First came the Green Fence in 2013. National Sword followed in 2017. In 2018 it was Blue Sky. With their ‘Command Economy’ echoes, each of China’s three national policies on garbage disposal have steadily raised the drawbridge against the world’s waste.
China’s ban on ‘foreign garbage’, specifically 56 varieties of solid waste, ranging from plastics to textiles and electrical items, has exposed an uncomfortable and dirty truth behind the West’s efforts to reduce, reuse and recycle its waste. Loading cardboard, plastic film and pots, tubs and trays and other garbage onto ships and sailing it overseas has, to date, enabled us to avoid addressing the issue in a meaningful way at home.
Until its ban, China imported around 45 per cent of the waste the world produced; in 2016 alone that figure was seven million tonnes. The repercussions have floated, rather like nurdles on an ocean current, all the way back to the United Kingdom. ‘China’s “green fence” has changed the dynamics of the global market and that’s the biggest difficulty affecting the UK,’ says Simon Ellin chief executive of the Recycling Association. ‘China wasn’t too bothered about the quality [of waste] it was being sent. The US, EU, UK and Australia were sending them everything and anything.’ As if to reinforce Ellin’s point, in September 2019 the British waste management firm, Biffa, was fined £350,000 by the UK courts for trying to ship household rubbish to China labelled as waste-paper fit for recycling but which included sanitary towels, nappies, wet wipes and condoms (Biffa has appealed).
Plastic and other packaging has been as integral to global development over the past 60 years as fossil fuels, extending the shelf life of foods and enabling goods to be transported efficiently and economically around the world. Yet, as the world struggles to come up with ways to deal with plastic at the end of its generally single use, the disadvantages have become evident.
In 2019, the British recycling charity, the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP), published a report titled Plastics Market Situation which referred to the ‘stark challenges’ that lay ahead. It called for new reprocessing infrastructure to respond both to the loss of overseas recycling options and increased domestic demand as UK businesses reacted to calls from consumers for more sustainable packaging.
There is good news. At the heart of the UK’s approach is what Department for the Environment, Fisheries and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) refers to as a ‘waste hierarchy’: prevent waste in the first place; if this is not possible, try and re-use it; failing that, recycle; after that ‘other recovery’ methods should be used such as incineration (sometimes called waste-to energy; the British Plastics Federation points out that used plastics have a higher calorific value than coal); only if all these options have been exhausted should the item be put into landfill.
UK government figures show that in 2016, 70 per cent of UK packaging waste – 104 million tonnes – was either recovered or recycled (exceeding an EU target of 60 per cent). Over the past decade the amount of plastic packaging by weight is thought to have been broadly stable. The amount of plastic packaging collected by UK local authorities has increased by ten per cent since 2013/14 to 550,000 tonnes in 2017. Nearly all local authorities collect plastic bottles, with around four out of five collecting at least some types of pots, tubs and trays. ‘I’ve been in the recycling industry for 30 years and things have changed massively,’ says Ellin. ‘A local authority used to have one or two banks for recycling paper and glass – now it has become mainstream.’
Yet putting recyclables in a kerbside box or supermarket collection point rather than a bin is one thing; stopping the contents from ultimately ending up in landfill, an incinerator (according to the latest figures from DEFRA, 7.3m tonnes of waste were burned at facilities with energy recovery processes in 2016 in the UK, compared to 1.9m tonnes in 2014) or the ocean turns out to be a bit harder.
The act of putting waste in a collection box also carries strong connotations of altruistic behaviour, of somehow doing right by the planet; yet the reality of how that waste is then dealt with is quite different. Ellin describes what happens next as ‘survival of the fittest’: recycling mills are driven by price – the price they pay for used materials, such as used cardboard and they price they receive for selling it as packaging when it has been repurposed. ‘Recycling is no different to any other commodity, it’s big business and wealthy business.’
When it comes to recycling, plastic is the most problematic because of the wide variety of uses, additives and blends. None of the commonly-used plastics are biodegradable. Ninety per cent of exports for recycling comprise polymer groups often used in single-use plastic food packaging. Plastic packaging for food, beverages and tobacco is often used only once and contributes to 61 per cent of global beach litter.
