The UN Environmental Programme reports that the global consumption of plastic has jumped twice from 55 million tons in 1950 to 110 million tons in 2010. The frightening estimates raise the question what happens with all this plastic waste. Most of it is not recycled and goes to landfills where it takes approximately 1000 years for the materials to decompose. Some of the plastic embarks on a “marine journey” in the global oceans. As mentioned in the previous blog, 100 million tons of plastic debris can be found in the oceans. When it comes to recycling, very little amounts of plastic are being recycled. One of the reasons behind this is the legislative implications around waste export.
Waste export is what stands within countries‘ strategy for plastic recycling. European countries such as the UK, a major exporter of waste, share the interest of transporting waste to external parties due to the lower costs for waste treatment offered by developing countries. The most frequent importer of European plastic waste is China which exhibits the largest demand for plastic – for 5 years between 2005 and 2010 plastic consumption has increased from 22 kg to 46 kg per capita. Nevertheless, China does not accept waste without restrictions. In 2013, the Operation Green Force was initiated, requiring a higher quality of the imported trash. The complexity of the interrelationship between countries regarding waste matters is challenging as the long distance enlarges the recycling loop.
Plastic recycling is a complex process which requires strict monitoring as mixing different plastics can cause severe contamination. There is an existing concern within the industry that no one provides a guarantee for the fate of the plastic exported to Asia. Waste sector insiders fear the threat of waste being berried or incinerated instead of being recycled by Chinese recycling companies. Furthermore, waste has explicitly become a new platform for crime where waste trafficking is something common. As the chief executive of the Environment Agency, Sir James Bevan describes it, “waste crime has become the new narcotics”.
Another shocking fact is that a million plastic bottles are purchased every minute. This means that for the 5 minutes in which you read this blog, 5 million plastic bottles have been bought, most of which will be thrown away straight after a single use. Chris Brown, a representative of the UK recycling company Clean Tech, confesses that it is a challenge to create an environment where every bottle is utilized for the production of a new one. Aiming at the model proposed by the closed loop becomes even more difficult when it is hindered by legislation. Brown’s concern about the transparency of plastic waste recycling in China makes him re-iterate the need for investment in the European recycling companies which have higher monitoring standards. He further urges European countries to keep their waste within the boundaries of the continent and argues that plastic waste can be seen as an opportunity for the recycling sector.
Plastic waste recycling is a controversial topic which has political, environmental, and criminal dimensions. Not only it increases the dependency of European states on Asian countries, more specifically on China, but it also opens new possibilities for crime related to illegal waste shipments. A plethora of questions around plastic waste trade and its outcomes exists. Despite this, as individuals, we can look at ways to improve the situation. Plastic waste recycling is necessary and helpful, but we should start by reducing the amount of plastic we use.
One simple step towards change is getting a reusable bottle of water. Reduce, reuse, recycle.