fbpx
New California Bill Could Revolutionize How the U.S. Tackles Plastic Pollution

New California Bill Could Revolutionize How the U.S. Tackles Plastic Pollution

A sweeping “circular economy” bill in the California legislature aims to drastically reduce plastic waste and boost domestic recycling.

 

The ubiquity of plastic in our lives is leaving a mark — on the geologic record, in remote regions of the Earth, in the bodies of 90 percent of seabirds. Our oceans are a toxic soup, swirling with an estimated 50 million tons of plastic waste. But the tide is changing.

Mounting global pressure to curb plastic pollution is gaining steam. A significant leap came last year with the European Union’s vote to ban single-use plastic items by 2021 and boost bottle recycling 90 percent by 2025. On June 10 Canada announced it would follow Europe’s lead.

In the United States, efforts to reduce plastic waste have so far been piecemeal — bans on specific items, like plastic bags, and only in certain municipalities. But California could help the country take a massive leap forward.

At the end of May, the California Senate passed S.B. 54, the California Circular Economy and Plastic Pollution Reduction Act, introduced by Senator Ben Allen and modeled after the European effort. A day later, the state’s assembly passed identical legislation, A.B. 1080, introduced by Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez. If the bills clear opposite houses and earn the governor’s signature, it will be groundbreaking.

“We haven’t seen anything like this elsewhere in the U.S.,” says Angela Howe, legal director of Surfrider, a nonprofit devoted to clean oceans and beaches, which is part of a coalition of organizations working in support of the legislation and reducing plastic pollution.

The focus of the legislation is on producer responsibility — both reducing the amount of waste generated and making sure what is absolutely necessary is either compostable or recyclable. On average only 9 percent of plastics are recycled in the United States, and that already-modest number is expected to decrease even further as more countries follow China’s lead in closing their doors to waste exports from the United States and elsewhere.

Plastic isn’t just washing up on beaches, it’s piling up at landfills, making the crisis in the country even more urgent and expensive.

 

plastic marine litter

Plastic washes ashore with other marine litter. (Photo by Bo Eide, public domain)

 

As written now the legislation would require manufacturers and retailers in California to reduce the waste generated by single-use packaging and products by 75 percent by 2030 through producing less plastic, recycling more of it, making reusable packaging, or using compostable materials. It would also set guidelines for manufacturers of single-use plastic packaging and products that would ensure that 20 percent of their products are recycled by 2024, 40 percent by 2028, and 75 percent by 2030.

“The single-use plastic crisis is so pervasive that we’re seeing microplastics in the tiniest plankton to the largest whales,” says Ashley Blacow-Draeger, Pacific policy and communications manager at Oceana, which is helping to support the legislation. “It just drives home the message that we can’t recycle our way out of this crisis. We need really strong, bold and timely action now and we don’t have any more time to wait to address the issue.”

Previous efforts to tackle banning or restricting items like foam food containers, plastic bags and plastic straws has been tantamount to winning battles but not winning the war, says Stiv Wilson, director of campaigns for the Story of Stuff, which is producing a film about the global fight against plastic pollution and is a leading coalition partner supporting the legislation.

“If we’re going to fix the system, we have to actually take a systemic approach,” he says.

He admits that regulating the materials economy isn’t as easy as a simple message like banning bags, but it’s the only effective way to tackle the problem.

One of the biggest issues is that there’s simply too much plastic, which is why the bill has an emphasis on source reduction, he says.

“We have to get to a manageable supply to be able to create a reasonable demand,” says Wilson. “Once that lever gets pulled where there is a statutory obligation on a supply chain, all of a sudden you will see investment in that supply chain to meet that demand.”

And that, advocates of the legislation say, should spur investment domestic recycling, build green jobs, and enable companies to develop alternative delivery systems for products meant to create reusability instead of disposability.

The potential benefits would be far-reaching — aiding not just oceans, but wildlife and human health, as well as economies, says Blacow-Draeger.

