Mikko Paunio

The world’s plastic recycling problem isn’t going away

The world's plastic recycling problem isn't going away
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In 2015, the problem of marine litter climbed to the very top of the list of global environmental problems after a landmark study suggested that there are 100 million tonnes of plastic in the oceans. Regrettably, the study overlooked the share of the blame that can be put on the recycling industry, which has exported 106 million tonnes of plastic waste to China over the past 20 years or more. A significant proportion of this is thought to have ended up in the oceans.

Last June, I sounded the alarm about the impact of recycling on marine pollution and revealed how unscrupulous operators were making the situation worse. Soon afterward, the UK audit office came to similar conclusions and the media started to give the issue some attention.

There is now a global congestion in waste management systems, because China’s decided to close its doors to imported plastic waste. There has also been a rapid increase of piles of plastic scrap in rich countries, as recyclers have found it increasingly difficult to find anyone who will accept it in China's place. Even poor countries have been starting to refuse to take it because, with their poor waste management system, they are unable to cope with what they have taken already, let alone the increased volumes that western exporters would like them to take. Much of this material is ending up in the oceans.

Earlier this month, however, an obscure United Nations conference surprised the world by agreeing a global deal to curb the dumping of dirty plastic waste, often camouflaged as 'recycling', from rich countries to the developing nations, such as Bangladesh, Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam, who have become the chief importers of plastic waste now that China has closed its doors. The huge volumes of waste that have previously gone to Asia will now have to be dealt with at home, by a waste management industry that is already struggling to keep its head above the rising tide of rubbish.

Remarkably, there has been virtually no attention given to this important decision. Green NGOs and politicians are keeping quiet because they fear that their role promoting bad policies in the past will come under scrutiny. The media, however, which has parroted green dogma about recycling for years will struggle to avoid mentioning the problems that the industry is facing in the wake of this UN decision. The plastic situation is now deteriorating rapidly, especially in rich countries.

The EU, meanwhile, is making things even worse. It has just passed cosmetic legislation, in the shape of a foolish single-use plastics directive, a knee-jerk response to pressure from environmentalists. But even more worrying are the repercussions of the UN decision on the EU’s Circular Economy Package, which was agreed 12 months ago. The package imposes binding recycling targets that are impossible to achieve. There is no way Europe can recycle 55 per cent of its plastic packaging by 2030, no matter how much is spent in the attempt. It would only produce a stream of recycled plastic of poor quality, which would be unusable by most industries. The result is likely to be a social, environmental and economic nightmare.

Twenty years ago, blind adherence to green ideology led to a waste catastrophe in the Italian region of Campania. Piles of waste lined the streets, and rubbish collections came to a halt because there was nowhere left to take them to, and the countryside became contaminated with dioxins as people resorted to bonfires to deal with the problem. The army had to be brought in to prevent a wholesale breakdown of public order. Eventually, over many years, the problem was resolved by shipping the waste at vast expense to incinerators in other parts of Europe. The lesson of Campania is therefore one that politicians and officials would do well to heed. Green dogma currently holds sway in the EU and national capitals, and the Commission has mostly argued strongly against it, but expansion of incineration capacity is likely to be the only way that governments will avoid a plastic waste disaster that will make Campania look like a walk in the park.

The Commission has argued in favour of incineration, but only very rarely. In a paper entitled, ‘A Clean Planet for All’, released before the UN Katowice Climate Change Conference, it argued for a carbon-neutral economy fuelled by biomass, although it was reticent about explaining where this biomass should come from. The answer is found in an accompanying document, which explains that it will actually be waste that is burned, and suggests that incineration capacity should increase to 100 million tonnes in 2050.