India Bans Plastics Waste Imports, While Fossil Fuel Plastics Pushers in US and China Ramp Up to Party On

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.

Indian Example

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?

What next?

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.

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31 comments

  1. The Rev Kev

    ‘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.’

    Damn right. I was one of those naive to think that all the recycling and resorting was a good sign – until I found out that all that was happening was that we were shipping our garbage to China. What the hell, man? I have to admit that it was an eye-opener to wonder through the fruit and vegetable section looking to how plastic was used. And it was in every possible way. It was like you had people dedicated to adding costs to a supermarket chain by coming up with plastic sleeves for individual fruit and other one-use plastic waste. If there are corporations trying to build out plastic capacity, they must be planning on selling it to third world countries as we in the west are already saturated with the stuff wherever you go. And now internally as well.

    Reply
    1. Mel

      It’s the most cost-effective business plan in the world: “How about we don’t and just say we did?”

      Reminds me of the big fiber-network buildout that AT&T was going to do.

      Also, if my memory hasn’t faded, ozone depletion was going to burn us alive with UV, so we changed all our aerosol packages, abolished freon cleaning fluids, etc. Then about ten years later, a major fast-food franchise made the big announcement. They were going to a new kind of coffee cup, and eliminating the freon-foamed styrofoam they had been using. You mean …? We were really …? For all this time …?

      Reply
      1. Yikes

        I kind of like it, before the association with bike chains, it refers to early railroad devices that as a safety function would intentionally derail trains, in hopes of instigating a worse impact further down. The human species train, readers, is out of control and the earth has derailleurs set. The crash isnt going to be fun for us and many other species, but the planet is going to reset itself (on some other tracks).

        Reply
  2. Larry

    The news that India and China won’t take western nations wastes is going to have a big impact on local costs. This will definitely raise awareness of how well recycling actually works, and quickly. Towns here in Massachusetts are already dealing with larger and larger costs for recycling.

    https://www.necn.com/news/new-england/New-Recycling-Standards-Lead-to-Skyrocketing-Costs-493102631.html

    Highlighted in the story is a spike in costs for recycling for Lowell from $0 to $500,000 due to China ceasing purchase of materials. Also noted are a lack of landfills. It is going to get very expensive, very soon to deal with waste and that’s going to raise awareness of what’s happening quickly.

    Reply
    1. DHG

      There is no need for a lot of one use plastics, its just plain laziness to even use them. Glass and paper were the predominate things used in the economy when I was a kid. Plastics have their place but not in a lot of places they are used today.

      Reply
  3. John Zelnicker

    I have long argued that hemp oil can substitute for petroleum as a feedstock for many chemical and plastic manufacturing processes. It’s the reason Dow and duPont have been among the most dedicated opponents to marijuana and hemp legalization.

    It seems to me that there must be a way to use hemp oil and the amazingly strong hemp fiber to create some kind of substance that would be a reasonable replacement for petroleum-based plastic. My thinking is that such a substance could be easily bio-degradable under appropriate circumstances or recyclable at low cost. Maybe it’s only a pipe dream, but it is certainly a potentially fruitful line of research. If the federal government would just take marijuana (all forms) off of the Controlled Substances list and fund the research, we just might find a way to reduce or eliminate petroleum-based plastics.

    Reply
    1. Synoia

      amazingly strong hemp fiber to create some kind of substance that would be a reasonable replacement for petroleum-based plastic

      Yes, there is a new invention which one could try – “The Basket.”

      Reply
  4. Daryl

    Bali just banned single-use plastics as well. What an embarassment for those of us in the “developed” world that we can’t get a handle on this.

    Reply
  5. TG

    Interesting that the main thing the ‘environmentalists’ are pushing for, is to force population growth higher. That’s what they scream about, that’s where they put their political capital. And certainly, massive increases in population WILL increase net CO2 emissions and plastic production etc.

    Oh, but the environmentalists say that massive population increases would be OK if only we completely revamped our entire existing industrial base to an as-yet unachievable level of efficiency and an implausible time scale. And if pigs had wings, they could fly.

