For the last 20 years we’ve been learning how to recycle. We’ve developed social norms that have seen recycling become acceptable practice rather than just throwing everything to landfill. Sometimes our desire to do the right thing and recycle hasn’t been matched by service capacity or market demand. It seems remarkable that until relatively recently we didn’t have kerbside recycling in Rodney – and in many other communities outside Auckland, they still don’t. Recycling is still a victim of market forces, locally and globally.
Global market limits for recyclables have come to a head recently with China’s decision to stop taking the world’s garbage (half of it, anyway), because of high contamination rates.
They no longer want to take developed countries’ waste materials, and they’re generating enough of their own recyclable plastics that they don’t need the millions of metric tonnes per annum that we in the western world currently send their way.
Last year, the Chinese government signalled an intention through the World Trade Organisation to apply new, higher standards in respect to waste. This includes an outright ban of 24 types of plastic. The idea is to reduce the economic and environmental costs of disposing of other countries’ unsorted wastes and reduce pollution. It’s expected that this will be a problem for the world’s waste paper recycling in particular, but also those wishing to dispose of mountains of plastic and mixed recyclables like rubber-coated cables.
Most developed nations have relied on China for their recycling disposal – some estimates put volumes at 7 million metric tonnes of plastic and 29 million metric tonnes of paper every year.
The United States exports 4000 shipping containers of waste products to China every day, but some of those shipments are likely to be returned to be stockpiled or dumped because of the Chinese ban. The problem also affects Japan, the European Union, Australia and New Zealand. Developed countries are said to be desperately searching for new destinations for recycling elsewhere in Asia.
Yes, we are trying to do the right thing by recycling. But we need to consider where waste sent for recycling ends up. Have we just exported our problems elsewhere in the world, often to countries with lower environmental and labour standards? Is it a case of out of sight, out of mind?
The consequence of sending all that recycling offshore has been to under-develop our own domestic recycling schemes and also means we have missed out on having locally recycled waste as a resource. All over the developed world now, huge stockpiles of paper and plastics are forming, with no capacity for recycling and a long lead-in time before we have facilities to deal with it.
Plastic bag bans and plastic-free grocery aisles are just the start of the solution to this monumental problem, which has filled the oceans and the developing world with waste.