| | | Effective PR

Worldwide waste crisis looms as China says it's got enough of its own recylcable material to deal with

Peter Lee

For years, China has been a destination of choice for the world's non-food waste. Plastics, in particular, have been in demand for recycling. But now China's a combination of slowing production and increasing domestic consumerism means that there is enough domestically produced waste and it no longer needs to be the dustbin of the world. Given that there is already a vast global over-supply of plastic waste, can the world cope without China's formerly voracious appetite?

Did you know that the fleece jacket you wear to keep warm would, before flat screen monitors, have been mostly made of recycled computer monitor cases? Or that the wadding that provides sound-deadening in parts of your car is made up of recycled textiles? Or that a large proportion of the toilet paper you buy has already been used at least once and probably many more times? While public awareness of re-cycling tends to stop at deciding what colour bin to put waste in, there are far bigger issues at play.

For example, did you know that 87% of the plastic collected in the EU for recycling last year was shipped to China? The USA sent almost one and a half million tons. That's everything from food packaging to tossed toys and even car parts.

All of this is despite the fact that an incalculable amount of plastic ends up in the world's oceans where currents have taken it to the farthest reaches - scientists in Antarctica have found birds killed by plastic waste.

The problem with the plastic is that the developed world has long been happy to send it somewhere else to kill locals. And it's not the only poisonous waste. Electronic boards are heated over open flames by children who breath in highly toxic fumes. Why? Because there is gold in them thar boards. Metals, especially aluminium, tend to be recycled closer to home: with adequate care, the process is relatively clean and, unlike most metals, aluminium can be easily purified with almost no loss of mass, i.e. the amount of metal that comes out of a drinks can is almost exactly the same as the amount that went in.

Eventually, most metals and fabrics degrade and, in recent years, so do many plastics. But many do not.

There has long been advice that users of plastic bottles should not replace the tops before putting them in the bin. But one has to question that advice. The theory is that, if the top is left open, the bottle is easier to crush. That might be so, but for the millions of bottles that end up in the sea, it means they sink and when they sink, they create a major hazard to marine life. Oddly, to fly in the face of the usually accepted thought, logic says that its best to let them float and then they can be skimmed off. Of course, that then leaves the question of what to do with the recovered waste.

As from the end of this year, China will ban the import of a large range of foreign waste, including that shipped via Hong Kong.

There's a band spreading from the US west coast across the Pacific to China. It's one of the world's major hot-spots for floating debris to collect as currents move it around. It's not the only one: there is a large band that collects waste from as far sough as north Africa and as far north as Scotland and collects it in currents that flow from somewhere near Portugal across to the Caribbean. And then there's India where the Bay of Bengal is home to one of the largest concentrations of plastics waste. Take a look at http://plastinography.org/less... for more information.

A report published in 2016 by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, set up by round-the-world sailor Dame Ellen MacArthur, said that, if the world did not reverse its habit of dumping waste at sea, by 2050 there would be more rubbish than fish, by weight. The report says that only 5% of the world's plastics is recycled effectively. 40% end up in landfill and a third are dumped somewhere. But, it says, much of what is left is burned to create energy. The end result is that the lack of effective recycling means that, because demand for plastic is rising rapidly, there is a growth in the use of fossil fuels both as the raw material for plastic and for use in its production. Worse, because oil is presently cheap, it costs more to recycle plastic than to make new stuff.

If plastic is being dumped into the oceans at the rate the equivalent of one large rubbish lorry every few minutes (as some claim) it is obvious that we have a problem: that plastic bottle your water came in? It'll take 450 years to completely break down in the ocean.

What happens, in general terms, is this: it either sinks or floats and it gradually breaks into smaller pieces. Fish, birds and sea mammals don't know it's not food and they try to eat them. Plastic bags are possibly the worst because they turn into blockages that upset the whole digestive system and creatures die, even if they don't simply choke on them.

It follows, then, that the decision by China will not create a problem - it will simply remove a convenient partial solution. The question is, can we, as individuals, do anything about it?

The answer to that is "yes." Buy loose fruit and vegetables, buy meat from a butcher who wraps it up in paper, buy bread that doesn't come in a plastic bag, re-use freezer and refrigerator bags, don't buy food in plastic trays (e.g. tv dinners). But, there is also contrary advice: buy a product i a bottle or a jar - then buy refills, even if they come in a plastic pouch, and reuse the jar - recycling glass is expensive - re-using it costs you nothing. Don't throw away bottles and jars then go out and buy storage jars. Many products now come in bottles and jars that look good in the kitchen. And if they aren't pretty enough, put them in a cupboard until you need them.

Don't replace your mobile phone, or other consumer gadgets, until you actually need to - ignore the dictates of fashion: e-waste is another enormous problem and the fact is that manufacturers cause a vast amount of waste by creating short product cycles. And demand that they make products that last.

Recycling is actually not the best plan: the best plan is to have far less waste to start with. And guess who is in control of that. Yes, it's you.