“It’s shocking how expensive it is for cities and counties to remediate all the single-use plastics waste that is being produced,” she says. “The hope with these pieces of legislation is that they will actually lessen the burden on municipalities and on ratepayers by not producing as much waste to have to process in the future.”

For many industries it would also be a big change.

“It wouldn’t just be the one major plastic bag manufacturer that’s affected,” says Howe. “It’s everything from grocery stores to the natural gas plants that make plastics to retailers and manufacturers.”

Proponents of the legislation say they anticipate pushback from these industries as the bills go through committee in the opposite houses over the next few months. The Plastics Industry Association (PLASTICS) didn’t return a request for comment, but an industry publication, Plastics Todayreported that the association was urging legislators to vote against the bills: “PLASTICS notes that it has attempted to work with the bills’ sponsors ‘to try and redirect the bills toward policies that are proven to reduce litter and increase diversion rates. Unfortunately, we’ve been unable to have the bills amended to a point where we can support them,’” according to the publication.

Wilson says that the comprehensive nature of the legislation is the only way to effectively reduce plastic pollution, and with California being the fifth biggest economy in the world, the impact of this legislation is likely to be felt in other states.

“I think it’s fair to say that we have a history of seeing manufacturers conform to California laws,” he says. “We saw it with auto emissions — it’s a big enough market that it should spur change across the industry.”

For that ripple effect to happen, California first needs to pass its landmark legislation.

The bills will now need to clear the natural resources and appropriations committees in the opposite houses of their origin before having a chance at a floor vote by Sept. 13. If they pass those hurdles and earn the governor’s signature, the legislation would set a high bar for other states.

“I think it is a line in the sand that essentially says if we don’t take this approach, we don’t solve the problem,” says Wilson. “It’s not only trying to solve a problem, it’s trying to shift the narrative on how you solve the problem. This is actually an expression of the world we want and one we think that can work, and absent that, we’re a dog chasing its tail.”

Southeast Asia Doesn’t Want to Be the World’s Dumping Ground. Here’s How Some Countries Are Pushing Back

Southeast Asia Doesn’t Want to Be the World’s Dumping Ground. Here’s How Some Countries Are Pushing Back

The global trash trade has reached a turning point; wealthier nations have long shipped their plastic waste to the developing world to be processed, but in recent months, some nations in Southeast Asia have begun sending the exports — much of it contaminated plastic and trash that is unrecyclable — back to where it came from.

The pushback comes as containers of trash continue to accumulate on the shores of countries like Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines, which are increasingly worried that the environmental costs are greater than the income they bring in from importing the waste.

Southeast Asia has not always been the world’s dumping ground. For decades, China was the world’s biggest importer of scrap plastic, taking in millions of tonnes of plastic waste as raw materials from countries like the U.S. and the U.K. to fuel a growing manufacturing sector. China imported close to half of the world’s global plastic waste, reaching a peak of nine million tonnes in 2012, according to environmental organization Greenpeace.

But severe pollution as a result of poorly managed waste processes led to a country-wide import ban in January 2018, effectively barring China from receiving the plastic waste it had bought so much of in the past.

The legislation caused a significant shake-up in the global garbage trade. “There was a mass scramble for alternative destinations for waste coming from mainly industrialized countries,” Von Hernandez, Global Coordinator of nonprofit Break Free From Plastic, told TIME.

Whose garbage is it?

The garbage is exported from around a dozen developed countries including the U.S., Canada, France, Belgium, Germany, Spain, the Netherlands and the U.K., according to Greenpeace.

According to the BBC, the European Union is the world’s biggest exporter of plastic waste, while the U.S. is the largest single-country source.

“Richer countries are taking advantage of the looser regulations in poorer countries,” Lea Guerrero, Country Director for Greenpeace Philippines, told TIME. “They export the trash here because it’s more expensive for them to process the mixed, contaminated waste themselves back home due to the tighter laws.”

Where did it go?

