China: The No. 1 destination for global waste
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China: The No. 1 destination for global waste

China is a massive importer of plastic and paper waste, and scrapped electronic products like mobile phones and old computer hard drives. As with jobs, manufacturing and carbon emissions, it’s often cheaper for highly developed countries to outsource their waste management.

So is China becoming a global “dept of waste”?

Remember those horror stories about toxic e-waste from the West ending up in South Asia, China and Africa? Well, despite legislation banning the export of toxic e-waste, it still gets exported from wealthy countries under the guise of “used goods”, charity or simply via smuggling. Some 15 million poor workers (often children) in China, Pakistan, India, Ghana and Nigeria sift through hundreds of thousands of tons of dangerous e-waste every year.

This article in Bloomberg challenges the veracity of claims regarding the relationship between the West and the developing world vis-à-vis e-waste, claiming that 83% of materials put in recycling bins by American businesses is recycled domestically. But it’s based on official statistics, not illegal or grey market exportation. And those statistics are provided by the businesses themselves. I’m sorry, but that’s not fooling anyone except the most naive among us. With all of the loopholes and straight-up crime, rule of law isn’t just weak in China, but also lacks teeth in the US and Europe.

In terms of plastic and paper, over a third collected by state waste agencies in the UK ends up in China.

From the Guardian:

According to an International Solid Waste Association report to be released in October, worldwide trade of recyclable plastics is estimated at a total of 12m tonnes a year, valued at $5bn. It flows mainly from affluent western and northern countries to Asia, especially China, which again enjoys the lion’s share with about 70% of the global market. Europe is the major collective exporter with Hong Kong, the US, Japan, Germany and the UK representing the top five individual plastic scrap exporters.

And that’s with China’s so-called “Green Fence” policy, which officially restricts the importing of scrap plastics. But the recycling industry needs to do more because despite the fact that flooding the world with plastic is poisoning the oceans and thereby poisoning us, the amount of global plastic consumption is set to triple from 2007 levels to 45 million tons per year by 2015.

That statistic, straight from the Bureau of International Recycling (BIR) Plastics Committee chairman Surendra Borad, should scare the you-know-what out of anyone with half a brain.

From Waste Management World magazine:

Borad explained that these figures are backed up by a projection from CBI China that Chinese demand for recovered plastics could top 29 million tonnes by 2015, and that China (including Hong Kong) currently imports 8 – 9 million tonnes of plastics scrap each year, while domestic collection was around 13 million tonnes.

Sure it’s good if more plastic goods are recycled, but it’s far better if less are manufactured. Makes me think the last “R” in the “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” mantra is pretty much the only one we are following and that we are ignoring the first two at our peril.


Plastic bottles in Tibet. Pic: Carsten ten Brink (Flickr)