recycled materials.”

Since China’s announcement in 2018, many cities in the US, the world’s largest single producer of waste, has been a scrambling to find new outlets for their recycling. Some have scrapped their systems altogether, while others send them to waste-to-energy plants that incinerate the rubbish. Some simply send it to landfills. In some cities, in order to keep recycling alive, costs have skyrocketed. Unfortunately, it proved less expensive to ship recycled waste thousands of miles away than to manage it domestically.

This crisis points to two things: people’s lack of awareness about the proper procedures of recycling in their localities, and nations’ lack of incentives for domestic businesses to make use of their own recycled waste. If countries subsidised recycling operations, they would eliminate the long distances trash would have to travel to be recycled, along with the fuel such trips take.

Some major companies have already invested in reusable packaging, including Nestle, PepsiCo, and Unilever. It’s important for nations to support efforts to reduce waste products rather than simply streamline their disposal. All around the world, stores have disincentivised plastic bag usage by charging a fee for them. If fees were placed on all manner of disposable packaging, and companies were held accountable for the tonnes of waste they produced, there would be far less rubbish to try to bury, burn, or recycle.

Sarah Sakeena Marshall, English Language Teacher, Environmental Columnist

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