Without China to ferry their waste off to, the developing world has taken to exporting their trash to countries in Southeast Asia, where some have lax environmental regulations that make it easier to dispose of the garbage.

Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia picked up a lot of the slack, with Malaysia emerging as the number one importer. Home to a significant Chinese-speaking population, Malaysia was a logical choice for Chinese recyclers looking to relocate, according to the South China Morning Post.

The country’s imports rose five-fold to about 110,000 tons per month following China’s ban, according to Greenpeace. The three largest exporters to the country in the first half of 2018 were the U.S., Japan and the U.K.

In the Philippines, waste imports almost tripled to 11,900 tons from 2016 to 2018, according to official figures cited in Philippines news site Rappler. But Guerrero, of Greenpeace Philippines, said the official figures represent “the tip of the iceberg.”

“The real number is likely higher than what is published,” Guerrero said. “With so many ports of entry, we lack the capacity to monitor exactly what comes in.”

Other countries in the region also saw a spike. Thailand’s imports increased by almost 2,000%, while Vietnam similarly saw a noteworthy rise, according to Greenpeace’s environmental news site Unearthed.

“Rich industrialized countries that have the resources to deal with these materials in a responsible way have outsourced the disposal to countries that are less capable,” Hernandez said.

Who’s pushing back?

Since imports spiked last year, countries including Malaysia and the Philippines have already begun sending unwanted trash back to its source, while others are rethinking their policies.

In January, the Philippines sent back 51 containers of mixed waste to South Korea, including plastic and other materials that were misdeclared, six months after it arrived in a southern port. Officials in Seoul said the country would take back the trash and shoulder the shipment costs.

In April, Malaysia became the second country to push back when it returned five containers to Spain, CNN reported. Environment Minister Yeo Bee Yin said it would continue to send waste back, with plans to ship more than 3,000 tonnes of contaminated waste to the countries that exported them. Specifically, she said 100 tonnes of the waste would be sent back to Australia, the Guardian reports, including plastic bottles that she said were “full of maggots.”

Speaking to reporters during a visit to Tokyo in late May, Malaysia’s Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad called the trade “grossly unfair,” according to the Associated Press. “We don’t need your waste because our own waste is enough to give us problems,” he said.

And on Friday, the Philippines made good on its previous threat to send trash back to Canada as a cargo ship loaded with 69 containers of garbage left the Manila for Vancouver, escalating a diplomatic row between the two countries. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte earlier said that Canada missed a deadline to take back the trash it shipped to the Philippines in 2013 and 2014, and threatened to dump it in Canada’s waters if the country refused. Canada reportedly said it would take back the trash, exported as part of a commercial agreement and without government permission, but that it needed more time.

But the damage has been done, Guerrero said. Almost a third of the garbage sent to the Philippines from Canada could not be sent back as the trash had already leaked and been dumped into landfills.

Both Malaysia and Vietnam have attempted to restrict imports by suspendingthe issue of licenses, according to Reuters. The Thai government has also ordered the temporary prohibition of plastic waste, according to Greenpeace.

How is this impacting the environment?

The accumulation of plastic along the countries’ shores pose significant threat to the environment and livelihoods of local communities.

“The plastic waste is burying agricultural communities, literally transforming what used to be pristine environments into toxic dumpsites,” said Hernandez, of Break Free From Plastic.

Because a significant percentage of the imports are mixed municipal waste that cannot be recycled, most end up illegally incinerated on roadsides and dumped in unregulated landfills, where they release highly poisonous fumes.

According to the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA), bodies of water in the worst affected villages have registered dangerous levels of zinc, iron and lead. Entire crop fields have also been wiped out, posing threat to local livelihoods.

In response, environmental groups are putting increased pressure on governments to clamp down on imports and sign the Basel Ban Amendment, an extension of a U.N. treaty known as the Basel Convention.

The amendment, which is not yet in force, would prohibit developed nations from exporting hazardous waste to developing nations. Philippines and Vietnam are not signatories.

