I don’t know whether to laugh or cry at the Canadian government’s recent announcement that it is going to ban certain single-use plastic items. This is feeble virtue signalling of the type now exhibited by politicians around the world. But it will do almost nothing to deal with the problem of plastic in the oceans.
The tsunami of waste that is sinking countries in southeast Asia is now a comparatively well-known problem. For a while, Asian countries seemed powerless to end the trade, but a few days ago, the Philippines and Malaysia made a stand, and sent a few small shipments of this problematic material back to Canada, its country of origin.
Return was possible because the waste was still containerized; it was clear where this “material for recycling” — in reality, dirty mixed waste — had come from. So when push came to shove, Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte simply threatened to dump it on a Canadian beach, and the impasse was ended. However, this is not true of most of the plastic waste now in these countries. Since the start of 2018, when the Chinese government announced that it was putting a stop to the annual importation of waste from rich countries, the quantities shipped to southeast Asia have been prodigious. And most of it is there for good.
Mixed dirty plastic waste is almost impossible to recycle, which is why rich countries, with their tight environmental regulations, send it off to poorer places. But recycling is no easier in southeast Asia, and only a small portion of the 106 million tons of waste shipped over the past 20 years or so was ever converted to new plastic granules. Most was burned in the open air, or dumped in rivers, from where it found its way to the oceans.
This is the ugly consequence of the green economy and the urge to recycle. The damage that is being done has become increasingly clear as Asian countries have moved to put an end to the trade in waste. A bans on plastic straws in Canada is a gesture to make it look as if politicians are doing something, while avoiding the difficult decisions. But those difficult decisions are not going to go away, and they may soon become unavoidable.
At one time I was very much a lone voice warning about these adverse consequences of plastic recycling and dirty plastic scrap exports. But since the awful truth has become more widely known, the pressure to do something about it has increased. So, despite heavy lobbying from the “recycling” industry, the parties to the United Nations Basel Convention recently agreed to put an end to the trade in plastic scrap: a ban will come into effect by 2021.
The ban is a necessary and welcome step for poor countries, who are suffering the horrendous public health and environmental consequences of the trade. But the consequences for the West are frightening. In most wealthy countries, the best option for dealing with this material is to burn it, but incineration capacity is almost everywhere inadequate. In the EU, restrictions on landfill have sharply constrained that alternative, and new rules soon to come into force will kill it off entirely. To make things worse, EU law now stipulates that 55 per cent of plastic packaging is going to need to be recycled by 2030. This is impossible with current technologies and indeed it may never be economically viable or environmentally friendly.
The waste crisis is therefore in danger of spiralling out of control. It is likely that wealthy countries will have to introduce emergency measures to protect public health and the environment.
Unfortunately, ideas similar to the EU’s are emerging from the G7 process. Last year’s Halifax summit resulted in a Marine Plastic Charter, a document that signally failed to address the environmental and public-health disaster caused by plastic waste. As the MV Bavaria steams back towards Vancouver with those container loads of plastic “recycling,” it is going to become clear to them that virtuous-sounding words will keep them out of trouble for only so long. Painful decisions are soon going to have to be made.
Dr. Mikko Paunio is a public-health expert based in Helsinki. His paper on the plastic waste crisis was recently published by the Global Warming Policy Foundation in London.