In the UK, WRAP has helped establish the UK Plastics Pact, which aims to create both a circular economy for plastics and to reduce plastic use in the first place. Among several targets with a 2025 deadline is the aim for 100 per cent of plastic packaging to be reusable, recyclable or compostable. The pact targets disposable plastic cutlery, plates and bowls, cotton buds with plastic stems, polystyrene packaging, plastic stirrers and straws, plastics, known as oxo-degradables, which break down into microplastics and PVC packaging.
The UK faces some uncomfortable choices in the short term. Peter Sainsbury, chief economist at WRAP, points to plans for the UK to increase recycling capacity to process an additional 250,000 tonnes of plastic waste. Ellin suspects this is ambitious. ‘We will have no extra capacity for five, possibly ten years,’ he says. ‘There is no capacity to recycle more in the UK, there’s no capacity to incinerate more than we do already. We should export less but that’s not going to happen unless government gets into action. We’ve got to get our own house in order.’
Measures that could work, says Ellin, include green procurement policies: if local authorities were required to buy 100 per cent recyclable products, this could galvanise a circular economy. Sainsbury points to DEFRA’s recommendations that include uniform collection policies across local government and deposit return schemes for certain kinds of packaging. The UK Treasury is also considering taxes on products with a recycling content lower than 30 per cent. The best option, says Sainsbury, is to recycle the waste. ‘If you put it in landfill you have to pay a tax and a gate fee; if you burn it [and use the heat generated as energy] you still have to pay a gate fee. But if we are going to recycle more within our own borders then we need to find a market [either at home or abroad] for that recycled plastic,’ says Sainsbury. Other countries are doing the same, he warns, which means that the UK will be competing against others to sell its recycled products.
Whatever route the UK decides to take, the latest data from the World Bank suggests that more roadside collections of yoghurt pots and film are not going to cut it. Humans, as Dr Roland Geyer, an industrial ecologist, has said, ‘are conducting a singular uncontrolled experiment on a global scale, in which billions of metric tons of material will accumulate across all major terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems on the planet.’ In 2010, the people of planet Earth produced 1.3bn tonnes of municipal solid waste a year; we are now well on the way to topping 2.3bn tonnes a year by 2025. According to the consulting firm Verisk Maplecroft, that is enough to fill 822,000 Olympic-size swimming pools. Only 16 per cent of that waste is recycled while 46 per cent (950m tonnes) is disposed of unsustainably.
According to the United Nations Environment Programme, the world also creates 50m tonnes of e-waste a year. Every tonne, it says, is the equivalent of 37 TVs, 135 computers, 3,333 keyboards and 8,000 mobile phones. Each year, this e-waste mountain is the equivalent of 125,000 jumbo jets, or 82 times the number of these planes ever built.
A GLOBAL PILE-UP
The problem is evidently not just one for the United Kingdom, which, according to Verisk Maplecroft, ranks 14th in a global waste index, with residents generating 482kgs of household waste each per year. The highest risk countries in the company’s Waste Generation Index include the US, the Netherlands, Canada, Austria, Switzerland, Germany, France and Australia.
All this matters, says Bruce Gunn, a director at the Sustainable Development & Climate Change Department of the Asian Development Bank, because waste taps into issues such as the state of our oceans, climate change and urban development concerns such as public health. ‘We shouldn’t put waste on a pedestal by itself because it cuts across many of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals,’ he says. ‘They are very much inter-related. I work in the Philippines and we see more severe storms because of climate change, the water is pouring into the drains which are blocked by plastic, creating more floods. In poorer communities there are no collections, so waste just gathers where it is dropped.’
One rule prevails: the richer and more urban a country, the more waste it produces. Higher income countries (as defined by the World Bank) typically produce 2.1kg of waste per capita, per day; lower-income nations 0.60kg/capita/day. ‘Population, urbanisation and economic growth, in addition to increasingly unsustainable consumer behaviour, have caused rates of waste generation to rise exponentially in recent decades,’ says a spokesperson for Verisk Maplecroft.
