By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.
India last week banned imports of plastics waste for recycling.
This move will exacerbate the worldwide recycling crisis. Regular readers know that China in 2017 stopped importing plastics waste for recycling, diverting waste exports to other Asian countries, principally India, Malaysia, Thailand, and Vietnam, which have found their recycling capacity overwhelmed – resulting in more illegal disposal, and fouling of oceans and other places (see Waste Watch: US Dumps Plastic Rubbish in Southeast Asia).
Skyrocketing plastic waste imports – which increased four-fold from 2016-17 through 2017-18 – are compounding India’s own waste disposal problems. According to The Wire, India Imposes Complete Ban on Solid Plastic Waste Imports:
In January, it was reported that India’s plastic imports had increased from 12,000 tonnes in 2016-17 FY to 48,000 in the 2017-18 FY. While India has recycles a higher percentage of its plastic waste than most countries, 44% of its plastic waste is still not recycled. The rising imports only made matters worse.
The environment ministry admitted as much, when the “huge gap between waste generation and recycling capacity” in the country was attributed as one reason for the complete ban. Officials said India’s “commitment to completely phase out single-use plastic by 2022” was another reason for the new amendments.
The countries that produce plastics waste have been unable to increase their domestic recycling capacity enough to meet their demand, and this failure has in turn collapsed prices for recyclables. Cities have slowed recycling programs or halted them completely (see this February article in the Guardian, ‘Moment of reckoning’: US cities burn recyclables after China bans imports) for some further details.
Now, it cannot be denied that India faces its own huge waste disposal issues.
But the country has yet to embrace a throwaway culture. This is in part a consequence of its lower per capita income and widespread poverty.
Seeing this as a glass half-full rather than one half-empty, that means in India there’s less heavy lifting to do to get people to waste less. And this in turn means that the design of a sustainable future Indian waste policy won’t rely unduly on the recycling fairy – the Siren call by which too many advanced countries, IMHO, have been seduced.
In India, for example, many people still buy vegetables and other food from open air markets. To be sure, the vegetables people purchase may now be unthinkingly stuffed into single-use plastic bags (certainly much moreso than when I first started visiting regularly in 2007). But that practice is much easier to correct , and quickly, than unwinding the system of swathing produce in unnecessary plastic clamshells and other packaging. And in fact, as noted above, Indian expects to ban use of single use plastics by 2022.
Also, those vegetables aren’t pre-packaged – so one buys what one needs. That can be as little as a few sprigs of coriander, a handful of tomatoes, a small cauliflower, or a sliver of pumpkin. Buying less means there’s less to waste. Here, too, India has lessons to teach, to places such as England, as for example, where ten million tonnes of food, worth an estimated thirteen billion pounds, is binned annually – a practice that exacerbates global warming (see this 2017 House of Commons report, Food waste in England).
It’s not only food that’s not wasted. I happened to be visiting India last week, when the trusty dumbphone I bought a couple of years ago for the equivalent of about $30 went on the fritz. Although not completely. I could hear incoming calls loud and clear, but callers couldn’t hear me. I’m rather attached to the ‘phone. It suits my needs, and is robust – it recently survived being left on the hood of a departing taxi, and travelled 200 meters d before being flung to the ground – to be retrieved intact.
Anyway, in the US, when a cheapie Samsung burner cell stops working, there’s no real alternative to throwing it away. In India, that’s not the case. I took the ‘phone to a nearby phone wallah and for 150 Indian rupees (a bit more than $2), he replaced my wonky speaker, so that the ‘phone works perfectly, and is ready for further adventures.
Back to India’s decision to stop accepting imports of foreign plastics waste.
To this I say, I say kudos! For a couple of reasons.
Firstly, India has immense waste management problems. It doesn’t need to assume the burden of recycling waste from other countries. Especially as the costs of collecting and processing its waste fall unduly on crushingly poor, persecuted Indians – an issue addressed in a new Harvard University Press book in my to-read pile, Waste of a Nation (2018). I can’t speak to the quality of that book, as I’ve yet to look at it. In the meantime, I can recommend Katerine Boo’s award-winning Behind the Beautiful Forevers – an award-winning account of some of the horrid social costs of the current system.
And secondly, and more immediately, in a world faced with the apocalyptic threat of climate change, it makes absolutely no sense to ship large quantities of rubbish halfway around the world to be recycled. Transporting such waste burns fossil fuel that needn’t be burnt. ‘Tis now well past time for rich countries to develop their own recycling capacity – or other waste management strategies – and stop dumping their rubbish elsewhere.
Fossil Fuel Plastic Pushers Ramp Up to Party On!
While India is taking these sensible steps to stop serving as a dumping ground for the waste of others, what’s happening in the rest of the world?
