With the impacts of global warming becoming more and more apparent, climate change reform has once again found itself in the spotlight, kickstarting a worldwide discussion on combative measures to fight the effects of global warming. In the United States, this call to action was a result of the natural disasters that hit the country in 2018, which the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported cost the nation $91 million in damages.
Places like California, whose extensive history related to countering climate change dates back to 2006 with the Global Warming Solutions Act, have been considered leaders at the forefront of the movement. In 2018, the state implemented a law that requires restaurants to give straws only when customers request for it. In February, California lawmakers proposed a bill that would ban single-use plastic by 2030. Similarly, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced on Monday that he plans on banning single-use plastic in the country as early as 2021, the list including plastic straws, cotton swabs, drink stirrers, plates, cutlery and balloon sticks, according to Canada-based network CBC.
“People have had enough of seeing their parks and beaches covered with plastic,” Trudeau said in his announcement, according to The New York Times. “As parents we’re at a point when we take our kids to the beach and we have to search out a patch of sand that isn’t littered with straws, Styrofoam or bottles. That’s a problem, one that we have to do something about.”
Despite these types of increasing efforts to fight against climate change, countries like the United States and Canada may come face-to-face with the consequences of participating in the global waste trade. The Philippines and Malaysia, for one, are two countries that have recently announced they would be sending trash back to the Western nations they originally came from.
Developed countries, including the United States, have been sending incredible amounts of plastic waste to China for more than 25 years, according to NPR. The Guardian reports that in 2017, the US sent more than 70% of their trash to China and Hong Kong. That same year, however, NPR said that the Chinese government started to cut way back on plastic trash imports and in January 2018, the country banned almost all imports.
The Guardian said that nearly half of the plastic waste exported for recycling from the United States was shipped to Thailand, Malaysia and Vietnam within the first six months of 2018, according to an analysis of US census bureau data by Unearthed, Greenpeace’s investigative arm.
The LA Times reports that Malaysia became the country the United States sent their plastic waste to within the first 10 months of 2018, the nation seeing a 132% increase in waste imports compared to the year before.
Is Asia at fault?
While a 2016 Ocean Conservancy report stated that countries like China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam are the countries that dump the most plastics into the oceans, it isn’t necessarily their fault.
“When you compare those countries with the waste trade flow, what you find is those countries that are regularly reported as the biggest offenders or the biggest polluters of the ocean are in fact the ones receiving most waste from developed countries,” David Azoulay, managing attorney at the Center for International Environmental Law, told CBS News. “When those countries are usually referred to as the biggest polluters of the ocean in the world, the accurate way to talk about them would be to call them the most polluted countries.”
China, for instance, is the world’s largest importer of plastic waste, documentary filmmaker Wang Jiuliang even mentioning that the waste, a lot of it coming from the United States, was “smuggled” into China, according to South China Morning Post. Wang’s documentary “Plastic China,” also known as “Plastic Kingdom,” revealed the difficult life of recycling imported trash.
When enough is enough
Between 2013 and 2014, Chronic Plastics Inc. shipped containers from Vancouver to Manila, claiming the shipments contained recyclable plastic, but The Bureau of Customs instead found “household trash, plastic bottles and bags, newspapers, and used adult diapers,” according to Philippine news organization Rappler.
“Richer countries are taking advantage of the looser regulations in poorer countries,” Lea Guerrero, Country Director for Greenpeace Philippines, told TIME. “They export the trash here because it’s more expensive for them to process the mixed, contaminated waste themselves back home due to the tighter laws.”
Trudeau called for Canada to bring back the containers of trash during his first visit to the Philippines in November 2015, but in 2017, backtracked on his stance.
““Even though it originally came from Canada, we had legal barriers and restrictions that prevented us from being able to take it back,” Trudeau said, according to Rappler. “Those regulations and those impediments have now been addressed, so it is now theoretically possible to get it back.”
In April, following the 2019 Luzon earthquake, Duterte said he would “declare war” with Canada if they refused to take back its garbage. Following in the Philippines’ footsteps, Malaysia announced in May they would send back their garbage, as well.
One step forward, two steps back
While the United States and other countries becoming more eco-conscious is a step in the right direction, we need to be even more conscious about what we toss into our recycling bins. Being an “aspirational recycler” and recycling something hoping it’ll be repurposed can have dire consequences.
Mark Murray, director of the Sacramento-based Californians Against Waste, told The Seattle Times that an estimated 25% of what was shipped to China was actually recyclable, the rest of it deemed unsellable and ended up being burned, buried or dumped into rivers.
“We weren’t recycling as much as we thought we were,” Murray said. “There was an assumption that because China was paying for these materials, they had a magic way to recycle all of it. They were never recycling all of it. They were recycling some of it.”
What does this mean for the environment?
While it’s hard to say how the waste would affect Western nations, Asian countries have already seen the damage.
TIME states that the buildup of plastic along the countries’ shores “pose a significant threat to the environment and livelihoods of local communities.”
“Because a significant percentage of the imports are mixed municipal waste that cannot be recycled, most end up illegally incinerated on roadsides and dumped in unregulated landfills, where they release highly poisonous fumes,” according to TIME.
More than 180 countries agreed on May 10 to add mixed plastic scrap to the Basel Convention, the treaty that “controls the international movement of hazardous waste,” according to National Geographic. The United States is not a signed party of the treaty.
The future for plastic
With the Philippines and Malaysia cracking down on exported trash, there’s really no foreseeable future for global waste trade and the plastic accumulation crisis. Until the world comes to an agreement on what to do with the abundance of plastic, Western countries will continue exporting their trash.
Featured photo by Ernie Peñaredondo taken from The Philippine Star.