No more plastics in Southeast Asia paradise

July 10, 2021
Environment
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In the East Java village of Kalianyar, piles of dead leaves and plastic packaging were burning outside houses at first light. Slamet Riyadi, who works in tourism, said, ‘People in the village can’t see anything, so they believe nothing is left. But the plastic is still there!’ He wants to set up an association to sort waste, sell what can be recycled, compost organic material, and as for the rest, ‘well, we’ll see.’

He seems to be the only one worrying about the dioxin-filled smoke. Plastic waste is not collected in the Indonesian countryside though it’s everywhere in daily life. In the neighbouring town of Tamanan, two market stalls sell single-use packaging (plastic sachets and polystyrene boxes), which other stall-keepers buy in bulk. Single-portion packaging is widespread: it’s handy, and allows poorer households to spread their spending. When this waste is not burned, it is dumped at the roadside or in waterways.

The river Brantas, East Java’s longest, carries waste of all kinds. Ecoton, a local environmental association based in Gresik regency, near the provincial capital Surabaya, has made the river a focus of its investigative work and campaigning. Ecoton is headed by Prigi Arisandi, winner of the 2011 Goldman Environmental Prize (1). It tests water quality and the health of the fish (which have worrying genetic mutations that affect their fertility); issues public warnings on different kinds of pollution; and works with local government and businesses to find solutions.

Influx of plastic waste

In 2016 Ecoton led protests overthe problems caused by people defecating in the river, and urged local businesses that discharge polluting waste into it to modify their production processes. USAID (the US Agency for International Development, which supports Ecoton) noted that a factory which recycles paper imported from around the world had improved its process. But two years later, these efforts were negated by an influx of plastic waste across the region, due to disruption of the global recycling system after China banned imports in 2018.

Recycling was seen as more environmentally friendly than landfill or incineration, to the point that it became a social marker, until the damage it caused in Southeast Asia was revealed; far from being the perfect solution, it turns out to be limited, complicated and costly

Not far from Ecoton’s offices, in the village of Sumengko, is an open tip where a dozen waste pickers sift through the waste. In particular, they hope to find paper money from rich countries, as even a few small denomination notes can add up to more than the modest wages they could earn locally. When they have extracted everything that can be sold, the rest goes to a nearby tofu factory to be burned as fuel.

It’s the same story everywhere in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines and Vietnam: rogue entrepreneurs pretend to recycle plastic waste, but in many cases only sort it, burn it in the open air, fly-tip it, or just let it pile up until their site is full, by which time they have disappeared. The uncontrolled burning of plastics and their degradation over time release dioxins, furans, mercury and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). These toxic substances, many of which are highly volatile or fat-soluble, contaminate the environment and build up in the human body, causing cancers and disrupting the endocrine and nervous systems.

Villagers on Malaysia’s west coast were alerted to the presence of waste processing plants when they started noticing bad smells and suffering skin and breathing problems. The Kuala Langat Environmental Protection Action Group, co-founded by Tan Ching Hin, a former chief of the village of Jenjarom, near Malaysia’s largest port, Klang, counted 38 in 2018; only one was operating legally. According to a report by the NGO Gaia (Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives), which works with local associations, Malaysia imported more than 900,000 tonnes of plastic waste in 2018, while Thailand and Vietnam each imported more than 400,000 tonnes (2).

When the report was published, European and US media rushed to see Southeast Asia’swaste tips.‘The foreign journalists were very excited if they found a piece of waste from their own country on a tip,’ said Mageswari Sangaralingam, the report’s Malaysian co-editor, who was shocked by the angle they took. Instead of reporting on the harm to local people, news magazines had photos of Canadian yoghurt pots and French cheese wrappers among the coconut palms.

Until China’s 2018 import ban, the West sent its plastic waste to China, taking advantage of empty containers that had held Chinese manufactured goods. In the early 2010s, China accounted for more than 75% of plastic waste imports in a global market worth approximately $10bn. In 2016 Jiu-Liang Wang’s documentary Plastic China shocked both western and Chinese audiences with its depiction of extreme poverty among recycling and incineration workers (3).

China takes action

Faced with growing public demand for environmental protection, and a sharp rise in home-produced waste, the Chinese authorities took action. In July 2017 they notified the World Trade Organization that China would cease importing plastic waste in January 2018. Operation National Sword set out to ‘protect China’s environmental interests and people’s health’ (4).Chinese recycling enterprises responded by offshoring part of their activities to Southeast Asian countries, especially Malaysia.