    And yet, even ignoring the issue that possibly the energy required to collect and process ‘recyclables’ mostly wipes out the gains, now recycling in the US has collapsed, with increasing fractions just burned or buried in landfills. And are the environmentalists calling us to arms? Not really. They cluck and fret, but save their lawsuits and political action for increasing the population of the United States towards a billion, and increasing the population of Canada to 100 million and beyond, etc. Because ‘that’s who we are.’

    Mainstream ‘environmentalism’ is a fraud. It is hostage to the desires of oligarchs like the Koch brothers for ever increasing growth and profits, and will do nothing of substance that these oligarchs don’t approve of. The rest is empty talk.

    Reply
    1. Carla

      “Interesting that the main thing the ‘environmentalists’ are pushing for, is to force population growth higher.” Sources, please? (The rest is empty talk.)

      Reply
    2. Jeremy Grimm

      ??????? What have you been reading???????? Since when have ‘environmentalists’ been “…pushing for … population growth?

      Reply
    3. Dan

      I’m not aware of any environmentalists pushing for population growth. Environmental groups did, however, stop talking about the perils of overpopulation back in the early seventies when their funding began to dry up. There were a number of detractors to the overpopulation meme at the time, the Catholic Church being oft-cited as the biggest. But industry titans and the financiers who fund them were also a huge component, capitalism being based as it is on an insatiable desire for growth and profit.

      There were also fears of being denounced as a “Malthusian.” Obviously, a person can recognize the dangers of overpopulation while not calling for wars or eugenics to solve the problem. But the fear remains.

      I believe the earth can only sustainably support a population of around a billion, certainly no more than 2 or 3 billion. That’s simply based on a lot of reading. What’s the answer? I have no idea.

      We could learn a lot about how to live by listening to our indigenous forebears. Any sort of steady-state existence is not in keeping with our current economic worldview. Of course, for the better part of human history that’s how we lived. But then, we were so “backward” and “primitive,” as opposed to how “progressive” and enlightened we are today. The Lenape tread lightly on Manhatta. But progress, and capitalism, had other ideas.

      Reply
      1. GM

        Everyone writing about how sustainability is only a consumption and not a population problem is essentially pushing for more population growth, and unfortunately, that is the position most mainstream environmentalists are taking these days.

        Sure, they are not openly pushing for more population growth, but again, that is the practical effect of what they are doing.

        This is most blatant when it comes to CO2 emissions — you see people talking all the time how per capita emissions are small in the Third world and large in the rich countries, therefore it is primarily the rich countries’ responsibility. Never mind that nature does not care about whether a rich person or a poor person emitted a CO2 molecule, it’s properties are all the same, and never mind that this is precisely the excuse that China used to become the number one emitter during the times when the Kyoto treaty applied (it was excluded from many of its mandates because it was a “developing” country).

        And, of course, everyone seems to have forgotten that CO2 emissions are only one aspect of the sustainability crisis; many of its other manifestations are much more directly linked to population growth. Plastic use is one of them — rich people use more plastic, but these days even relatively poor people use a lot of it and it’s a much more linear relationship with population. Then there are things like deforestation and wildlife extermination, which are almost linearly linked to population. It is easy to emit a huge amount of CO2 by having a private jet but your palm oil consumption is not going to be that much higher than someone living in India as you’re still going to use shampoo at most twice a day and you are not going to eat that much more food per day than an Indian. And you are not going to be buying bushmeat at the local market.

        Everyone who is not starting and ending his speeches on the environment with calling for the following two things:

        1. Reduction of global population by an order of magnitude by the end of the century
        2. Immediate transition to a steady state economy

        Is some combination of an ignoramus and a deliberate liar.

        Reply
        1. Yves Smith

          Sorry, population reduction won’t address the need to reduce C02 levels and biosphere destruction NOW. So I don’t agree at all with your priorities. You aren’t working on the right time frame.

          And “steady state” is not aggressive enough. We need to cut energy consumption in a big way since any transition to cleaner energy will take time.

          Reply
          1. mle detroit

            Yes, but remember the value of “starting with the end in mind.” If we don’t simultaneously reduce both emissions and the number of human capita, Gaia will do it for us.

            Reply
            1. RubyDog

              It’s not an either/or question. What we do is important, but how many of us are doing it is equally important. If 8 billion humans were to suddenly revert to a hunting/gathering existence, and all remaining fossil fuels remain in the ground, we would still have a devastating effect on the natural world .