In the meantime, developed countries continue to export their trash.

“Richer nations are shipping their problems down here so they can take advantage of the poor environmental standards,” Guerrero said. “It’s deplorable.”

Article originally posted in Time.

Hospitals urged to reduce plastic waste

Hospitals urged to reduce plastic waste

WASTE PROBLEM. Hospitals also generate a lot of plastic waste, which not only harms the environment, but also costs them money. Photo from Shutterstock

 

International NGO Health Care Without Harm wants to influence hospitals to reduce plastic use and help local government units craft better policies that can also guide hospitals

MANILA, Philippines – To help hospitals become more environment-friendly, an international nongovernmental organization has launched a toolkit which serves as a guide for auditing plastic waste. (READ: Philippine survey shows ‘shocking’ plastic waste)

Launched on on Tuesday, June 4, the Health Care without Harm (HCWH) toolkit also helps hospitals identify alternatives they can adopt to lessen the use of single-use plastic.

HCWH conducted plastic waste audits on 3 private hospitals in the Philippines and two hospitals in Indonesia. The Philippine hospitals are Mary Johnston Hospital, Alabang Medical Clinic, and St Paul Hospital Cavite; while the Indonesian hspitals are Universitas Gadjah Mada Academic Hospital and Syamsudin Hospital.

 

Ultimately, HCWH Asia executive director Ramon San Pascual said their goal is to influence hospitals into shifting to eco-friendly materials and help local government units (LGU) craft better policies that can also guide hospitals.

As soon as the newly-elected local officials got settled, San Pascual also said that they would be working with LGUs to review their solid waste management policies.

We boldly say that hospitals have a huge role in…articulating the health impact and in influencing policies. This is what we want the toolkit initative to move forward to. Hopefully it will catch up to other Southeast Asian countries,” he added.

Article originally published in Rappler.

How Silliman University in the Philippines is taking steps toward becoming a plastic-free campus

How Silliman University in the Philippines is taking steps toward becoming a plastic-free campus

Silliman’s campus grounds provide a respite for students shuttling between classes

 

Built to last forever but made to be thrown away, single-use plastics are threatening the planet’s health. People are waking up to the devastating effects the persistent material has on the natural environment. One university in the Philippines is taking the lead in addressing the problem of plastic pollution and other solid waste on campus in the country.

Located in Dumaguete City in Negros Oriental, Philippines, Silliman University is a picturesque 117-year-old campus home to over 300 towering acacia trees, overlooking the sea. It is a university that considers environmental stewardship as one of its key responsibilities.

In 2018, the university welcomed a new President, Dr. Betty Cernol-McCann, whose leadership ushered in significant changes in the university’s efforts to improve solid waste management on campus. “We will intensify our drive against one-use plastics and prohibit bringing to campus containers and wraps that contribute heavily to waste pollution,” said Dr. McCann.

Recognizing that effecting change entailed getting a critical mass of people, Dr. McCann and visiting scientist and adjunct professor Dr. Jorge Emmanuel formed a Waste Management Committee at the beginning of the school year. They invited stakeholders from all across the university, from Academic Affairs to the Student Council. According to Dr. Jorge, “[They] wanted to make sure there were representatives from the faculty, staff, and students.”

One of the first things the committee worked on was the policy framework. The document presents five policies for all members of the university to follow. These are the: (1) General Policies on Waste Prevention and Waste Management, (2) Green Procurement Policies, (3) Policies Related to Food and Food Waste, (4) Waste Policies Related to Events and Festivals, and (5) Policies Related to Greening of the Campus. Silliman’s goal is 90% diversion from landfill.

Among their top priorities is the proper labeling of all the 800 bins on campus, after a recent waste audit found that majority of the bins contained mixed waste. To ensure that the instructions would be easy to follow, the committee came up with color-coded pictographs with words in both English and the local language, Bisaya, to serve as labels.

