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Save the oceans – stop recycling plastic


The headline may sound surprising, but the sad fact is that the global ‘recycling’ industry has significantly added to the marine plastic litter problem.

I have put recycling in quotes, because only a small fraction of plastic recovered from consumers is actually recycled: the material collected is dirty and so mixed up that it is impossible to produce the high-quality raw material required by, for example, the food packaging industry. Most recovered plastic is simply burned or dumped: on land, in rivers, or directly in the oceans.

Unable to recycle waste in line with the targets imposed on them, rich countries have chosen to dump it – plastic, paper and cardboard – on poorer ones, especially China. Lower environmental standards in much of Asia have made it cheaper to manage waste there and low-quality recycled plastic can sometimes be profitably produced, albeit in highly polluted conditions.

In recent years, the stream of waste delivered to China expanded vastly. Annual imports reached 85million tons, including 8million of plastic. The quantity was so huge that inspection at ports became impossible, and the unscrupulous found that mixed or even hazardous waste could profitably be sent, disguised as ‘recycling’, to avoid landfill tax or high management costs in rich countries. Unable to handle this tsunami of refuse, the Chinese were forced to burn or dump vast quantities. An unknown amount found its way to the oceans.

The consequences for the environment and for public health of this ‘recycling’ madness have therefore been horrendous, and have ultimately proved too much for the Chinese, who have now banned waste imports entirely. Recent figures suggest that recycling businesses in the UK have responded by shipping waste to Asian countries with even weaker environmental standards. So yet more waste will end up in the oceans.

Meanwhile, the EU is doing almost nothing to reduce the flow of waste. It is sticking to its idealistic environmental dreams, claiming to be in the forefront of efforts to save the oceans through a ‘circular economy’ strategy. History tells a different story – efforts to focus on recycling have led to one environmental disaster after another, with the ocean plastic crisis being the latest. Readers may recall the waste crisis in the Italian region of Campania centred on Naples, which was overwhelmed by so-called ‘ecoballs’ – the two-thirds of plastic waste that was rejected by its sorting facilities. The streets were awash with rubbish, dioxins spread across the region, and public order broke down.

It should be understood that all recycling schemes – including paper recycling – leak either plastic litter or microplastic to the environment. If we truly care about saving the oceans, recycling of plastic and paper should stop. There is a clear and sensible alternative available, namely incineration. Incineration was the way Campania put its waste management system back on an even keel. It is also the basis of the waste management strategy of many EU countries, and as such has proven to be hugely successful on all measures. Yet despite this clear superiority to other approaches, incineration is being dismissed and discouraged, by EU politicians and bureaucrats, but most importantly by the unholy alliance of ‘recyclers’ and green NGOs.

Not many are aware of this lobby which operates on a national and supranational level in the EU. It resembles that alliance which kept Prohibition in the US alive for a long period. The Christian anti-alcohol activists and Mafia bosses had secret meetings to keep the ban going. The situation is similar today with recycling. The green NGOs and hauliers both want recycling no matter what. Both get something from their collaboration. NGOs are happy that ever more complex sorting schemes are promoted by EU legislation, and the hauliers are celebrating because they can send two or three heavy trucks rather than one to collect your garbage.

If the EU is serious about its war against marine pollution it should consider banning the export of plastic waste rather than banning plastic straws. As the old Yorkshire expression has it, ‘Where there’s muck, there’s brass’. Unfortunately, the price is paid not just by consumers, but by the oceans and the rest of the natural environment.

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Dr Mikko Paunio
Dr Mikko Paunio
Dr Mikko Paunio is a Finnish public health specialist and an adjunct professor in general epidemiology at the University of Helsinki. He is the author of the paper Save The Oceans – Stop Recycling Plastic.

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