Discover more from Learning by Proxy with Vivek Srinivasan
When they refuse your refuse
Your backyard will fill up quite quickly
Carbon is an incredible element. The atom can form 4 covalent bonds and is very stable thanks to its small(er) size. It can form so many different kinds of bonds that there is an entire subject called Organic Chemistry meant for the study of Carbon. It is also so dour and boring that you might just pull your eyes out if you were forced to study it.
Some men did not find it as boring and they invented plastics.
The first plastics were very hard, like Bakelite. The journey from there was to make plastics more and more pliable and with every leap, we got newer products. The first TVs were made of wood. Then plastics found their way into the electronics industry and by the 1990s almost every electronic device was made with plastics. The more pliable plastics gave us nylon and polyurethane which is what your bags are made of.
Today, we have plastic devices, plastic furniture, plastic clothes, plastic cutlery, and not to mention plastic in everything from your cars to planes to refrigerators and everything else.
Some 20 years ago, we realised that plastics were a problem. The production process generated a lot of pollution but we just carried on, because it was so convenient. There was also another unacknowledged problem, getting rid of plastics once we were done with it. Landfills were filled with plastic and leeching into the soil. The rest was finding their way into the ocean. In 2014 an expedition discovered a huge plastic garbage patch in the Pacific Ocean where the ocean currents meet.
Even before this, we had started finding plastics (microplastics) inside fish. The plastic disintegrated in water and found its way into the fish. The whole world was aghast. The fish are then consumed by us and those plastics find their way into our bodies. Our body has this thing called the immunity system which attacks anything foreign. The body begins to attack plastics and quite probably causes cancer.
Then the West discovered China.
China was a developing economy in the early 2000s and they were open to any kind of trade that could be brought in. They started buying up the plastic because they were being paid to take it and process it. In short, the west was outsourcing their pollution and garbage.
Most plastics cannot be recycled. If the plastic you used has any colour, it probably has been doped with metal to give it that colour and it cannot be recycled. The see-through clear plastics are the only ones that can be recycled easily. The coke bottles. So if you see a recycle plastic box on the street, it is most often a charade.
You drink a Coca-Cola, throw the bottle into the recycling, put the bins out on collection day and forget about it. But it doesn’t disappear. Everything you own will one day become the property of this, the waste industry, a £250bn global enterprise determined to extract every last penny of value from what remains. It starts with materials recovery facilities (MRFs) such as this one, which sort waste into its constituent parts. From there, the materials enter a labyrinthine network of brokers and traders. Some of that happens in the UK, but much of it – about half of all paper and cardboard, and two-thirds of plastics – will be loaded on to container ships to be sent to Europe or Asia for recycling. Paper and cardboard goes to mills; glass is washed and re-used or smashed and melted, like metal and plastic. Food, and anything else, is burned or sent to landfill.
Under its National Sword policy, China prohibited 24 types of waste from entering the country, arguing that what was coming in was too contaminated. The policy shift was partly attributed to the impact of a documentary, Plastic China, which went viral before censors erased it from China’s internet.
The present dumping ground of choice is Malaysia. In October last year, a Greenpeace Unearthed investigation found mountains of British and European waste in illegal dumps there: Tesco crisp packets, Flora tubs and recycling collection bags from three London councils. As in China, the waste is often burned or abandoned, eventually finding its way into rivers and oceans. In May, the Malaysian government began turning back container ships, citing public health concerns. Thailand and India have announced bans on the import of foreign plastic waste. But still the rubbish flows.
We want our waste hidden. Green Recycling is tucked away at the end of an industrial estate, surrounded by sound-deflecting metal boards. Outside, a machine called an Air Spectrum masks the acrid odour with the smell of cotton bedsheets. But, all of a sudden, the industry is under intense scrutiny.
The article quoted above is an investigation where they put a GPS tracker in one of the plastic bags and then followed it. Turns out, one Mr Singh takes all the Tesco bags and dumps them somewhere in Turkey and makes 10s of millions in the process from the UK government.
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In short, all the Asian countries are turning the garbage away. There are few places that this garbage can go and the grand objective seems to be that they want to keep the plastic garbage out of sight rather than do what is right with it. Honestly, there is not much that can be done with more than 90% of it. It just has to be dumped.
If we dump it in the soil, the soil turns toxic, if we dump it in the ocean, the plastic shreds in the ocean and finds its way into fishes and into us. In other cases, it may even be raining plastics since microplastics can get carried up into the atmosphere.
China used to be the biggest destination for scrap plastic; in 1992, the country imported 72% of all plastic waste, which it would recycle and use in manufacturing. But as China’s economy has grown, so has its domestic plastic waste output. Now the country has plenty of its own plastic to recycle, without accepting imports from abroad.
Most of the world’s largest shipping lines—Maersk, MSC, and Hapag-Lloyd—stopped taking plastic shipments to China in 2020. CMA CGM, a French shipping line, is going a step further by rejecting plastic shipments anywhere on earth. That leaves few companies willing to ship plastic waste, and even fewer countries that accept it in bulk. Turkey, Canada, Vietnam, and Thailand are now among the biggest waste importers but impose their own restrictions.
“Because we’ve taken advantage historically of this ability to export our scrap overseas, we haven’t invested in domestic source reduction or increased recycling infrastructure,” said Anja Brandon, a plastics policy analyst at the Ocean Conservancy. “As hard as this is, all these efforts by other countries and by the shipping industry [to block plastic exports] are really helping create incentives for us to make a waste management system that works.”
The west has been exporting their garbage for the last 30 years and then accused the Asian countries of not doing enough to save the environment. They are starting to. By first refusing to take in the garbage.
The day is not far when almost all countries will refuse to import refuse. Now, a real solution to the problem is needed. The days of shipping off your problems 14000 Kms away and assuming it is gone, are gone.