In the everlasting discussion of policy, trade deals, and environmental crises, one giant shadow looms on the horizon: Who will take our waste?
It is the recurring parable about consumer culture, from which the lesson has still not been learned. We shop, we consume, we discard; the linear economy of consumption and disposal is still running its course as the dominant pattern of use. But changes in China may impact our current habits in waste and recycling of these materials.
The average consumer is largely detached from the size and complexity of the ‘supply chain’ of waste and recycling. This is to the detriment of informed debate about the current broken model, which sees the UK trapped in an unsustainable cycle of shipping waste abroad, rather than looking to reassess how it can re-use and repurpose of discarded materials.
In fact, the glass bottle you put in your recycling bin every week can potentially end up as far away as China for it to be fully recycled. That likelihood is changing, however. Last year China – one of the largest importers of waste from other countries – announced a monumental ban on foreign waste imports following the realisation that the import of so-called ‘recycling’ was leading to a significant pollution crisis. Much of the recycling waste was being sent to landfill, incinerators, or for the informal work economy due to lack of sufficient infrastructure to process the scale of waste entering the country.
This follows another strategic ban by the Chinese government in 2017, as well as planned additional measures to be implemented in late 2019, designed to further refine and control the types of waste being imported into the country and reduce the issue of foreign waste and pollution that has remained uncontrolled for years.
The scale of the waste export crisis has implications for both the waste producers and waste importers in the flow of these items. In the western world, it presents a dilemma for local governments and companies. Now that waste management is outsourced to companies like Veolia, the exports and sales of these materials now faces wider scrutiny from their destinations and, in the worst case, are likely to be returned. The waste market has potentially been disrupted, because the costs of recycling and waste disposal rising has been met with a decrease in the potential return through export. So what solutions have been posed?
The primary solution so far has been to target other developing economies that already import waste. Countries such as Malaysia and Thailand, who previously accepted waste from the West, began accepting extra foreign waste following the first stages of the Chinese import ban. However it is unlikely to be a permanent solution, as China has proven to the world, they do not necessarily need to be the receptacles of the waste of Western livelihoods forever. In fact, India has recently announced plans to potentially ban all imports of plastic waste from other countries.
The remaining solutions leave a lot to be desired. The UK itself already runs a semi-intensive EfW (Energy from Waste) programme designed to reclaim energy from municipal waste through incineration. Currently, the waste that is not exported or sent to EfW, is sent to landfill, which comes with its own consequences of land-use and additional pollutants. This offers a glimpse into the extent of our waste and shows how our own systems are not reaching their fullest and most sustainable potential in the UK.
There is a clear and pressing need for a radical change in the way we consume and dispose of waste, and one of the strongest arguments being presented is that of a ‘circular economy’. Unlike a linear economic model, the circular economy aims for the repurposing and minimising of waste and achieving the most potential from resources. If looking at the case of a simple glass bottle, instead of it being sent to landfill or traded off to other countries, the glass is repurposed or reused for the same product after being sanitised. The resource thus continuously re-enters the supply chain instead of being discarded after one use.
With costs of waste disposal steadily rising, and the environmental implications of human livelihoods potentially reaching breaking point, there is more the need to consider and change these aspects of waste than ever before. The UK could pave the way in not just shipping its waste abroad but looking for sustainable methods of re-addressing our whole waste system to adopt a circular method of resource consumption even for the most harmful of materials, like plastic, and could be a vital part of the Government’s new strategy released last year. After all, if it is our waste, we should be the ones to deal with it.
Micheil Page is Head of Agora’s Energy and Climate Programme.