There, it turns out, fossil fuel plastics pushers are increasing plans to produce even more plastics. Note this is happening not just in the US, but also in China – a story well-told in this excellent DeSmogBlog post, New Warnings on Plastic’s Health Risks as Fracking Industry Promotes New ‘Plastics Belt’ Build-Out. It’s much more comprehensive than I have space to discuss fully here – even by way of summary – and I encourage interested readers to read the article in full (I had mulled posting it in its entirety as a cross-post before I decided to write the post you’re reading).
Here’s the gist:
Shale drilling industry officials have been busy organizing marketing efforts to encourage the production of more plastics and petrochemicals — not only along the Gulf Coast, where communities have long borne the brunt of toxic pollution from petrochemical manufacturing, but also in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia.
Industry groups argue that a shale-fueled plastics boom is a positive thing for the world environment because plastic-makers in many other countries operate under less stringent environmental controls than American manufacturers. It’s better, in other words, to make plastic here than in places like China, with its infamous air pollution problems.
Plus, they add, constructing a new “plastics belt” in the Rust Belt will help diversify the industry and protect against the impacts of severe storms along the Gulf of Mexico, which are predicted to be strengthened by climate change.
New plastic manufacturing plants, however, are also being built in China, and on the Gulf Coast. All told, this new investment is driving the world’s cumulative production of new plastic up so far that analysts warn there may not be enough demand from consumers.
Meanwhile, a Chinese policy setting strict standards for importing used plastics there has shaken the world’s plastic recycling market. In some cases, newly made plastic has become cheaper than recycled — meaning that new cheap plastic manufacturing could wind up pushing recycled plastics further out of the market.
For more on the climate change consequences of efforts to create a new plastics belt in the rust belt, see Why Plans to Turn America’s Rust Belt into a New Plastics Belt Are Bad News for the Climate.
Yet in reality, in contrast to what promoters of increasing US plastics production claim, the US fracking boom has merely added to global plastic production, rather than driving the world’s more polluting plastics producers out of business.
According to DeSmogBlog:
Supporters of building new petrochemical and plastics plants in the U.S. argue that no matter if plants are built on the Gulf Coast or in the Rust Belt, the global environment benefits because America’s petrochemical industry is better regulated than manufacturing in China.
But China — already the world’s largest producer of many plastics — is on a construction binge of its own, seeking to make the raw materials for plastics from coal. A Shell Chemicals vice president, Olivier Thorel, has said those plants generate so much carbon dioxide (CO2) pollution, he calls them “massive CO2 machines that make chemicals as a sidestream.”
And that’s the heart of the problem — the rush to make plastics from cheap fracked shale gas in America hasn’t been driving more polluting plants out of business, it’s been adding to the world’s new plastics production.
“Growing U.S. exports are expanding, not replacing, plastics production in other regions,” the Center for International Environmental Law found in an earlier report published in 2017.
What Is to Be Done?
If you find my plastics posts depressing to read, dear readers, know that I find them depressing to write.
So I always like to include some good news – even if modest, perhaps quixotic.
Yesterday, I read an op-ed in the Indian paper, The Statesman, discussing a possible UN treaty on plastics waste. The context: this week’s UN Environment Assembly meetings in Nairobi (see The tricky business of reaching a global consensus on the environment and UN meeting considers plastic treaty, taxes). Here’s a duplicate link, from the Asian News Network service, How we might break the plastic habit:
A proposal by Marco Lambertini, a scientist and director-general of WWF International, holds some potential. His idea for a global “plastic treaty” to tackle the issue will soon come before the United Nations Environment Programme for consideration.
If adopted, it might get governments to act both on their own and in tandem with other countries for better management of plastic products, focusing mainly on single-use and non-recyclable plastic.
Better still would be decisive action on the part of the oil and gas industry, which produces the raw materials for making all forms of plastic.
Countries signing on to the plastic treaty would be required to set
targets for reducing the production and consumption of single-use
plastic – shopping bags, drinking straws, food and beverage containers and packaging.
They would agree to work together to standardise the collection, management and recycling of plastic waste. At present, less than 15 per cent of all plastic is recycled. All the rest is deemed unsuitable for recycling, usually for lack of technology and a system to do so, and that too has to change.
Governments aligned in the treaty would have to formulate policies to encourage the private sector to invest in creating biodegradable substitutes for plastic. Given the urgency of the problem, tax breaks and other incentives should feature prominently in these national policies. We desperately need to reduce the use of existing plastics and develop new materials more friendly to the environment. What we use and toss aside today contributes massively to climate change.
Now, I concede, even if achieved such an initiative would likely be too limited – and too late – to address the magnitude of the problem.
Moreover, it would face formidable obstacles from the fossil fuels industry – by contrast, the op-ed touchingly and naively, IMHO, hopes:
Efforts to tackle the issue must most urgently find solutions upstream, in the oil and gas industry.
But this op-ed, coupled with India’s decisive ban on plastics waste imports, suggest a burgeoning awareness that disposal of plastics is a global problem. Not to mention an unwillingness on the apart of Asian countries to be the primary global dumping ground for world plastics waste.