Urban residents produce about twice as much waste as their rural counterparts and high-income citizens of urban areas are by some distance the biggest producers of waste. In 2010, this category produced 777kg per capita a year (projected to rise to 840 tonnes by 2025), compared to the poorest people in urban areas who produced 219kg of waste per capita (2025 projection: 343kg).
The United States, representing just four per cent of the world’s population, is responsible for 12 per cent of global municipal solid waste (approximately 239 million tonnes, recycling just 35 per cent of it; Germany, the most efficient country, recycles 68 per cent). ‘America’s thirst for consumption is not matched by an appetite for recycling,’ says Verisk Maplecroft. ‘The US is the only developed nation whose waste generation outstrips its ability to recycle, underscoring a shortage of political will and investment in infrastructure. The country’s seeming lack of resolve to deal with waste domestically may become a mounting problem in the face of plastics import bans from China and many developing countries, where the US currently exports a large proportion of its plastic waste.’
For now, on a per capita basis, OECD countries contribute most to the global garbage pile, but, given that income level and urbanisation are highly correlated, poorer nations are rapidly catching up. The World Bank forecasts that poorer nations will collectively increase their waste from 369m tonnes a year in 2010 to 956m tonnes by 2025. China and India already make up more than 36 per cent of the world’s population and generate 27 per cent of that waste. Both countries – but especially China – have disproportionately high urban waste generation rates but also large relatively poor rural populations. The Chinese government has also flexed its authoritarian muscles at home: in June 2019, authorities made it mandatory for individuals and companies in Shanghai to sort and recycle all household rubbish; those who do not comply risk losing out on economic and social privileges by not being ‘model citizens’.
So if China will no longer accept waste from rich or poor nations, what happens next? According to UNEP, 111 million tonnes of plastic waste will be displaced by 2030 because of China’s new policy. ‘Too many developed countries have enjoyed the good feeling of recycling and exporting their waste, but we have learnt very clearly from China’s actions that this is not enough,’ says Gunn. ‘If you don’t sort out that recycling, and the quality is mixed and poor, you just end up with a lot of waste dumping.’ It would be useful, Gunn adds, were governments and individuals to strive to reduce the amount of waste produced in the first place. ‘The amount of waste being produced is going to grow, so there is an individual responsibility and we need to grow an awareness of that.’
A sense of urgency is required, says Ellin, who points out: ‘In 2016 as a globe, we exported 28m tonnes of paper fibre to China. If China stops taking it altogether it will leave a 28m tonne hole, that’s a huge challenge. The whole market is out of kilter. Where will all that material go? The answer at the moment is that we don’t know.’
Behind China’s bans is not just a desire to clean up its own environment and address its own waste; there is also the issue that China is, slowly, ‘beginning to make less stuff,’ says Ellin. ‘The circular economy works really well when it is aligned. China uses cardboard to package things that it sends to us. We then ship the cardboard back to China for it to re-use and package more goods, to send to us again. But those goods are now increasingly being made elsewhere, in Vietnam or Malaysia, where there isn’t the capacity to handle the recycled material.’
Some Chinese recycling companies responded to the ban by simply relocating their operations to more obliging adjacent countries. ‘China’s decision had an instant knock-on effect for exporters in the UK and other countries – they had to find alternative export markets,’ says Sainsbury. ‘Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia were deluged with materials and their recycling structures weren’t up to it. Less sophisticated recycling operations spotted an opportunity and that led to materials being mismanaged. Those countries then realised they didn’t want to be importers of last resort and they have also introduced restrictions or outright bans.’
Gunn is mindful of the scenario that unfolded in ship-breaking, where Bangladesh took on the mantle of doing the world’s dirty work. ‘Recycling is not at the same level but it can involve poor environmental standards,’ he says. According to UNEP, the planet’s 50 biggest active dump sites affect the lives of 64 million people, including their health and loss of lives and property when collapses occur; meanwhile two billion people are without access to solid waste management and three billion lack access to controlled waste disposal facilities. ‘You often have the work done by waste pickers or community groups and they work in poor environmental conditions,’ says Gunn. ‘We can regulate that but it’s pretty challenging.’
