Earlier this year, it was revealed that most of Australia’s plastic rubbish (which had been diligently placed in recycling bins) was being shipped to South-East Asia rather than being reprocessed in local recycling facilities. Australia is not alone – the United States, Europe, Japan and other developed countries have all been exporting their recycled plastics. While China had been taking in approximately 45% of the world’s recyclable plastic waste over the past 25 years, it recently decided to close its doors, citing health and environmental reasons and stating that it will no longer take recycled plastic scrap that isn’t 99.5% pure.
With exporting to China no longer an option, some recyclable waste has since found its way to smaller markets in South-East Asia such as Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, and Malaysia. However, unlike China, these nations do not have the recycling facilities or capacity to deal with the influx and as a result, the waste is either stockpiled in junkyards, buried, or worse still, illegally burned. According to the Jakarta Post, burning plastic waste is a common practice and is a quick and easy solution to reduce stockpiles. Local producers have even opted to burn plastic as a cheaper source of fuel (compared to wood), with a popular recent video showing an Indonesian man burning plastic to cook tofu while his family and village suffered through the toxic fumes.
China’s ban has been a wake-up call, particularly for the major exporting countries. Due to the variety of additives and blends used in plastic, only 9% of plastic produced globally is recycled, with the remainder ending up in landfills, incinerators or polluting the environment. Stockpiling also has consequences though, with a holding facility in Australia catching fire last year fire and spewing noxious smoke over surrounding cities for eleven days.
However, there is hope that the ban will spur much-needed investment in domestic recycling facilities as well as innovation in plastic manufacturing to make products more suited for repurposing and create a more sustainable circular economy. Terracycle, a global recycling company, is working with multinational consumer good companies such as Unilever, Procter & Gamble and Body Shop to package their products in returnable boxes – a concept similar to the old-fashioned milkman who delivers and collects milk bottles.
Closer to home, Melbourne entrepreneur Harry Wang is building an A$16 million recycling plant to turn plastic into flakes that Australian packaging companies can use to make food and drink containers. There are also ideas seeking crowd funding to turn plastic flakes into gym wear and other fashion apparel. Meanwhile, on a global scale, we’ve recently seen over 127 countries regulating some type of policy on plastic bags, even extending this to other single-use plastics like plates, cups, straws, or packaging, while in May this year 187 countries signed the United Nations Environment Programme to add plastic to the Basel convention, a treaty that prevents the transfer of recyclable and hazardous waste from developed to poorer countries.