Where does Western waste go?

    23 May 2021

    Which product do you think the US exported the most in 2017?

    The correct answer is “waste”.

    For all those who encourage people to sort more, and especially for those who say “as in Europe / America” ​​we want to tell a little about what’s happening in the world of waste. (And thanks to O-Zero for the info).

    For about 3 decades, waste from the United States, Germany, Japan, and Brazil (they had the upper hand) was cheaply shipped to China, where it was partially processed into new goods.

    China has imported most of the world’s waste since the late 1990s and early 2000s. This was due to the industrial boom, as well as the country’s accession to the World Trade Organization in 2001. China supplied cheap goods by sea to Europe and the United States, which enabled the cheap process of delivering recyclables back to China on the same ships. It was even cheaper to send sorted waste to China than to send it around the country to recycling sites.

    Due to the lack of plastic raw materials for the manufacturing sector in China, there was a great demand for secondary raw materials. In total, since 1992, 72% of plastic waste, which is called “recycled”, had been transported to China and Hong Kong. ⠀

    However, due to rising labor costs, high levels of pollution of secondary material, high levels of its own potentially recyclable waste, and a reluctance to become a “global landfill”, China no longer had the same financial and environmental incentives to accept waste from around the world.

    In July 2017, the government announced Operation National Sword, which came as a surprise for most Western countries. At the beginning of last year, a ban on the import of 24 types of waste came into force and stricter pollution standards were introduced. They could not be achieved with modern sorting technologies.

    Thus, the governments of most countries accustomed to such a system and the processing industry have faced an unprecedented crisis of recycling, especially plastics. There is currently no single country or even group of countries that can accept the volumes that China used to accept.

    What did they do? Have you started to reduce the amount of waste? By no means did they just start sending waste to other poor countries, especially Southeast Asia. Meanwhile, Malaysia, Thailand and India were so overwhelmed by the flow of garbage that they were forced to ban their imports. So the quest to find markets is still going on.

    Meanwhile, alarming reports are coming in from various countries, including the United States, about the incineration of sorted waste in obsolete incinerators. For example, after a ban on imports into China came into effect in 2019, 200 tons of recyclable materials are shipped daily to the huge Covant incinerator in Chester, Pennsylvania. It burns 50% of garbage from New York, Ohio and other states, while the other 50% is sent to landfill. And the same goes on across the country, and not just in the United States.

    Four out of 10 children in the city have asthma, while testicular cancer is 64% higher and lung cancer is 24% higher than in other Pennsylvania cities. So, perhaps we should take into account the experience of developed countries and not repeat their mistakes.

    Governments should focus not on recycling, but on preventing waste and not using plastic (when possible).

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