He points to push-back across Asia because shipments were blocking ports and the quality of the material being imported was poor. Thailand is set to ban foreign plastic waste from 2021, Vietnam will follow in 2025. ‘Attitudes are changing at the highest level,’ says Gunn. ‘Vietnam, Philippines and Myanmar have asked for help with plastic action plans while Thailand and Indonesia have set tough targets around plastics ending up in oceans.’
A raising of global standards for the export and import of plastic waste would address some concerns. While the Malaysian government, for example, has closed down 155 illegal processing plants, this is insufficient, according to Friends of the Earth Malaysia. ‘Plastic waste dumping and illegal recycling is still rampant,’ says FOE’s Mageswari Sangaralingam. ‘The government is not able to enforce regulations, nor has control on the type of waste being imported into the country. Unscrupulous exporters and middlemen will find loopholes and our communities and the environment are the ones burdened with the pollution.’
A breakthrough of sorts came in May 2019 when a binding framework was attached to the Basel Convention agreement, intended to make the global trade in plastic waste more transparent and better regulated. Exporting countries must now obtain consent from countries receiving contaminated, mixed or unrecyclable plastic waste. The US was the only notable exception from the countries that signed up.
Can the framework ever be enforced? The Basel Convention already sets rules for first-world countries shipping hazardous waste to less wealthy nations but implementation requires an international appetite which is patently absent. UNEP says up to 90 per cent of the world’s electronic waste, worth nearly £12bn, is illegally traded or dumped. Businesses circumnavigate the convention by declaring waste as second-hand goods or even as metal scrap. In 2019, the Philippines pressured Canada to repatriate waste falsely labelled as plastic scrap. Another option is that waste exports are properly audited, with receiving mills also verified to ensure they work to equivalent standards. ‘That way we’d know that if we ship material to Malaysia it’s not going to be burned or put in a landfill,’ says Ellin.
The UK continues to export significant amounts of its rubbish to the Far East. The Environment Agency says that in 2018 the UK exported 611,000 tonnes of recovered plastic packaging – down on the 683,000 tonnes exported in 2017. The amount of UK plastic taken by China dropped by 94 per cent but Malaysia (105,000 tonnes) and Indonesia (60,000 tonnes) accepted significant amounts of UK waste. Closer to home, UK waste has ended up in Turkey, Poland and The Netherlands (80,000, 72,000 and 61,000 tonnes respectively).
This is not necessarily a bad thing. Gunn believes the export of waste has it place: ‘If there is enough waste of the right quality and the right quantity then you can make a dollar out of it. It creates the opportunity to get into it and get it right. You need the right regulations to ensure the quality of what happens is sound – the danger is that it is largely unregulated.’
Rather than exporting to nations that struggle to manage waste, Verisk Maplecroft has identified some Latin American and eastern European nations, including Mexico, Peru and Czechia as being able to deal effectively with more imports of waste. ‘Nations that not only produce little waste, but are also adept at dealing with what they do generate, may be better bets,’ says Verisk Maplecroft.
‘If we can reduce the packaging we use and recycle more of that then that solves a lot of the issues people are worried about,’ says Sainsbury. ‘If you look back at how things were 20 years ago, there are familiar themes but we have made considerable progress.’
Ellin remains concerned that even if the world becomes better at reducing waste, demographic projections for increased wealth and urbanisation mean that volumes will continue to soar for some time yet. ‘The environment lobby argues that we shouldn’t export it – but that riles me. People think recycling is all about the greater good and there is an element of that but it’s really about demand for a resource,’ he says. ‘The growing middle classes around the world will want more items and these will all be packaged, it’s a multi-trillion dollar business. It feels right now that the recycling industry is like a bucket of water that is being sloshed about, with water spilling out in different directions.’
Complacency has proved to be a formidable enemy, suggests Gunn. ’When it comes to recycling, people have been patting themselves on the back too early. The approach needs to be more entrenched. You have to be optimistic, given the increasing attention the issue is getting in national and civil society and even in the highest levels of government. The G20, ASEAN, APEC are paying more attention. That’s not to say it’s going to be easy to address. This isn’t something that can be done in a year, it can’t just be this year’s topic of interest and then the world moves on to another issue. Action has to be sustained over decades.’
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