China’s ban on imported plastic waste may be boosting the bottom line for Southeast Asian recyclers, but the industry risks being overwhelmed if Western countries don’t do more to address their throwaway habits.
That is the message from recyclers concerned that countries such as Indonesia, Vietnam and Malaysia are being asked to take on too much, too soon following China’s ban on 24 types of imported waste, which came into force on January 1. They say that if the issue is not addressed, regional countries could be forced into following China’s lead by implementing their own bans.
Before China’s regulation, the country had been importing almost seven million tonnes of plastic scrap annually, valued at more than US$6 billion, making it the world’s top market for exporters such as the United States, Britain and Japan. Much of that scrap has now been redirected towards Southeast Asia, generating concerns that it will complicate regional waste disposal efforts and cause the same environmental problems that prompted the clampdown in China.
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For decades, China had imported recycled scrap plastic for use in manufacturing, but in recent years this practice had come under intense scrutiny following a series of studies highlighting its negative effects. Not least among these was Shantou University Medical College’s investigation of the “world’s largest electronic waste dump” – in Guiyu, Guangdong province – which found that up to 80 per cent of children in the town had excess levels of lead in their bloodstream. Other investigations found widespread mixing of toxic materials with imported scrap plastic, and yet others accused some recycling companies of dumping imports in landfill sites.
China’s ban, depicted as a war on “foreign garbage” when it was unveiled last year, has been well received by the public. Western countries on the other hand claim to have been caught by surprise and say they are struggling to cope with the build up of plastic at domestic recycling plants.
“[Our] concern is the need for clarity on interpretation of the new regulations … the Chinese government did not accede to our requests for a longer transition time,” said Adina Renee Adler, senior director of government relations and international affairs at the Washington-based Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries. “So until we have that understanding, US recyclers will see some disruption in operations, such as having to stockpile bales of paper and plastic or having to stop taking plastic altogether.”
As Western companies scramble for alternative markets, recyclers in less-developed waste industries have picked up much of the business.
The Belgium-based Bureau of International Recycling (BIR) estimates Vietnam imported 550,000 tonnes of scrap plastic last year, up from 339,648 tonnes in 2016, the most in the region. Malaysia came second with 450,000 tonnes, up from 287,670 in 2016, while Indonesia accepted 200,000 tonnes, up from 120,981. Thailand accepted 100,000 tonnes.
“Recyclers in Southeast Asia are enjoying their best time in history. They have the support of Chinese investors and recyclers who are willing to take risks and several recyclers have agreed to joint ventures,” said Surendra Patawari Borad, chairman of the Plastics Commodity Committee at BIR. “This will improve the infrastructure and management capabilities of these Southeast Asian countries.”
Even so, said Borad, the region can not cope with all the extra demand generated by China’s ban. “The quotas of the recycling companies in Southeast Asian countries are limited,” Borad said. “The importers have taken lots of orders without realising these limitations and due to these issues many containers are stuck in these countries, especially in Vietnam, awaiting for renewal of licences.”
Analysts say the only way to tackle the issue is for waste exporters in the West to step up domestic recycling to reduce their dependency on others.
TAKE CARE OF YOUR OWN
The region is struggling enough with its own waste. In Vietnam, plastic consumption will reach 45kg per household per year within the next 24 months, according to the Vietnam Plastics Association. Single-use plastic bags are lowly taxed in Vietnam and free in Indonesia and Thailand. Supermarkets charge 200 dong (HK$0.06) per bag in Vietnam, compared to HK$0.50 in Hong Kong.
In Indonesia, the world’s second biggest plastic polluter behind China, 3.2 million tonnes of plastic is dumped in the ocean every year, according to a 2015 study by US-based Jambeck Research Group. The country consumes more than a million plastic containers per minute, half of which are single-use items such as plastic bags, straws, coffee stirrers, water bottles and food packaging. Much of this ends in landfill, the region’s go-to waste treatment solution.
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“Developed countries must find their own solution. We don’t have proper waste management systems like in Europe that can process single use plastic,” said Sasina Kaudelka, a Krabi-based activist with Trash Hero, a global clean-up movement. “We don’t need extra rubbish from other countries, you should take care of your own plastic.”
But amid the ever-deepening piles of garbage, there are glimmers of hope that exporters and importers are starting to work together.
As part of its goal to reduce plastic marine debris 70 per cent by 2025, Indonesia is experimenting with ways to turn plastic waste into asphalt and recycling it for use in energy generators. It has set up the Oceans, Marine Debris and Coastal Resources Multi-Donor Trust Fund, which has received US$1.4 million from Norway and more than US$800,000 from Denmark.
Indonesia also backs businesses that produce plastic alternatives from biodegradable materials such as seaweed, cassava and tapioca.
One such business is Jakarta-based start-up Evoware, which makes edible wrappers and biodegradable plastics from seaweed as well as seaweed-based packaging for soap, biscuits, and waffles. “We choose seaweed because it’s sustainable and nutritious. Seaweed also absorbs carbon dioxide and it takes only 45 days to cultivate,” said Edwin Aldrin, co-founder of Evoware. “We focus on sachets and small food packagings as they make up much of our plastic waste, nobody wants to recycle them.”
Bitung city encourages citizens to exchange plastic for rice, while the Yogyakarta local government has joined the Ecobrick movement, in which people fill plastic bottles with smaller bits of plastic to create building blocks for garden furniture or buildings such as houses and schools.
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Russell Maier, principal of Ecobrick in Indonesia, says 250,000 locals make ecobricks. “Local governments came to us, they know they don’t have a solution that really works, the mayor knows landfill is overflowing and trash scavengers don’t pick up enough plastic,” Maier said. “People’s consciousness of plastic is really low around the world, but especially here in Indonesia.”
While these signs are encouraging, further education, regulation and health monitoring are still needed.
“Single-use plastic is handed out freely in convenience stores, so it is convenient for people to use. We are trying to change this mindset,” said Trash Hero’s Kaudelki. “People have to become more aware that these plastics are not going to be recycled but will end up in landfills and in the ocean.”
Exporting nations must play a part in this education – or face what Borad rates as the “biggest threat to exporters in Europe or the US”: Southeast Asia copying China’s ban.
If that were to happen, the growing mountain of plastic that has been causing Western recyclers such a headache since the start of the year is likely only to keep growing larger. ■