Waste not, want not

By: Sophia Huda, Freelance Consultant in Waste Management

At the beginning of this year, China implemented a new policy called “National Sword”, which puts restrictions on waste imports by banning certain materials and putting in place contamination restrictions on other materials. China has long been the world’s rubbish bin — in 2016, the rest of the world exported 28.6 million tonnes of paper and 8.5 million tonnes of plastic waste to the country, out of which the European Union (EU) alone accounted for roughly 8 million tonnes and 1.6 million tonnes respectively. Otherwise put, Europe was shipping 13% of its paper waste and 60% of its plastic waste across the world to be dealt with. So, while Europe was vaunting its high recycling rates, the reality is that a good chunk of its waste was being sent overseas.

Sending waste to another part of the world to be taken care of is a highly controversial practice. Firstly, it is not particularly sound from the environmental point of view — sending a used plastic bottle thousands of kilometres away to be recycled just adds to its total environmental footprint. Although the EU regulations require that exported plastic waste be recycled to the same standards as in the EU, there is not a lot of oversight to ensure foreign recyclers are complying. Moreover, waste exported to China and other countries is often sorted by informal workers operating under unsafe working conditions. Furthermore, it stands to reason — or at least in a perfect world it should — that we should only consume (and waste) as much as we can process.

Photo : cloud2013, flickr

Unfortunately, the immediate reaction to the Chinese ban was not to address how much waste we produce but to find alternative markets for exporting European and North American waste. Those new markets include South East Asian countries like Vietnam and Indonesia who do not have the capacity to handle the tonnes and tonnes of waste paper and plastic Europe, and the rest of the world, produces. As a result, after only a few months these countries have already considered implementing their own version of National Sword and Vietnam has halted all plastic waste imports for several months.

Another alternative market for waste happens to actually be in Europe itself, in Poland. The country has recently been hit by a plague of landfill fires, suspected to be set to help companies avoid recycling rules and create more space for more waste. Poland’s Interior Minister Joachim Brudziński specifically pointed to China’s waste ban as a reason behind the illegal landfills and fires. Poland imports 400,000 tonnes of waste from its Western European neighbors every year, and is home to an estimated 120 illegal landfills. Organized crime, which has long had a hand in the waste management industry, has exploited the fact that Western European countries like Germany have higher landfill fees by importing thousands of tonnes of waste across Poland’s western border and burying it in illegal landfills. Burning garbage can produce toxic smoke that is harmful to people’s health and improperly managed landfills can seep toxic chemicals into the soil and groundwater sources, contaminating water and leading to potential health problems. This environmental and public health threat currently taking place in Poland is a symptom of our inability to consume less and thus produce less waste. It does not have to be like this, however. The Chinese waste restrictions are an ideal opportunity to invest in developing Poland’s and other EU member states waste and recycling infrastructure and create a circular economy for Europe.

While the recycling infrastructure in Europe is generally better than that of North America — the EU recycling rate is 39%, with some countries like Austria with rates as high as 63%, while the US average is 34% — Europe still lacks the collection and sorting capacity to produce high quality paper and plastic recyclate that can be used to manufacture new products. Fortunately, China’s National Sword policy may actually provide a solution to that problem. The EU has set a 50% recycling target for all its member states by 2020 and the European Commission’s Strategy on Plastic and its Circular Economy Package will help further boost demand for recyclate. Along with the waste export restrictions, this will create a greater incentive to invest in the domestic recycling infrastructure to produce cleaner waste streams and feed the market for recycled materials.

But recycling should not be seen as a panacea. Ultimately, Europeans need to reduce their waste — which has always been the first priority in waste management — by reducing their consumption. The EU’s recent proposal to ban single use plastics is one step towards reducing waste, but Europeans still produce nearly 60 million tonnes of paper waste, 88 million tonnes of food waste, and 10 million tonnes of electronic waste every year. As the European recycling industry waits for the effects of National Sword to level out, Europeans need to reckon with the amount of waste they produce and the sad fact that we humans continue to consume more goods and produce more waste than we know what to do with.