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In a series of blogs on the Sustainable Hamilton website, we will explore the root causes behind the failure of the recycling industry and some actions being taken by small businesses to reduce the impact of this menace of rising plastic dumps. After all, every drop in the ocean counts. For the series, please welcome SHB volunteer and guest blogger Vani Manocha Lalit, who combines a knowledge of the environmental field with a unique perspective on Canada’s recycling culture.

Canada’s Plastic Problem Part 3: Someone’s trash is someone’s treasure — really?

"Informal Recycling Industry" by Erik (HASH) Hersman is licensed under CC BY 2.0

For years, countries from North America and Europe have been managing their trashed piles of plastic or bales of paper by sorting the high-quality plastic and exporting the rest to Middle Eastern, South Asian and Southeast Asian countries. But in the past two years, one country after another has decided to return our containers of recyclable waste. Malaysia is the latest in that string of countries as it announced last week that it would be returning 150 shipping containers full of plastic waste and refused to be a “garbage dump”.  This clearly means that a lot has changed in the past two years.

It is not hard (or may be, it is) to imagine that the waste generated in our backyards is actually a billion-dollar business and there are incentives for handling this waste. The plastic that is now an integral part of our lives and the packaging that we use generously and throw away as waste becomes high-quality recyclable plastic for some other countries who process it and use the recycled product in their manufacturing industry or further export it, in turn bringing some revenues for countries and companies. If one country’s waste is other country’s treasure, then where is the problem?

In the case of China, the Asian country saw a boom in its waste business after it became a member of the WTO agreement in 2001. Since it is also a leading exporter of manufactured goods to North America and Europe, using the same ships to transport the recyclable waste to the country ready to process it proved to be an inexpensive affair for everyone. Moreover, regulations in developed countries do not allow them to treat every kind of waste. As a result, the waste trade and recycling industry boomed and soon employed about 3 million people. Till 2016, the country accepted about two-thirds of global waste. Following suit were other Southeast Asian countries like Malaysia and Indonesia that saw immense opportunity in the waste trade. The United Nations Commodity Trade Database recorded that world’s plastic waste export and import in 2017 was valued at USD 4.5 billion and USD 6.1 billion respectively. But this number includes only the quantities that were transported legally.

A lot of waste was also being treated illegally and the regulations were not enforced in the countries where it was being processed. Soon, the waste trade became a bubble waiting to burst and studies and documentaries began to expose how local communities were bearing the brunt of the legal and illegal recycling factories that were set up in barren lands near villages. As a result pollution levels on land, in the air and water rose. Also, the quality of recyclable waste gets worse at every level of the waste management chain. This meant that the waste that is least recyclable or is just garbage was eventually to be dumped in a local landfill, possibly finding its way into the ocean.

Things changed in 2017 with the enactment of National Sword Policy by China that banned the import of 24 kinds of waste, including some plastics. The ban, that was gradually enforced in 2018, however, brought more opportunity for other countries that saw a spike in the operation of both legal and illegal recycling establishment. Discarded, a report by the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives, suggests that in the beginning, it seemed lucrative as the factories created employment but eventually, the local groups came together to voice the harms that these establishments were doing to health and environment. For local governments, these risks meant no additional revenue but addressing the issues like contaminated water and air. Then, in 2019, came the amendments to the Basel Convention that establishes standards for movement of hazardous waste from one country to the other. The changes enforced regulations on plastic waste transfer and clearly stated that “transboundary movements of such wastes from the country of their generation to any other country should be permitted only when conducted under conditions that do not endanger human health and the environment”. More than 100 countries were a part of this convention. In the same year, Malaysia, Thailand, India and Indonesia also announced they would not take unwanted waste.

With country after country tightening the waste import rules in a global waste management market that is expected to go from $303.6 billion in 2017 to $484.9 billion by 2025, the governments of countries producing the majority of the waste ought to be worried. World Bank estimates show that North Americans generate 4.4 pounds of daily waste per capita, the highest in the world. The environmental concerns are at an all-time high and many households are also thinking how they could help the problem. Perhaps this is the time when producers need to redesign and reduce, consumers need to rethink their choices and governments need to own up the trash and find new ways to manage it. Afterall, we all are in this together, regardless of which part of the world we live in.

Vani Manocha Lalit is a certified ESL teacher who works for language development of newcomers and refugees and supports the career transition team of a private company. Her passion for writing about environment-related issues comes from her work as a communications specialist and a copy editor with science, environment and sustainability organizations in India and Canada. She is always on the lookout for ways to bring education and environment together in her work.