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Confronting the global rubbish crisis

  • Written by  Mark Rowe
  • Published in Climate
Confronting the global rubbish crisis
25 Dec
2019
For years, China was the go-to destination for exporting the West’s refuse material. But with an import ban now in place for everything from plastics to e-waste, and a growing global population producing an ever-greater amount of rubbish, what exactly is the future for a world awash with garbage?

First came the Green Fence in 2013. National Sword followed in 2017. In 2018 it was Blue Sky. With their ‘Command Economy’ echoes, each of China’s three national policies on garbage disposal have steadily raised the drawbridge against the world’s waste.

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China’s ban on ‘foreign garbage’, specifically 56 varieties of solid waste, ranging from plastics to textiles and electrical items, has exposed an uncomfortable and dirty truth behind the West’s efforts to reduce, reuse and recycle its waste. Loading cardboard, plastic film and pots, tubs and trays and other garbage onto ships and sailing it overseas has, to date, enabled us to avoid addressing the issue in a meaningful way at home.

Until its ban, China imported around 45 per cent of the waste the world produced; in 2016 alone that figure was seven million tonnes. The repercussions have floated, rather like nurdles on an ocean current, all the way back to the United Kingdom. ‘China’s “green fence” has changed the dynamics of the global market and that’s the biggest difficulty affecting the UK,’ says Simon Ellin chief executive of the Recycling Association. ‘China wasn’t too bothered about the quality [of waste] it was being sent. The US, EU, UK and Australia were sending them everything and anything.’ As if to reinforce Ellin’s point, in September 2019 the British waste management firm, Biffa, was fined £350,000 by the UK courts for trying to ship household rubbish to China labelled as waste-paper fit for recycling but which included sanitary towels, nappies, wet wipes and condoms (Biffa has appealed).

WasteAndRecyclingEurope UpdateThis cartogram shows each European country proportional to its overall municipal waste production with its respective recycling rate (Map: Ben Hennig)

Plastic and other packaging has been as integral to global development over the past 60 years as fossil fuels, extending the shelf life of foods and enabling goods to be transported efficiently and economically around the world. Yet, as the world struggles to come up with ways to deal with plastic at the end of its generally single use, the disadvantages have become evident.

In 2019, the British recycling charity, the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP), published a report titled Plastics Market Situation which referred to the ‘stark challenges’ that lay ahead. It called for new reprocessing infrastructure to respond both to the loss of overseas recycling options and increased domestic demand as UK businesses reacted to calls from consumers for more sustainable packaging.

Geographical January 2020CONFRONTING THE GLOBAL WASTE CRISIS
You have reached the end of this preview of our in-depth look at the issues behind the growing global garbage problem. To read the full feature, be sure to pick up the January 2020 issue of Geographical today!
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