The committee will then organize a massive information and education campaign that will include the creation of posters, flyers, and videos. However, members of the committee are convinced that these measures will only be effective if people take the time to talk to their peers about the issues one-on-one. To do this, each department and unit is to nominate two environmental champions who will assist in awareness-raising campaigns and monitoring.

“A major aspect of our work is what we do with food waste,” said Dr. Emmanuel. Food Services at Silliman University is a centralized unit with 8 outlets and 90 employees throughout the campus. They serve the 1,000 people who enter their doors every day as well as the eight dormitories inside the campus.

They have taken significant steps to eliminate single-use plastics such as ceasing the sale of bottled water, juices, and fruit teas; they make their own healthy fruit juices instead. They have also stopped buying baked goods—which usually came in single-use plastics—and have been baking their own cookies. They serve brewed coffee instead of instant 3-in-1 coffee that comes in sachets. The department is adamant that they reach their zero waste goal “even if it means decreasing our revenue,” said Food Services Head Anna Vee Riconalla.

 

The Food Services Department

The Food Services Department (headed by Ms. Anna Vee Riconalla) has taken significant steps towards eliminating single-use plastics like opting to bake their own cookies and make their own healthy juices

 

Another crucial element in solid waste management is Silliman University’s very own Materials Recovery Facility (MRF). The facility recovers materials such as plastics, oil, metals, batteries, and medical waste. Silliman sells their recyclables such as paper, plastic bottles, and metal to local junk shops.

 

silliman university materials recovery facility

The university’s MRF is home to a wide range of recovered materials such as old vehicles and used cooking oil to medical waste such as vials and syringes.

 

For example, for two years now, they have been using a nifty system in janitorial services to avoid mismanaged waste. Before any member of the janitorial staff can withdraw supplies from the storeroom, they have to return empty bottles of cleaning solutions, soap, disinfectants, as well as broomsticks, broken garbage cans, and faucets.

About a kilometer from campus, the university has a piece of property where they take their food and gardening waste for natural decomposition. They use the compost for landscaping around the campus.

One of the major problems they encountered was the huge number of glass bottles that accumulated on Silliman beach. They found mountains of glass bottles on the beach so they had the bottles loaded onto a cement mixer for crushing, together with some metal rods and huge rocks. They now mix in the crushed glass in their foundation.

The Waste Management committee believes that more than improving solid waste management efforts, the focus should really be on minimizing the use of plastics. But the problem, according to Engr. Ygnalaga, Head of the Buildings and Grounds Unit, is “Everything now is plastic. And when you buy something it then becomes your responsibility, not the manufacturers. They should include in their research how to bring it back again to the start…and for me, I will not be voting for incinerators.”

For him, the government should put more pressure on the manufacturers to take back their waste and redesign their products. “That’s the second part,” said Engr. Ygnalaga. “When you have these materials after you’ve bought them, it will be you who will spend money to bring it back to them [the manufacturers]. Why is it that way?”

Meanwhile, for Dr. Emmanuel, it’s not just about minimizing plastic use and waste on campus; it’s also about educating students to be responsible citizens. According to him, “One of our principles is that we want every student that graduates from the university to leave Silliman with a stronger sense of environmental protection and the competence on how to do it. We have to make sure, at the very least, that they know how to segregate at source so they can do it at home as required by law or when they travel abroad and they go to countries that already do very good segregation, that they don’t screw up another country’s segregation because they don’t know what they’re doing…so they can actually become good global citizens.”

 

The Deadliest Fraud of Our Time-Plastic Cigarette Filters

The Deadliest Fraud of Our Time-Plastic Cigarette Filters

According to a report by Ocean Conservancy, the top 10 marine litters of the 2018 ICC were, for the first time, all made from plastic [1]. And cigarette butts (smoked cigarette filters) are number 1 on the list.

