Last year, when China, the biggest consumer of discarded plastics, banned nearly all waste imports, it signaled a sea change in the global recycling system. The trade in plastics quickly rerouted to neighboring Southeast Asian countries that lacked effective recycling plants and disposal laws, leaving much of the waste to be burned or dumped in fields and waterways, creating health and environmental hazards. Now those countries are closing their doors.
Amid a growing global movement against non-recyclable plastic, Vietnam and Thailand plan to block all imported plastic waste. Taiwan will only accept plastic scrap if sorted into a single type, making it easier to recycle. The Philippines and Malaysia are likely implementing outright bans and have led the way in demanding that exporting countries take back containers of waste that entered its ports illegally, often with improper documentation. Indonesia sent five containers of Canadian scrap paper back to Seattle after discovering that used plastic, wood, diapers and shoes were also packed inside.
Asian countries will no longer be dumping grounds for the world’s waste.
The outcry over plastic has echoes of three decades ago, when the United States routinely shipped dead car batteries, mercury-laced concrete and other toxic materials to the lightly regulated shores of Southeast Asia. The 1989 Basel Convention global treaty placed significant restrictions on the shipment of hazardous waste to poor countries but left open a loophole for materials — mainly plastic — that were designated for recycling.
In May, representatives of more than 180 countries agreed to expand the treaty to include most plastic waste, placing it under the same trade restrictions as toxic substances. It was a belated acknowledgment that much plastic cannot be recycled because it is dyed, contains food or liquid residue, or is mixed with other non-recyclable waste.
While China was buying more than half the world’s plastic waste, the industrialized world was unaware of the fate of its soda bottles, grocery bags, yogurt tubs and other trash. As global plastic consumption soared to 400 million tons annually no country could match China’s relatively efficient domestic recycling plants or its massive industrial base that repurposed old plastic into new products.
Then China’s ban really changed the landscape and people realized there was a big problem.
The Basel amendment requires shippers of plastic scrap to obtain prior consent from the destination country and gives countries the legal authority to refuse unwanted or unmanageable waste. The roughly 100 containers described by Philippine importers as plastic scraps for recycling, were found to contain household waste including plastic bottles, plastic bags, newspapers, household garbage and used adult diapers.
After 5 years of haggling, Trudeau hired a shipping company to retrieve the remaining 69 containers, which set off across the Pacific on May 30. In recent months, customs officials have intercepted waste shipments from Australia, Hong Kong and South Korea that were mislabeled as recyclable goods. In January, South Korea paid to have the first batch of a 6,000-ton shipment — containing household trash including batteries, light bulbs and diapers — returned from the Philippines.
This is just the tip of the iceberg. With so many islands, it’s almost impossible to check every port properly. In Malaysia, which last year became the world’s top destination for discarded plastic, officials have closed down 150 unlicensed waste importers. The government is also sending back more than 3,000 tons of contaminated plastic waste to countries including the U.S., Canada, Britain and Australia.
This is a global problem. Waste should be disposed of in the country of origin. Each country must take care of their own rubbish on their own. These Asian countries have started the ball rolling, now the industrialized nations must act responsibly.
I changed jobs at the recycling factory. The plastic soft drink area was soda-pressing but the shoe recycling area was even more sole destroying