Is a Snickers Wrapper Hazardous Waste?
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- A plastic water bottle, a Snickers wrapper and a container of detergent are dropped into a recycling bin. Are they hazardous waste? They could be, according to a Norwegian government proposal, which marks the latest effort by activists and government officials to tackle the growing tide of plastics threatening the ocean.
The proposal has good intentions: It aims to mitigate the overflow of plastics across the globe, which surged when China stopped importing recycled materials last year. But it’s not going to save the oceans. Quite the contrary: By imposing new layers of red tape, it’s more likely to inhibit the re-use of plastics, promote landfilling and incineration, and intensify the use of virgin raw materials, including petrochemicals.
Over the past two decades, Chinese recyclers and manufacturers developed a cottage industry finding value in rich countries’ leftover materials, eventually becoming the world’s top buyers of scrap plastics. Beijing, determined to boost the fortunes of China’s domestic players, then severely restricted the import of scrap recyclables, including plastics, on Jan. 1, 2018.
Since then, that plastic has found its way to other countries. Many of China’s recyclers and manufacturers relocated abroad, especially in nearby Southeast Asia, where they can import freely. In principle, that’s not a bad thing. Even before the trade war, Chinese manufacturing was moving into lower-cost neighbors, and recyclers were following. Since the imposition of U.S. tariffs on China, that process has continued and even accelerated. It’s only natural that the raw material suppliers — especially the recyclers — follow the manufacturers.
The problem — and it’s a big one — is that many of the Chinese recyclers process only the most valuable plastics that they import, and dump or burn the low-value plastics and associated waste that comes along for the ride. Meanwhile, countries like Malaysia, whose decades-old plastics recycling industry has largely operated within legal constraints, get the blame.
The Norwegian proposal, which will be debated at a conference in Switzerland this week, would add plastics to a 1989 international treaty restricting the movement of hazardous wastes, such as waste lead, arsenic and mercury, between countries. In practice, this means exporters of plastic recyclables will need to notify the governments of importing nations that they will be shipping, and wait for consent before they do. That should, in theory, slow down the flow of plastics around the globe.
Yet Malaysia already requires prior consent for scrap-plastic imports. The problem is that such regulations are routinely ignored at ports. Adding an international law to the books will only make the regulatory environment more complicated without necessarily improving enforcement. Exporting countries are thus more likely to incinerate their scrap plastic rather than run the reputational risk of shipping it abroad.
The other problem is that these importing countries, many of which are developing economies, still need access to plastics one way or another to boost their manufacturing and export sectors. For example, Vietnam, which is regularly depicted as drowning in imported recyclable plastics, has chosen to ban the trade ... in 2025. Until then, the government will allow imports to continue so that manufacturers can use low-cost recyclables for making new products. Halting shipments of recycled plastics means countries like Vietnam could be forced to turn to virgin material, which will only become more competitive because of the additional administrative barriers. That will contribute more — not less — plastic to the global economy and oceans.
To its credit, Malaysia is taking steps to ensure that plastics recycling is better regulated within the country so that its manufacturers, too, can benefit from recycled raw materials. Rather than restrict the trade in recyclables, the global community should follow Malaysia’s lead and help importing countries establish better regulatory environments. A good first step would be to use international development funds, including those controlled by the World Bank and the China-controlled Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, to help developing countries acquire the technology and expertise to manage recycled plastics in an environmentally secure manner (there are private sector models).
At the same time, companies that utilize recycled plastics — especially those still based in China — should ensure that their sustainable supply chains are really sustainable. NGOs focused on issues related to waste plastics should aid them by tracking and alerting manufacturers when the recyclable plastics they’re using have been made in unsafe conditions. Both approaches will require time, effort and money. But unlike a ban, they will actually work.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Adam Minter is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is the author of “Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade.”
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