Most people, even regular smokers, think cigarette filters are made from cotton. That’s perhaps the reason why most smokers throw away cigarette butts on the street, or even in the sewers. In fact, most modern cigarette filters are made from “Cellulose Acetate”, a form of plastic that takes 12 years to fully degrade in nature. And during the degradation process, average 12,000 Cellulose Acetate microfibers in a single cigarette filter contribute to the “plastic microfibers problem”–they absorb hydrophobic organic pollutants in the waterways and being consumed by the planktons which constitute the bottom of the marine food chain.

Before the 1950’s, only 0.5% of all cigarettes on the market have filters, and the purpose of the filters was not to retain toxic chemicals–“Moist lips are thrilling lips! Keep them soft, alluring.” So proclaimed a 1936 ad for a novelty cigarette, designed for women. At the time, almost all cigarettes were unfiltered. Companies sometimes added special mouthpieces — called beauty tips, often made of cork — for women. After all, what seductress would want to be seen picking tobacco flecks off her tongue? [2]

plastic-cigarette-filters

It was only later in the 1950’s, when E. Cuyler Hammond, Ph.D., and Daniel Horn, Ph.D. confirmed the cause and effect relationship of smoking and lung cancer in an August 7, 1954 “Journal of the American Medical Association” article [3]. Since then, more and more tobacco companies added “filters” to their cigarettes; and until 1975, about 90% of the boxed cigarettes contained filters made from the plastic “Cellulose Acetate”. However the filters only offer psychological comforts to smokers–the plastic filters only retain about 2% of all chemicals from a burning cigarette. And not only smoked cigarette filters, even unsmoked cigarette filters are toxic to marine lives [4]. Therefore as a scientist said: “cigarette filters are the deadliest fraud in our time”.

Not only the ineffectiveness on cancer prevention of the “Cellulose Acetate” filters, what’s more concerning is how people take cigarette butts for granted, thinking they are natural material and throw them all over the place–it can be the most abundant plastic litters on the street with few people realizing it, and now the number one of all marine litters.

Since May the 4th 2019, Wild at Heart Legal Defense Association Taiwan has weekly campaigns on the streets advocating that cigarette butts are plastic. And not only do we ask smokers to throw the cigarette butts in the proper bins, we also aim to ask international tobacco industries to phase out plastic filters. In a brand audit of 2186 cigarette butts gathered in the streets of Taipei, we found about 40% of the litters are products of “Japan Tobacco International”, followed by “Philip Morris International”, “Taiwan Tobacco and Liquor Company” and “British American Tobacco International”. Our ultimate goal is to stop all tobacco industries using plastic material for cigarette filters. After all, the ultimate measure is to stop it at the source. Cigarette butts are now the number one plastic litters in the coastline and on the streets, and they also belong to “single-use plastics”. We have to take this issue seriously in order to “Break Free From Plastic”.

Xavier Sun,
Zero Waste Campaigner,
Wild at Heart Legal Defense Association, Taiwan

&

GAIA East Asia Regional Advisory Committee Member

[1] https://oceanconservancy.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/07/Building-A-Clean-Swell.pdf

[2] https://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/08/magazine/who-made-that-cigarette-filter.html

[3] https://www.cancer.org/latest-news/the-study-that-helped-spur-the-us-stop-smoking-movement.html

[4] https://tobaccocontrol.bmj.com/content/20/Suppl_1/i25

Asia Will No Longer Tolerate Being a Plastic Waste Dump

Asia Will No Longer Tolerate Being a Plastic Waste Dump

China set the trend of refusing foreign plastic waste. Now other Asian countries are following suit.

Over the last three decades, the top plastic waste exporters, including the United States, Japan, and the United Kingdom, sent abroad plastic waste weighting about  168 million tonnes, most of it to China. In 2018, China said “enough is enough,” and announced a ban on imports of plastic waste, setting off a crisis in the global waste system. The majority of this plastic was then redirected into Southeast Asia, with Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand, and Indonesia being flooded with waste, at great environmental and human cost.

However, from local clean-up crews and campaigns to global action, a powerful movement to break free from plastics is making change in 2019.

