Stop Sending Us Your Trash

Importing waste for recycling is a bad idea. China has stopped and India should as well.

For twenty years, China was known as the world’s waste recycler. It had the mistaken notion that recycling waste was the way to improve its global competitiveness. In its calculation, it had missed out counting the health cost of its citizens. But increased prosperity and education helped it transform. In 2013, soon after China started the ‘Operation Green Fence’ campaign, it informed the World Trade Organization that it will stop being the global dump yard for waste recycling.  The initial crackdown was on low quality plastic, paper and mixed waste.

China Wakes Up to Dirty Waste

Around that time, Wang Jiuliang a forty-year-old acclaimed documentary filmmaker, who had spent a decade making films on unauthorised garbage dumps around the fifth-ring road of Beijing, and other environmental issues, turned his focus on the plastic waste recycling industry. His first film Beijing Besieged By Waste created waves across China in 2010, and raised awareness about environmental degradation at a time when relatively few people were bothered about garbage disposal. “It is a very important work, a milestone,” Ma Jun, the Director of the Institute of Public and Environment Affairs, told the New York Times.

In 2011, Wang visited factories in California that shipped container-loads of plastic waste to China. He found enough to  provoke him. “I saw this junk – dirty and detrimental–going to China,” he said.  He spent the next few years documenting how thousands of poor families in Shandong province segregated and shredded the plastic waste by hand, year after year, often living in poverty among the heaps of plastic and hazardous scrap. The shredded plastic went into injection-moulding machines in thousands of factories in South China to be converted into cheap products that were exported worldwide.

In 2014, Wang’s film Plastic China was screened at Sundance Film Festival. It went viral on the internet, and there was a huge backlash in China. It made its mark with the authorities, and though it was yanked off the air, China started to set things right and examining the waste that it was importing. Laws were made to stop imports of dirty and hazardous wastes. Better recycling methods were explored and new environmental laws were put in place. Many other environmentalists worked with the Chinese government to bring in changes in laws and practice.

In 2016, China recycled half of the world’s paper, plastic and metal scrap, of which 16 million tons (worth over $5 billion) arrived from US alone. The problem was that recyclers continued to buy dirty waste that exporters supplied from all over the world. So huge were the volumes that it was virtually impossible to ensure quality. Once dumped in China, the scrap would stay there permanently, processed or unprocessed.

So a follow-up initiative called ‘National Sword’ was started in 2017. Chinese customs authorities broke up bales of imported waste paper to discover mixed waste and various grades of post-consumer plastic. Similar raids were conducted on plastic waste, textile and metal wastes imported from all over the world. Movement of material, especially fibre, was slow, as there was a crackdown on the material recovery facilities (MRF) which processed mixed paper, newspaper, old corrugated containers and other plastic waste.

China’s crackdown led to increased waste being recycled by other parts of the world, reports the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI). Polyethylene scrap imports increased dramatically in 2017 to other parts of the world. The rise was eight-fold for  Thailand, 166% for Vietnam and 50% for India. Mixed plastic imports to Spain jumped seven-fold, and three-fold in Malaysia. PVC and PET waste imports to Vietnam, Turkey, India, Malaysia and Mexico showed a sharp rise.

China’s Clampdown has Global Repercussions

China imposed a ban on 28 types of waste imports from across the world beginning January 2018. It sent the Western economies into a tizzy. The biggest headache was the banning of certain low grades of plastic waste. Nearly 85% of the world’s plastic waste was recycled in China. Plastic is an inevitable part of the consumer goods industry and the convenience packaging industry. For decades, most of the developed nations have been processing just 20% of their plastic waste. It is the most difficult and complex waste to segregate and process because it needs manual intervention. And the requisite human resources are simply not available in developed nations, where manpower is scarce (and expensive) and health and environment laws are stringent.

Besides, plastic cannot be buried in the soil. Nor can it be incinerated without producing atmospheric pollution. So, piles of plastic waste along with other composite waste remain unprocessed in garbage dumps and landfills in North America and Europe. The plastic waste stockpile is already 3 million tonnes and barely six months of the ban has been in effect. The stockpile will reach serious propositions by end of the year, says trade analyst Robert Sigford. “The repercussion will be not only on plastic recycling but on plastic consumption across the globe. We will find a slowdown in the packaging industry and pressure to shift to non plastic alternatives.”

