For decades, many developed countries have been sending huge amounts of plastic waste to China & India for recycling. China is reckoned to have imported 65 million tons of plastic from countries such as the US.
Now that both China & India have enacted laws to block the further import of plastic waste, among mounting domestic & environmental concerns. The question is now, what will the developed world do with this waste?
Many countries have established successful recycling programs, with almost half of plastic in the UK being separated out for recycling. The UK does not have the necessary infrastructure to recycle its own plastic waste, so it is sent abroad. Huge amounts of packaging waste is being sent overseas on the basis that it will be recycled and turned into new products. However, concerns have been raised that in reality much of it is being dumped in sites from Turkey to the Phillipines. Now that China is no longer receiving waste plastic for processing, more plastic turned in for recycling is being incinerated or dumped, creating public health & environmental problems which are now apparent.
It is clear that the 3 R’s of recycling (reduce, re-use, recycle) are no longer enough, we need to add a fourth R – “REFUSE”. Shops, manufacturers, and food producers must be pressured into providing zero plastic packaging for their products. In cases where plastics are unavoidable, manufacturers must offer environmentally friendly recycling & disposal services. Consumers need to support retailers who offer reusable packaging and refillable container options and manufacturers of environmentally friendly packaging.
It has become clear that many recycling programs have just involved shipping waste overseas to be picked over by low paid workers for re-usable resources and then ultimately dumped. Now much of this waste that would have been exported is being incinerated, a small fraction being used for energy generation or gas reclamation.
Legislation must be put into place to pressure manufacturers to use biodegradable & non-plastic packaging, develop local processing facilities for plastics and to participate in waste reclamation programs. Consumers will need to adapt to refillable, reusable containers & packaging.