30 May 2019
Return to Sender
By Lynda Goetz
“What the UK believes they send for recycling is actually dumped in our country” pointed out the Malaysian environment minister as she announced at a press conference that this waste would be returned to the countries of origin ‘without mercy’. The announcement, which went out on the BBC news on Tuesday evening and featured on the front pages of several newspapers on Wednesday morning, is hardly the first time such shocking facts have been exposed. Mountains of ‘Western waste’ or ‘yanglaji’ as the Chinese and Malaysians call it, are shipped, often illegally, to poorer countries, where it is frequently not recycled but simply burned, sometimes in the open. Since China refused to take further shipments of our ‘recycling’, it is countries like Malaysia which have borne the brunt of this shameful trade. You only need to watch a short clip such as the video made for the BBC back in February to see how horrifying and despoiling are the vast mounds of yanglaji which end up polluting other people’s countryside – having been sent in containers half way around the world to get there. There is nothing environmentally friendly about that.
Recycling is a business and like any other business, once it ceases to be profitable then the model is no longer viable. For around three decades, China bought a lot of the recyclable waste from around the world – particularly from the US, but also from Europe and Australia. However, as its own economy grew and the wealth of its own inhabitants increased, it no longer needed or wanted the waste plastic, cardboard and paper from other nations. It had enough of its own. There were also the issues of contamination and air pollution, not to mention the way China increasingly saw itself as an economic force (i.e. not as the repository for other countries’ unwanted rubbish). In July 2017 China announced Operation National Sword which banned 24 types of scrap and put in place stronger regulations regarding contamination, which came into force at the beginning of 2018. These ‘impossible’ contamination standards have had a knock-on effect.
According to a CNBC news clip from last October as much as a third of the rubbish collected for recycling in the US goes to landfill because of contamination. Exact figures for this country are hard to obtain, but it is quite clear that recycling rates are still well under 50%. It is not just America which has a problem. We do not have the processing plants in this country to recycle the amounts of waste, in particular plastic waste, generated. Since China introduced its ban and stricter regulations we have been sending the stuff to other poorer countries including Turkey, Thailand and Malaysia. India introduced a total ban on the import of foreign plastic waste on 1st March this year. Thailand put a ban in place in the autumn last year which will be fully implemented by 2021 and both Vietnam and Malaysia have instigated much stricter regulations. The so-called developed world is running out of options. If the business model is defunct, then we need to devise different strategies.
The first thing which springs to mind is to use less plastic. If there is no demand for recycling plastic waste, then we should not be creating that waste in the first place. Nevertheless, a year on from the supposed wake-up call given by David Attenborough’s Blue Planet II, supermarkets are still not cutting down on their use of plastic. Indeed, in many cases, they are increasing their use of it. How else to explain the fact that individual garlic bulbs not so long ago sold from a cardboard box by Tesco’s are now individually wrapped in non-recyclable plastic netting with a plastic label pretty much the same size as the product itself? What on earth is that about? Why does a garlic bulb with its own natural protective covering need to be put inside totally pointless plastic netting and labelled as if we cannot work out what we are buying? Garlic has long since ceased to be an unidentifiable exotic vegetable in this country. Why are mushrooms now packaged in allegedly unrecyclable black plastic containers covered with cling film when not that long ago they were sold loose alongside paper bags into which the customer could put the amount they required? Why do peaches come in threes or fours in plastic punnets? The list is endless.
Individuals attempt to do their little bit by recycling. This would not be enough even if we were to increase significantly the percentage of rubbish which is actually recycled, as opposed to being ‘out of sight, out of mind’ and being burnt at night in the fields behind Malaysian villages. As I have pointed out before in this column* we need a concerted effort from government, industry, retail and individuals to tackle a serious and growing problem. Individuals are, sadly, not going to go back to an era when shopping was a part of a housewife’s day and she spent time visiting individual local shops to purchase items which were put into brown paper bags and thence into a shopping basket which lasted half a lifetime. Nowadays, the reality is that a woman – or man – will dash into the supermarket on the way home from work (almost certainly by car) and pick up some items for supper, or just as likely pick up a ready-make meal. Supermarkets need to play their part in ensuring that these items are packaged and sold in as sustainable a way as possible. This will almost certainly involve the development of different materials (already research is ongoing) and the discarding of over-packaging where this is unnecessary (e.g. putting a bunch of bananas inside a plastic bag).
On 18th December 2018, the Environment Secretary Michael Gove unveiled the government’s new Resources and Waste Management Strategy. This is a considered and ambitious strategy to underpin the 25 year Environment Plan. For it to work, however, people need to be made aware of its existence and to be educated in their understanding of how their own individual actions make a difference. It is no use kids going on school strikes about climate change but then feeling entitled to go out and buy endless cheap items of ‘fast fashion’ clothing so that they can look good on Instagram. It is going to take a very concerted effort to move in the right direction.
In the meantime, I wonder what is actually going to happen to all that contaminated plastic waste being returned to us from Malaysia. Do we have the facilities to burn it for energy production or will it simply be burned? If Mr Gove’s circular economy is to happen, we all need to be aware of the urgent reasons for it to happen and to be educated and prepared to play our part. How about a series of Dump the Packaging Days (starting this Saturday) when we take bags and reusable containers to the supermarket and leave all the excessive and unnecessary packaging at the checkout? Please join me!