The waste will not surely lie unprocessed for long. The price structure of  recycling plastic waste will change as nations will now start to pay heavily to recyclers to take away the waste. This was something that was happening 20 years ago in the early nineties. That was before China stepped in and started buying waste from the Western economies aggressively. As China kept recycling, plastic consumption increased manifold. At that time, recycling of waste met the resource crunch that China was facing, as it prepared to establish itself as the factory of the world. Recycling allowed China to get raw materials at a throwaway price. This included not only plastic and paper but expensive copper wires stripped from electric motors or components dismantled from mobile and other electronic gadgets. The environmental and health costs were not calculated as China dived headlong into the potentially dangerous recycling trade.

There is no doubt that some other nations will fill up some gap of the Chinese recyclers. But with increased awareness of the adverse effects of recycling, nobody will dare pick up large quantities without facing repercussions from their citizens. Scrap-recycling is a health hazard for poor people who engage in it, and often leads to many an incurable disease and a shortened life-cycle. To keep costs low, it is usually the poorest of the poor who do the segregation work manually. They do not have basic medical facilities and are not covered by health insurance. A lot of the pollution in our skies and waters is also due to the recycling and the burning of waste.

What India Did Three Summers Ago

India has two big manufacturing states who were the early importers of scrap. Recycling reduces manufacturing costs. Both these states, Gujarat and Tamil Nadu, have been the largest importers of scrap. Tamil Nadu has been in the eye of the storm for several environmental violations during imports of scrap during the last decade. It is the recyclers from the industrial estates of Sipcot, Hosur, Madurai and Coimbatore who use the maximum recycled waste in order to be competitive, and most imports were made through the Thoothukudi or Tuticorin port.

The earliest cases go back to 2010 when three shiploads of stinking diapers and napkins were sent back to Barcelona due to timely intervention by the port authorities. There  were also cases when container loads  of optic fibre waste and used oil cans and rubber hoses  from Jeddah were unloaded in the Tuticorin port but stopped from being processed. Several cases of hazardous waste from Malaysia, London and Greece being dumped in low profile Tuticorin port have also surfaced during the last decade.

In 2015, India banned the imports of several waste products including PET bottles, electronic waste, hazardous and household waste. A member of the committee that suggested the ban enforced by the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MOEF) told the financial press on condition of anonymity: “Under the new rules, we have clearly said no to import of PET bottles in India for recycling and no import of household waste either. First, what is generated in India must be treated and recycled. Tonnes of PET bottles come to India from across the world while our own waste stays unaddressed. This is to be corrected.” The recycling industry was peeved with the measures taken. But despite these early steps, India does import large quantities of waste for recycling.  India needs to be cautious on what it imports, especially as the western economies are looking at new global dumping spots.

India’s own plastic consumption is low. Compared to US that has a per capita consumption of 109 kg and China that consumed 38 kg,  India consumed just 11 kg of plastics per person per annum in the year 2014-15. Almost 43% of the plastics are used in packaging, 21% in infrastructure and 16% in the automobile industry. A recent survey conducted by the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) found that nearly 8% to 10% of the municipal solid waste in India comprises of plastic waste and Delhi, Chennai and Kolkata has the highest plastic use. Surprisingly Delhi used 40% more plastic per person than Mumbai.

Almost 60% of India’s plastic waste is recycled. This is despite the fact that the recycling industry is pretty small, with less than 10,000 industries, of which half are in the organised sector. It is said that with better streamlining and segregation, nearly 85% of the plastic waste could be recycled. What is also needed is mechanisation of segregation of low-cost plastics that are not sorted before they reach the landfills. Taking cue from its own 2015 initiative and China’s move to ban imports of waste, India must further review and tighten its waste import policy for recycling. Importing global waste for recycling is indeed a bad idea and it increases the health cost of our citizens, more than it saves in terms of cheap production costs. It needs to be reviewed and restricted periodically and ultimately stopped.

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About the author

Sandip Sen

Sandip Sen is an author and journalist who writes for several national dailies and think tanks. He also appears in TV discussions on economy and environment Apart from journalism, he has thirty years of industry experience. He is the Author of the book 'Neta, Babu and Subsidy : Economic Roundup 2000 to 2014.'