I AM extremely sceptical of most green initiatives, and tend to think that if something appears too good to be true, it usually is. Hence my stance on recycling, which is that while the aim might be laudable, the way it is carried out is bad for the environment.
First let’s delve in to what happens to our rubbish (or garbage as we say across the pond here in Canada). Daily, citizens in wealthier nations diligently separate their waste and put it into dedicated containers. The EU has lofty targets for recycling and the UK reports recycling rates hovering around 40-50 per cent. But research in 2015 by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a charitable group that promotes environmentally-friendly business models, found that 40 years after the introduction of the recycling symbol on plastic packaging, only 14 per cent of such packaging was collected globally and only 2 per cent actually recycled. What about the rest? The Foundation’s Rob Opsomer explains in this Sky News video (jump to 7:16) that approximately 14 per cent is burned, another 40 per cent goes to landfill, and one-third escapes collection and pollutes the environment.
As far as Britain is concerned, up to two-thirds of plastic refuse is sent roughly 6,000 miles overseas (with all the emissions that entails) to Far Eastern countries such as China, with dubious environmental practices and dated green technology. Most of it is low-quality refuse or mixed, dirty and contaminated plastics. In 2018 China closed its doors by implementing rigorous restrictions on the import of international waste under a policy called ‘National Sword’. However, there are plenty of other third world countries interested in the recycling industry at any cost, such as Thailand and Malaysia which have stepped up to accept the waste.
I identify three major ethical dilemmas regarding shipping rubbish indiscriminately to third world countries.
First, where does the refuse go that cannot be recycled or reused in any way? In China, there are entire cities of waste, some of which could probably have been recycled with proper green technology and care but given the facilities available it is fit only for landfill. It can end up in rivers and oceans, polluting waters that historically were relied upon for fishing but where now no aquatic life survives. Roughly 8.75million tonnes of plastic waste reach the oceans annually. Other waste is burned in the open air, causing deforestation and wrecking air quality, exposing people and wildlife living in surrounding areas to toxic fumes and chemicals.
Second is the health and safety of the people sorting the refuse, or living among it. The recycling industry gives employment to thousands of people in third world countries, but they are sorting through garbage which even includes biohazard bags.
The environmental impacts include Erin Brockovich-type health concerns due to the air and land pollution. The people of these countries report ill effects including coughing, a strange smell permeating the air and poor air quality due to the open-air burning.
The third ethical dilemma is that the countries taking the waste use polluting technology to break down plastics, and you can bet frequent inspections and monitoring are not done. The way the refuse is treated may be even worse for the environment than if it had been kept in the country of origin. Even worse, the countries that initially agreed to accept the refuse experienced massive influxes of plastic waste leading to an increase in illegal dumping and open-air burning. Malaysia banned the import of plastics after experiencing the detrimental effects. However, the system exploits countries with fewer restrictions (leading to illegal factories, dumping, lack of monitoring and inability to prosecute violators). In these countries, importing may be illegal but it is so lucrative that it continues.
Recycling is a billion-dollar industry and the messages about recycling being a clean industry are promulgated by the very producers of plastics and the retailers that sell them to us. It is beneficial for them to create the illusion that you can buy and indulge as much as you want because all your rubbish will magically be used again without any impact to the environment!
Plastic waste production will continue to soar. Out of sight, out of mind, as long as it’s not on our doorstep. We don’t know if our plastics will be burnt, buried or just left to pollute the land. Truthfully, a lot of our recycling is just sitting in foreign countries for months and years. The aim should be to reduce what we produce and incentivise and modernise local recycling instead of dumping our refuse on other countries to be incinerated. Even if it is actually recycled, the consequences contribute to air and water pollution – ruining water sources, damaging forests, causing health issues to locals, etc.
It is far more beneficial to reduce single use and non-essential plastics, reuse when possible and develop alternatives. I have never understood why items purchased in-store or online have so much packaging; it seems like something producers and retailers need to work on, not the average person. Next, I disregard the recycling symbol as irrelevant (since now we know what happens to our recycling) and do not really recycle much. Finally, I like to buy reusable products such as mesh produce bags, grocery bags, cotton make-up removing pads and Tupperware. And (although I am not the most domestic), cooking from scratch uses far less plastic. A return to more traditional roles would actually decrease plastic! However, I doubt if the left would enjoy that angle . . .
P.S. In Canada, we will be banning the plastic grocery bag. However, statistics show that the plastic bag is reused 90 per cent of the time! Why are they ending up in landfills and horrifying the environmentalists? Because they are being reused as garbage bags (duh!) When these free or cheap store bags are banned, people will have to go and buy more expensive garbage bags at the grocery store to dispose of their refuse, changing absolutely nothing but increasing the price tag. How ridiculous! Start buying stocks in plastic bag companies now, folks!