Malaysia had no satisfactory technical solution for processing all this waste — any more than Indonesia or Thailand did, despite their extensive use of plastic packaging — but its environmental legislation was not too restrictive, and the poorest Malaysians could not afford to turn down a job at one of the waste tips that began to appear in 2018. These activities already existed thanks to the industrial growth of the 2010s, but they now expanded considerably. Sangaralingam, who works for Friends of the Earth Malaysia (Sahabat Alam Malaysia, SAM) said, ‘We alerted the government in mid-2017, when we learned that China planned to stop importing. We knew the waste would be diverted to Southeast Asia.’

Southeast Asian governments hesitated. Thailand imposed a moratorium on imports of plastic waste in April 2018, but lifted it May. Malaysia refused to issue import permits in May 2018, then started issuing them again in June, before announcing a moratorium of three months, then three years, in August. In November 2018 Indonesia’s industry minister Airlangga Hartarto unsuccessfully urged his environment counterpart to lift the import ban on the grounds that the recycling industry contributed $40m to the country’s trade surplus (5).

Government responses finally became clearer in spring 2019, displaying a kind of environmental patriotism. Malaysia’s environment minister Yeo Bee Yin said she had ordered the closure of more than 148 factories and workshops processing or storing plastic waste. Customs officials continued to discover undeclared or misdeclared shipments and, during a visit to the port of Klang in April that year, Yeo was shown a fraudulent declaration relating to a shipment of waste from Spain that was falsely marked as recyclable.

‘Traitors to sustainability’

On 28 May Yeo announced that Malaysia would return 3,000 tonnes of plastic waste to its countries of origin: the US, Japan, France, Canada, Australia, the UK and even Bangladesh. She described Malaysian importers as ‘traitors to the country’s sustainability’ and called on developed countries to stop exporting their plastic waste to developing countries: ‘If they ship it to Malaysia, we’ll send it straight back’ (6).

On 31 May customs officials at Butterworth, Canada’s second-largest port, identified 265 containers of plastic waste that also contained decomposing organic matter. On 15 June they recorded 126 containers of undeclared waste and 155 awaiting inspection, and the problem seems to be ongoing.

The Philippines gave Canada an ultimatum to take back its waste by 15 May 2019, then recalled its ambassador and consuls, and shipped 69 containers to Vancouver, threatening to dump them in Canadian territorial waters if Canada did not accept the cargo (7); Canada eventually complied. In June, Indonesia arranged for the return of five container-loads from Seattle that were declared as ‘paper for recycling’ but actually included plastic waste and soiled nappies.

Meanwhile, tensions erupted at a meeting of the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal (8), held in Geneva in April-May 2019. Southeast Asian NGOs (represented by Ecoton’s Prigi Arisandi and SAM’s Sangaralingam among others) wanted the convention to include a ban on trade in plastic waste; their petition ‘Stop dumping plastic in paradise!’ has now attracted nearly a million signatures. The proposal was presented by Norway and adopted despite fierce opposition from the US (which has not ratified the convention). Non-recyclable plastics are now included in an annex. The trade in recyclable plastics (9) remained authorised, but exports of contaminated, mixed or non-recyclable plastic waste must now have the prior agreement of the receiving state; the new rules apply to all countries, including the US.

Von Hernandez, global coordinator of the NGO coalitionBreak Free from Plastic, said, ‘Countries at the receiving end of mixed and unsorted plastic waste from foreign sources now have the right to refuse these problematic shipments, in turn compelling source countries to ensure exports of clean, recyclable plastics only’ (10). In theory, countries without the capacity to process this waste will be able to refuse shipments.

It is too early to judge the impact of the new rules, which only came into effect this January, but SAM, in a report published jointly with Zero Waste Europe and Gaia, has already warned that the trade in European waste is preventing Malaysia from achieving its zero waste objective. Malaysia banned imports in October 2018, under terms very similar to those of the Basel convention, but has not managed to prevent trafficking. SAM reports that this involves many actors — some who have connections to organised crime and specialise in false customs declarations — and claims there are serious regulatory loopholes at every stage of the waste’s journey (11).

In early 2020 Malaysia returned at least 4,000 tonnes of illegally imported plastic waste to the 20 countries that had shipped it, including 43 container-loads to France. But in the first seven months of 2020 it received over 33,000 tonnes from the UK alone, 81% more than in 2019 (12).

Surge in single-use plastics

The Covid-19 pandemic has led to a surge in consumption of single-use plastics, and the waste crisis may continue to grow despite new international legislation. In February, Sangaralingam told me, ‘We don’t yet know if unsorted and contaminated plastic waste from Europe is still arriving in Malaysia. We don’t have access to customs data. But without effective controls in exporting and importing countries, it may continue to enter our country.’

