Halifax in Canada had to bury 300 tonnes of plastic in a landfill. In Calgary, Alberta, the material has been stockpiled in empty storage sheds, warehouses and even shipping containers and trailers. Meanwhile, tons of waste plastic is piling up in Hong Kong.
This is what happened after China refused to accept “foreign garbage” or yang laji– poor quality plastic waste often contaminated with used diapers and the like – starting from 2018.
It has forced countries to examine how they deal with their (over)consumption of plastic and their recycling facilities – or rather, the lack of them.
But storage of the stuff also brings problems as there have been hundreds of fires at such storage sites, noted Christine Cole, a Research Fellow on Architecture, Design and the Built Environment at Nottingham Trent University.
Alternatively, recycled plastic could be used to provide chemicals, fuels for transport, food packaging and many other applications. Such plastics could also be burnt to produce energy – though toxic fumes are produced.
Other countries in Asia will continue to accept some of the lower quality materials, but this is a temporary fix at best.
Sending plastic to India, Vietnam or Cambodia instead of China may limit the amount that has to be stored, placed in landfill or burnt in the UK, but it does nothing to reduce the overall amount of the material.
Use less plastic
“We cannot simply rely on the actions of concerned individuals. What’s needed goes beyond reusing water bottles, stopping using plastic drinking straws and taking reusable bags to the supermarket,” emphasised Cole.
Many disposable items are made from plastic. Some of them are disposable by necessity for hygiene purposes – for instance, blood bags and other medical items – but many others are disposable for convenience.
Looking at the consumer side of things, there are ways of cutting back on plastic, noted Cole. Limiting the use of plastic bags by charging for them has shown results and brought about changes in consumer behaviour.
In France, some disposable plastic items are banned and in the Britain, leading pub chain Wetherspoons has banned disposable, one-use plastic drinking straws.
Deposit and return schemes for plastic bottles (and drink cans) could also give incentives to change use-once-and-throw-away behaviour.
Micro-beads, widely used in cosmetics as (skin) exfoliants, has caused much eco damage and the US, Canada, several EU nations, the UK, South Korea and New Zealand have plans to ban their use in some products, said Cole.
Britain’s Prime Minister, Theresa May, pledged in January to eliminate “avoidable wastes” within 25 years and urged supermarkets to introduce plastic-free aisles where all the food is loose (not packaged).
Make makers responsible
Many local authorities collect recycling that is jumbled together. While it is convenient for the householder, there are high contamination levels which leads to reduced material quality.
This will mean it is either sold for lower prices, will need to be reprocessed through sorting plants, or will be incinerated or put in landfill.
If the quality of the material collected for recycling is improved, it could still be sent to China. This would require better nationwide collection systems. One option is to revive the “deposit and return” schemes that once covered glass bottles and today could also include plastic bottles, drinks cans or coffee cups.
The government could also impose mandatory recycled content for various plastic products, noted Cole. Coca Cola, for instance, recently announced that by 2020 its bottles will contain 50% recycled material.
This is a step in the right direction, but why only 50%? If this target was increased the sheer scale of production means there would be a huge impact.
Producers’ responsibility for the plastic products they place on the market should be increased. Existing arrangements could be reformed so that they encourage recyclability to be built in at the design stage, while incentivising the maximum use of recycled content. Regulations could tax or ban the use of non-recyclable products.
As for mass production of bioplastics, that is a long-term solution, but is probably years away, noted Kate O’Neill, Associate Professor of Global Environmental Politics at the University of California, Berkeley.
For now, entities such as the Closed Loop Fund, which supports research to build a circular economy (where most things are recycled rather than dumped), are working to scale up recycling capacity in the United States.
O’Neill stated, “In my view, the prospect of losing China as a consumer of Western scrap could and should finally spur industrialised nations to take more responsibility for the waste they generate.” – The Conversation