Why some countries are sending back plastic waste
  • Reality Check Team
  • BBC News

Image source, Getty Images

More and more countries are standing up and demanding that other countries take back their waste.

Many wealthy countries send recyclable waste overseas because it’s cheaper, helps them meet recycling targets, and reduces landfills at home.

For developing countries that accept waste, it’s a valuable source of income.

But often it ends up in illegal processing centres, mixed with contaminated plastic and trash that cannot be recycled.

So where is this happening, and why is action being taken now?

Image source, Getty Images

The European Union is the largest exporter of plastic waste, with the United States being the largest single country.

However, only a small fraction of all plastic ever produced has been recycled.

Materials that cannot be recycled are often illegally incinerated or dumped in landfills or waterways, posing risks to the environment and public health.

Concerns about accepting such waste are forcing countries to act.

Malaysia sent five containers of contaminated plastic waste back to Spain this month.

Malaysia says up to 3,000 tonnes of trash will soon be returned to Britain, the United States, Japan, China, Canada, Australia, the Netherlands, Germany, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Bangladesh, Norway and France.

To understand why these countries are plagued by such huge amounts of waste, we need to look at China.

Until January 2018, China imported most of the world’s plastic waste.

However, due to concerns about contamination and pollution, the company has declared that it will no longer purchase recycled plastic scrap that is less than 99.5% pure.

Image source, Getty Images

Impact of China’s ban

Global plastic waste exports have fallen, nearly halving by the end of 2018 compared to 2016 levels, according to a Greenpeace analysis.

There have been reports of mountains of plastic waste destined for export, some of which is being diverted to other countries.

Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia, Taiwan, South Korea, Turkey, India and Poland filled the gap.

Malaysia accounted for a large share, importing almost as much plastic waste from 10 countries in the first six months of 2018 as it received in 2016 and 2017 combined.

But the waste arriving in these countries is not fully recyclable, creating problems.

The Malaysian government has specifically blamed the UK.

“What British people think is being recycled is actually being dumped in our country,” said Malaysia’s minister Yeo Bee Yin.

Countries taking action

Importing countries have found it difficult to manage the surge in waste, leading some to introduce new regulations.

Poland announced the tightening of regulations in May last year after a series of fires at waste dumps, linking a rise in illegal waste imports to the Chinese ban.

Thailand has temporarily banned the import of plastic waste, with a full ban set to come into effect by 2021.

Malaysia has revoked import licenses and is cracking down on illegal processing plants.

Vietnam will no longer issue new licenses and plans to ban all imports of plastic waste by 2025.

Taiwan announced in October that it would only import single-source plastic waste.

India extended its ban on imports of solid plastic waste in March this year.

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But demand for places to recycle plastic and other waste remains overwhelming, and the challenge of how to dispose of it remains.

After some initial success with import restrictions, there are signs that these countries are once again beginning to accept large amounts of waste.

The Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (Gaia) said that after an apparent decline, imports “have started to increase again in the fourth quarter of 2018, suggesting challenges in enforcing national bans.”

In 2016, 235 million tonnes of plastic waste was generated worldwide.

If current trends continue, this could reach 417 million tonnes per year by 2030.


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