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By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.
Regular readers of my plastics posts know that I’m sceptical of the premise that the recycling fairy will be able to rid the world of the problems raised by overuse of plastics – and their inappropriate disposal.
But I don’t deny that better recycling strategies would alleviate some damage that our current mis- and over-use of plastics creates.
Alas, today I bring to readers’ attention a Guardian exclusive report, published Friday, UK plastics recycling industry under investigation for fraud and corruption. Over to the Guardian:
The plastics recycling industry is facing an investigation into suspected widespread abuse and fraud within the export system amid warnings the world is about to close the door on UK packaging waste, the Guardian has learned.
The Environment Agency (EA) has set up a team of investigators, including three retired police officers, in an attempt to deal with complaints that organised criminals and firms are abusing the system.
Six UK exporters of plastic waste have had their licences suspended or cancelled in the last three months, according to EA data. One firm has had 57 containers of plastic waste stopped at UK ports in the last three years due to concerns over contamination of waste.
Allegations that the agency is understood to be investigating include:
- Exporters are falsely claiming for tens of thousands of tonnes of plastic waste which might not exist
- UK plastic waste is not being recycled and is being left to leak into rivers and oceans
- Illegal shipments of plastic waste are being routed to the Far East via the Netherlands
- UK firms with serial offences of shipping contaminated waste are being allowed to continue exporting.
I encourage interested readers to read the Guardian’s account in full. Perhaps the most striking claim:
The Guardian understands information has been passed to the EA – the regulators – which shows huge discrepancies between the amount of packaging exports recorded by HM customs, compared to the amount UK exporters claim to have shipped.
The data, analysed by the Guardian, reveals British export firms claim to have shipped abroad 35,135 tonnes more plastic than HM Customs has recorded leaving the country.
The UK– along with other major waste producing countries– has been struggling to find places to which to ship plastic collected for recycling, in the wake of China’s decision last year to ban most imports of such plastics waste (I discussed the consequences of this ban in this post, Waste Watch: US Dumps Plastic Rubbish in Southeast Asia). As I wrote in that post, many Southeast Asian countries have thus far significantly ramped up their imports of plastic waste. But these imports threaten to overwhelm their capacity for processing such waste, and these countries are in turn considering imposing their own plastic waste import bans. If this happens, what will happen to the mountains of plastic collected, worldwide, by countries that lack the domestic capacity for recycling such waste?
Unfortunately, the latest UK disclosures are a consequence of allowing an industry to operate, without adequate regulation, and hewing to market-based principles. Whereas if the UK were serious about developing a waste management policy adequate to the threat that plastic waste poses, at minimum, much greater oversight and regulation would be necessary, not only for recycling, but other elements of waste management. Undoubtedly, a far greater role for government would be necessary. But that, gentle readers, doesn’t accord with the neoliberal playbook.
Microplastics Ubiquitous in Salt
National Geographic reported last week in Microplastics found in 90 percent of table salt on the results of a study that concluded microplastics are now present in 90% of table salt sampled worldwide. According to the article:
Salt samples from 21 countries in Europe, North and South America, Africa, and Asia were analyzed. The three brands that did not contain microplastics are from Taiwan (refined sea salt), China (refined rock salt), and France (unrefined sea salt produced by solar evaporation). The study was published this month in the journal Environmental Science & Technology.
The density of microplastics found in salt varied dramatically among different brands, but those from Asian brands were especially high, the study found. The highest quantities of microplastics were found in salt sold in Indonesia. Asia is a hot spot for plastic pollution, and Indonesia—with 34,000 miles (54,720 km) of coastline—ranked in an unrelated 2015 study as suffering the second-worst level of plastic pollution in the world.
Sherri Mason, a professor at the State University of New York in Fredonia, who produced a separate salt study with other researchers, said microplastics are now “ubiquitous” in most forms of salt, and added, “It’s not a matter of if you are buying sea salt in England, you are safe.”