SAM’sprincipal demand is greater transparency. The UN’s Comtrade database records the movement of plastic waste by type, country of origin and destination, but it would benefit from the inclusion of data on whether the waste is contaminated or not, and whether (and how) it is to be processed in the receiving country. This would enable local authorities as well as international organisations to monitor illegal trafficking more effectively.

Trade in recyclable plastic waste may still be authorised, but the Basel convention and the EU waste framework directive both call for it to be recycled in the country of manufacture, unless there is a better alternative from an environmental or health standpoint — which is not the case in Southeast Asia, where facilities are generally less advanced than in OECD countries.The report’s second recommendation is therefore that all exports of plastic waste from these countries (even if recyclable) should be banned.

SAM and its European partners are also calling on industry in western countries to design more environmentally friendly packaging, using more easily recycled materials. Finally, they suggest reducing waste at source, notably by eliminating single-use packaging.

Before this crisis, Southeast Asia did not manage its own waste particularly well in environmental terms, but there have been initiatives aimed at achieving zero waste in a number of countries, including Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines. SAM, which is based in Penang, a very built-up island in northwestern Malaysia, points out that the local authorities banned the use of polystyrene in food packaging in 2014 (though it is still permitted in Europe). In 2015 Penang was already achieving a recycling rate of close to 40%, and in 2018 it implemented a plan for the collection of food waste from mass catering venues. These promising efforts are undermined when richer countries export their waste to Southeast Asia as a cheap means of disposal.

What can be recycled?

Until now, recycling was seen as more environmentally friendly than landfill or incineration, to the point that it became a social marker — until the damage it caused in Southeast Asia was revealed; far from being the perfect solution, it turns out to be limited, complicated and costly.

It is limited because the generic term ‘plastic’ stands for many different materials, identified by the numbers 1 to 7 on packaging: 1 for polyethylene terephthalate (PET, used for mineral water and soft drinks bottles); 2 for high-density polyethylene (HDPE, milk, oil and laundry detergent containers), or 5 for polypropylene (PP, various applications including takeaway food boxes). These three types can all be recycled once; the others (3, 4, 6 and 7) cannot be recycled at all.

It is complicated, because it demands a degree of care in sorting materials that is hard to ask of households and businesses. Whether they are negligent, or well-intentioned but misinformed (mixing recyclable plastics with those they wish could be recycled),the end result is unsorted or poorly sorted waste. Local governments are also pressing for less rigorous recycling rules.

New materials outstrip research

Finally, recycling is costly because the last sorting of materials before they can be recycled requires either high-tech equipment or a large workforce. And it is unprofitable when the price of oil is low, making it cheaper to manufacture packaging from virgin materials. When this is the case, governments must impose recycling by law, or subsidise the use of recycled materials.

France’s environment and energy management agency, Ademe, recognises that the recycling of plastics ‘faces technological and economic constraints’ (13). Scientific progress is sometimes slower than the rate at which new materials come onto the market. Flore Berlingen, a former executive director of Zero Waste France (previously the National Centre for Independent Information on Waste, CNIID) and author of Recyclage: Le Grand Enfumage (Recycling: a game of smoke and mirrors, Rue de l’Échiquier, 2020), gives the example of a new type of milk bottle, made of shiny white plastic. Whether this new type of bottle is more convenient, or simply more attractive to customers, it undermines the technological innovation that made it possible to sort the old, less shiny, bottles; the old and new bottles are different types of plastic, but the machines find it hard to tell them apart.

According to recycling company Citeo, the principle of ‘extended producer responsibility’ theoretically ‘requires companies marketing packaged products and printed paper to fund or organise the end-of-life management of packaging and paper’. The example of the milk bottle shows that this principle is meaningless.

Reusable packaging used to be the responsibility of manufacturers, who were required to organise its return; replacing it with ‘disposable’, now renamed ‘single-use’, packaging effectively absolved them of all responsibility, and transferred the burden to municipalities. Though laws and regulations are evolving rapidly (14), it may be difficult to put the responsibility back on the manufacturers.

Of the 6.3 billion tonnes of plastic waste generated worldwide since 1950, a mere 9% has been recycled, and just 12% has been incinerated. The rest ends up on tips or in the environment — often, in more or less degraded form, in the sea (15). The Southeast Asian crisis is a forceful demonstration of environmental injustice and has begun to shift public opinion in countries exporting waste as well as in those receiving it. It may finally be possible to address the global issue of plastic pollution.

Story Source: https://mondediplo.com/2021/05/10plastics

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