And then recycle!
“On 1st January 2018, China’s implementation of a ban on importing waste cast a spotlight on the ineffectual and hugely problematic system of waste disposal globally. Western countries have for too long been exploiting a system of dumping waste in developing countries, mostly in Asia. Now that these countries are rightly saying no more, we are witnessing an increase in incineration and open burning of waste, as western societies do not have the recycling and disposal capabilities to deal with the levels of waste that their citizens are generating. This webinar will begin to connect the dots on what is happening to the waste we produce. It will explore the urgent questions surrounding waste management in Europe and what is being done to address these issues.”
This was the issue discussed on the most recent Zero Waste Europe conference call, 28th January 2020. The first presentation was from Beau, a powerful testimony to the impact on South East Asia as a direct result of China’s ban. Essentially the waste problem simply got shifted and it has had a devastating impact on these communities. Communities that were self-sustaining, working arable, productive land in increasingly challenging conditions due to global warming, then becoming people displaced by our rubbish. This productive land now rendered useless because of waste that was supposed to be destined for recycling being dumped. These families now needing to become consumers as they no longer have the land to be producers. It’s a negative spiral, and the root cause is in the northern hemisphere.
Some space was given to discussing how the economies of South East Asia had changed in response to this issue and other topics such as the rise in demand for food products like tofu. Tofu production in some areas is being fuelled by ‘energy from waste’ or in other words burning plastics, with evidence emerging about impacts on workers’ health. There is also evidence of contamination in egg production which again directly impacts the health of families in the region. These countries are invoking their own bans and suing for North Hemisphere to take its rubbish back. This leads to containers ships that are floating waste dumps without a final destination and making it difficult to track the size and whereabouts of the problem.
The next presentation focused on legislation, both current and forthcoming. The issue with current legislation is not that it does not go far enough; it is that there is a general lack of compliance. The presentation of mixed recycling is considered to be a cheap solution by local authorities, and the only viable option when the public sector is picking up the cost of the waste supply chain: from oil and gas primary production through to goods and packaging manufactures and then to us via business practises or consumer choices. However, mixed recycling is highly contaminated with food waste, medical waste, electronics and matter that should be in the general waste all of which compounds the problem as manufacturers are not receiving the high quality material required to increase the level of recycled materials in their products. And so it goes on!
New legislation would see EU phasing out exports beyond European boundaries which sounds like a step in the right direction but if the model currently employed across Asia is continued then it is likely the poorest European economies become the next dumping ground. Systemic change is required and more importantly changes to our lifestyles.
It is not an easy problem to overcome as we try to backward engineer a problem hundreds of years in the making. There are tangents that lead to “false solutions” that do not result in real change. Waste from energy is one, and for most people quite logical, if the material is burned then it is simply contributing to carbon emissions and exasperating the problem. It is disappointing that this is a solution being pursued in several localities across Scotland. What would a full cost recovery service look like? Who should pay? How can a packaging manufacturer in Germany be made to pay for a local kerb side service on Isle of Bute? Clearly transparency and accountability will need to be built into whatever solution is arrived at. Another “false solutions” is the invention of single use bio-degradable packaging, it sounds good and it feels like it might work however the truth is that local systems do not include facilities to deal with this material, and the recycling industry is not set up to deal with this material. This is not the only issue, creating bio-degradable packaging without reducing the demand for single use packaging could and has led to deforestation and displacement of land that has been producing food. Certainly in a closed loop system, were only bio-degradable catering items and packaging were used and with the right composting conditions set up, this could be an appealing alternative to single use plastics.
As big and scary as this issue is, there are real solutions that each and every one of us can put in place and we can start immediately or at least on your next shopping trip. Where to start? You can make different choices that benefit the planet and your local community:
- Buy only what you need
- Buy fresh ingredients from local producers and independent shops
- Take along your own re-useable containers for fresh fish or meat
- Take the fresh fruit and vegetables that are not wrapped in plastic.
- Switch from items that have plastic packaging to alternatives such as tetra, cardboard or metal.
- Switch from brands that use multiple layers of plastic to brands with single layers
On Bute there is a high quality recycling service where paper/cardboard is presented separately from plastics and metals. Those materials are further hand sorted to produce high quality recycling materials which are baled and sent to markets where they can be usefully used. The recycling contract from Argyll & Bute Council combined with the value gained from the sale of the materials supports local and sustainable jobs on Bute. It also enables Fyne Futures to offer skills development opportunities to people with barriers to employment through volunteering or wage-based learning placements. The message is simple and will make a big difference: Bute Refuse Reduce Reuse and Recycle.