              Reply
  6. David(1)

    India’s going to upscale their waste imports. Among the amendments to the solid waste rules,

    ….electrical and electronic assemblies and components manufactured in and exported from India, if found defective, can now be imported back into the country within a year of export, without obtaining permission from the environment ministry.

    “It has been done keeping in consideration ‘ease of doing business’ and boosting ‘Make in India’ initiative by simplifying the procedures under the rules, while at the same time upholding the principles of sustainable development and ensuring minimal impact on the environment,” the ministry said. (Source)

    The level of traceability required for this effort would make India too expensive for electronics manufacturers. Also, the ministry has said, by not requiring permission, that they are not going to monitor these activities. In essence, they’ve opened the door to the electronics salvage business.

    Wait until we find that India re-imported 110% of all the electrical and electronic assemblies and components manufactured in India.

    Reply
      1. David(1)

        How does one differentiate a container of electronic returns from a container of electronic waste?
        Who is going to differentiate those containers?

        Reply
  7. Chauncey Gardiner

    Great article, thanks. Good for Modi and the Indian government for adopting this policy.

    At the U.S. household level, the bi-monthly fee we are being charged for recycling by the regional subsidiary of a large waste disposal company has risen 19 percent over the past year. It won’t take too long at that rate before this issue captures increased political attention. As with so many other issues with high hidden social costs, this doesn’t appear to lend itself to a markets-based solution. Hopefully passing conservation legislation and funding policy initiatives to address this national and global issue will occur at the federal level as a part of the Green New Deal, rather than being relegated to state or county governments on a patchwork basis.

    On a related topic, has India been able to make progress in addressing the nation’s air and water pollution issues?

    Reply
  8. a different chris

    > may now be unthinkingly stuffed into single-use plastic bags

    We have Aldi’s bags. The rest of my family does not believe you can take Aldi’s bags to other grocery stores. Seriously. I…. I don’t even know how to approach that without screaming at everybody. And of course Aldi’s,despite the bags, is the worst for getting unwrapped produce. It seems to take 5 minutes to get thru the plastic to finally peel your banana, of all the stupid things. So stuff comes either from Aldi’s, no stupid little bags but tons of packaging, or elsewhere with said stupid bags.

    This is America. Not just at my doorstep, but well inside my house.

    Reply
  9. Jeremy Grimm

    Searching what fraction of oil is used to make plastics I ran across an interesting references to new ways for recycling plastics: “Plastic recycling to hit oil producers — The rise of plastics recycling plants may stunt demand for oil” [ https://www.petroleum-economist.com/articles/midstream-downstream/refining-marketing/2019/plastic-recycling-to-hit-oil-producers ]
    “OMV’s [OMV AG, Austria’s national oil company and Renewlogy ( http://renewlogy.com/ ) ], a privately-held company based in Utah] technology uses thermal cracking at temperatures of about 400C in the presence of a hot liquid solvent to return waste plastics to crude oil. The company says the resulting synthetic product is a sulphur-free, very light crude that can be processed with other oil in a refinery. OMV claims its pilot plant, which is integrated within its 190,000 bl/d Schwechat refinery, can produce 100 litres of synthetic crude from 100 kilograms of plastic feedstock. The feedstock can include common packaging materials made of polyethylene, polypropylene and polystyrene.”
    … “Other companies are also exploring similar recycling technologies.”
    I have no idea how ‘real’ OMV’s process is. If I had a nickel for every new tech start-up that announces amazing things and then evaporates …

    Reply
    1. Chauncey Gardiner

      Thanks for your research and the link to renewlogy’s website, Jeremy. Particularly interesting is their Renew Ganga Project focusing on the area around the Ganges River in India, a major river system with serious waste issues, including plastics. That National Geographic is a project sponsor provides some cause for considering this initiative a serious endeavor IMO.

      http://renewlogy.com/project/renew-ganga/

      Reply
  10. Ook

    I noticed at the upscale Star Market (Mumbai) they were charging a few rupees for a disposable bag that I can only describe as single-use paper. Unlike the thick heavy paper bags I see in most places, this is thin, probably as light as single-use plastic, and very strong (although it degrades quickly after a couple of uses).
    http://www.starbazaarindia.com

    Reply

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