At home in the UK recently, in my mother’s house, we assiduously separated her household trash into recyclable and non-recyclable, washed out the cans and took the caps off the plastic bottles, congratulating ourselves that we were doing our bit for the environment, as we tipped the trash into the special blue recycling bins the local council provides to each household. I even took some old cellphones and spectacles back from China, because I knew I could take them to charity shops, who could recycle them for money.
But it turns out all is not well in the rotting kingdom (not a metaphor for Brexit). It seems that much of the solid waste put out for recycling is not being recycled. Either because waste companies are not doing their jobs properly, or they are overwhelmed by the amount of trash, or because consumers are not sorting out garbage properly. Non-recyclables, tossed carelessly in with the recyclables makes the whole lot useless. And this poorly sorted garbage has apparently been finding its way to Asia.
Now countries are starting to kick out their foreign trash mountains. The Philippines has been in dispute with Canada for five years over 69 containers of what they say is 1,500 tons of contaminated trash – useless for recycling. The issue caused a diplomatic spat, which has now culminated in Ottawa agreeing to take back the household waste – originally said to be plastics for recycling. Authorities in Malaysia said they would no longer accept imports of waste, after tons of trash was found to be illegally flooding the country. Malaysian Environment Minister Yeo Bee Yin told media that Malaysia is not the “dumping ground of the world.”
Even in China, where imports of plastic waste from overseas have dropped to almost zero, other forms of illegal waste have been imported. On May 22, customs authorities at Dalian port, Liaoning Province, sent back over 688 tons of smuggled aluminum waste, believed to have come from Australia, CGTN reported.
For years, European nations, the US and Australia, have been deflecting their waste problems onto others. China’s decision to stop accepting certain categories of solid waste, particularly plastics, is laudable. According to the National Geographic, since 1992, China has taken in 45 percent of the world’s trash. In 2016, Japan was the biggest supplier of plastic waste imports, followed by the US. However, much of the trash China took in also came from countries in the region – followed by Germany, Belgium and surprisingly, the Philippines itself. Other middle-income countries, such as Vietnam, Indonesia and Malaysia, exported more waste in 2016 to China than did the UK or Spain.
Earlier, China’s developing industries could use the raw materials, which became an easy option for both companies and cities in the West to ship their waste away. The downside was that recycling technology remained undeveloped. But this changed in 2018 when China decided to receive no more trash. Global supply chains scrambled to find an alternative and Southeast Asian countries took up the slack.
Greenpeace, in a report focusing on Malaysia titled “The Recycling Myth” found unregulated dumping sites of imported “recycling” from all over the planet. There were Starbucks cups and cosmetics packaging. The waste came from the UK, the US, Canada, Australia, Sweden, Switzerland. Greenpeace investigators found plastic waste from 19 countries, the US being on top, followed by Japan. Much of this was burned in illegal factories.