So, even if we immediately stopped releasing any more plastic into the wider environment– whether by recycling or otherwise – how do we get rid of all the crud that’s already out there – whether in the form of microplastics, or other forms?
Japan Lags on Even the Most Modest Efforts on Slowing Use of Plastics
Japan is on the wrong side of the international curve on using and disposing of plastics. As The Japan Times reported last week in Plastic waste piling up in Japan after Chinese import ban:
Japan produces the largest amount of plastic waste per capita after the United States and has lagged behind other countries in curbing the use of plastics despite growing fears over environmental pollution.
Japan and the US were alone among the G-7 in failing to endorse the group’s modest Ocean Plastics Charter, unveiled at the June summit held in Charlesvoix, Quebec, as I discussed in this previous post, US, Japan Reject G-7 Ocean Plastics Charter. Travellers on the Shinkansen – aka, the bullet train – service between Tokyo and Kyoto are to this day served coffee in non-recyclable plastic-lined paper cups, covered by black plastic lids. Unfortunately, that presentation is similar to what one finds in the rest of the world, from Long Island to Indonesia. But what the Japanese add is an extra, unnecessary plastic step: one’s given a small, single-use plastic bag to hold the empty coffee cup in the brief period before one throws it away in a public trash receptacle. The contrast between Japan’s efficient, reliable, modern transportation network – and its pathetic performance on plastics – is striking.
Japan’s use of single-use plastics may slowly be shifting, as the country has been hard hit by the Chinese ban on imports of plastic waste for recycling. As The Japan Times article further notes:
Plastic waste is piling up in Japan with many local governments struggling to cope after China banned the import of such waste late last year, Environment Ministry data showed Thursday.
According to about a quarter of 102 local governments that responded to a ministry survey, the amount of plastic waste stored at local scrap companies increased between January and July, with some reporting that piled-up waste had exceeded the legal limit.
Japan exports about 1.5 million tons of plastic waste per year and until last year around half went to China, which imported the waste for recycling purposes.
Japan is finally getting around to implementing measures to reduce plastics use– but those proposed are on the meager side, as another recent article in The Japan Times, Japan to make charging for plastic shopping bags mandatory, notes:
A government advisory panel has approved a set of proposals for plastic recycling, including making it mandatory for retailers to charge for plastic shopping bags.
The government plans to officially adopt the measures aimed at reducing plastic waste, crafted by the Environment Ministry, before a summit of the Group of 20 leading economies set for June next year in Osaka, it said Friday.
The government believes the measures will help the country showcase its efforts on plastics recycling at the G20 summit. Japan has been under fire for being slow to deal with plastic waste.
The ministry’s proposals call for setting a goal of reducing the volume of disposable plastic products, including drinking straws, plastic bottles and shopping bags, by 25 percent by 2030.
The proposals seek to increase the percentage of plastic packaging products recycled to 60 percent by 2030 and use all forms of plastic waste, including the heat emitted when it is burned, effectively by 2035.
It has not been decided when the mandatory charging for plastic shopping bags will start. Some relief measures will be taken for small businesses, according to the proposals.
Note the pathetically lax deadlines. And similarly unambitious targets for reductions. For a relevant benchmark, IIRC, India currently recycles 60% of its plastic drinking water bottles. The shopping bag measure isn’t an outright ban – as many countries, and cities, have already implemented – but a charge.
What Must Be Done
The recycling fairy isn’t going to solve the plastics crisis. As the recent study on microplastics in salt reveals, we are already surrounded by the residue of previous decisions to gorge on the use of plastics.
Yet this week’s news about how corruption is further weakening the UK’s existing inadequate recycling efforts, is profoundly depressing. Ditto that so far, Japan seems to be following the US model on plastics use and recycling.
Both Japan and the UK can – and should do better.
And I emphasize that recycling is only one small part of necessary change. What’s required is a drastic cut in the production and use of plastics for all but essential purposes – and those certainly don’t include most current single uses. Sadly, I don’t see such change occurring anytime soon.