International Agreement to Clean up Waste Trade

European Union countries, who already have a law banning all exports of Basel-controlled “hazardous” waste to developing countries, will now also be prohibited from exporting dirty or mixed plastic waste to much of Asia.This week at the United Nations, over 180 countries took a major step forward in curbing the plastic waste crisis by adding plastic to the Basel Convention, a treaty that controls the movement of hazardous waste from one country to another. This change means exporters will be required to get consent from receiving countries before shipping most contaminated, mixed, or unrecyclable plastic waste, providing an powerful way for countries in the Global South to stop the dumping of unwanted plastic waste into their country.

This decision will help to clean up the trade in plastic currently flooding Southeast Asia, which has resulted in polluted waterways, fires and illegal dumping, to name just a few issues. Controls on the global plastic waste trade will have real impacts in the lives of local people, such as those living in towns like Kok Hua Khao in Thailand, where the water has become undrinkable since a foreign waste operation started there last year.

While all Asian countries supported the move, not everyone was cheering on this new waste trade regulation. The United States (the largest exporter of plastic waste in the world), the petrochemical industry, and some recycling lobbying groups strongly opposed the deal. Yet as the United States is not a party to the Basel Convention it was not able to vote, and will be banned from trading dirty or mixed plastic waste to most of the Global South. As Jim Puckett from the Basel Action Network explained, “The fact that the U.S. will no longer be able to use the rest of the world as a plastic waste dump is a very significant victory for the environment and global justice.”

This global action should result in less plastic in our oceans, as exporting countries will be forced to take responsibility for their own plastic problem, rather than simply exporting their pollution.

Plastic burning in Surabaya, Indonesia.
Image Credit: Emma Priestland, Friends of the Earth

Reduce Plastics at Home

The murky reality is that much of the plastic that we throw into recycling bins is low-grade, dirty, and mixed type plastics, which are then dumped in countries in Asia. There, they are usually recycled unsafely and to low standards, and often simply incinerated, landfilled, or leaked into the environment. This is driven by brutal, short-term economics: exporting is often cheaper than reducing, sorting, cleaning, recycling, or reusing plastics locally.

In 2017 China, fed up with being the Global North’s dumping ground, notified the World Trade Organization that it intended to ban imports of plastic waste.

 

Furthermore, MalaysiaThailand, and India have taken measures at the national level to ban, restrict, or reduce the import of plastic waste.

Numerous countries in the Global North have since been unable to cope, resulting in dramatic price increases for exporting, and more plastic being incinerated, sent to landfills, or stockpiled. It is time for measures that focus on reducing the overall global production and consumption of plastics and redesigning plastics for reuse and quality, such as toxic-free recycling.

Cities and countries across Asia, from Mumbai to Taiwan to Vanuatu, are starting to introduce bans on single-use plastics. The EU recently adopted new laws reducing single-use plastics, including bans on several items and making manufacturers pay for waste management and clean-ups, and an Australian government parliamentary inquiry produced a much strengthened national waste plan.

This was perhaps an unintended but critical outcome of China’s policy to stop importing plastic waste: a greater understanding of the fact that recycling is not a solution to plastic pollution. Given the massive plastic waste trade problem, plus the fact that only 9 percent of plastics ever produced has been recycled, it is clear we need to tackle the problem at source by reducing production and holding accountable the corporations who profit from this waste trade.

The global trade in plastic waste is symptomatic of the issues with our current corporate trading system. Will it be regulated to protect people and the environment, or will rich countries remain free to dump their plastic waste elsewhere? It is clear Asia will no longer tolerate being a waste dump.  We must all be willing to confront this issue, by overhauling how we produce and consume plastics and breaking free from our addiction to plastics.

Mageswari Sangaralingam is a researcher with Friends of the Earth Malaysia/SAM.

Sam Cossar is a trade campaigner with Friends of the Earth International. He tweets from @samcossar.

Article originally posted in The Diplomat.