India’s Ban on Imports of Recyclables Exacerbates a Global Crisis

The March 6 decision by the Indian government to ban imports of plastic and mixed paper – like the decision a year earlier by China – has thrown the global recycling industry into a level of chaos that it is unlikely to recover from, demanding a new approach to the disposal of waste, including attempting to not produce it at all, or to design in recyclability.

As has been widely reported, the price of recyclables has fallen through the floor, with mountains of paper, plastic and other materials piling up in western countries, with no place to sell the scrap. It is increasingly clear that collection, sorting and reuse is no longer viable, if it ever was.

The world generates about 1.3 billion tonnes of trash per year. Germany, arguably the most advanced country on the planet when it comes to recycling, produces 3 million tonnes of plastic packaging waste annually. According to official statistics, less than half of that was recycle – 48.8 percent. It has been famously estimated that by 2050 the combined volume of waste in the world’s oceans will be bigger than the world’s fish.

As other countries have reacted to the China ban, the recyclers have turned to countries like India, which during the first 11 months of 2018 took in 120,000 tonnes of plastic imports from the US worth US$46 million, according to India’s Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries. Shipments from the EU to India reached close to 160,000 tonnes in 2018, up from 110,000 tonnes in 2017. That is dwarfed by India’s own waste generation, an estimated 62 million tonnes annually, of which less than 60 percent is collected and only around 15 percent is processed. Landfills oozing methane rank third in terms of greenhouse gas emissions in the country.

Malaysia and Vietnam have implemented their own import restrictions, citing environmental concerns over becoming the world’s dumping grounds. Thailand says it will ban all scrap plastics by 2021. India has said it will allow imports that already are on their way to the country’s free trade zones, then close them off.

For years, China was the single largest consumer of recyclable materials generated in the United States, according to the US National Waste & Recycling Association, with 41 percent of paper recovered in North America exported to Chinese mills. Similarly, more than 20 percent of post-consumer bottles and 33 percent of non-bottle rigid plastics from the US were exported in 2015, according to the NWRA.

The European Union was exporting more than 95 percent of its reclaimed plastic to China, which consumed over 50 percent of the world’s recycled paper and plastic in 2016.

“Because so much material had previously been absorbed by China, this decision leaves much of the material without sufficient end markets,” according to the NWRA. “Recyclers are struggling to manage recyclables in a manner that maintains current programs at economically viable levels.”

While the loss of the Chinese export markets disrupted recyclable markets, cutting revenues and depressing the combined recycling stream, it appears that the decision is spreading across the developing world, beyond China, India, Vietnam and Malaysia. This is starting to lead to the inability to sell recyclables at any price. Clearly the decades of shipping trash overseas are over. The west is learning that there is no longer an “away.”

That probably means an entirely different, urgent approach to waste management, starting with the responsibility of governments to manage the problem, forcing the producers of products that eventually end up as waste to take responsibility for what happens after they are discarded. Recycling will have to start with production.

As in the European Union, manufacturers must cut the amount of hazardous substances, in particular mercury, cadmium and lead dumped, by seeking to reduce the use of these substances in batteries and accumulators and by treating and re-using the amounts that are used.

EU carmakers are required to limit the production of waste arising from their products when they are scrapped and take responsibility for reusing, recycling and recovering so-called “end-of-life vehicles” and their components. The generation of waste from vehicles should be avoided as much as possible. That has to spread further across the developed world.

The Australian Council on Recyling, in an analysis of the situation, said that “as the Oceania Pacific region continues to modernize and confronts the challenge of increased waste generation per capita, use of a resource recovery efficiency hierarchy to optimize material usage and/or value recovery at every stage from avoidance, reuse, recycling, residuals and energy recovery, and disposal.”

With the closing off of cheap destinations for waste, governments will probably have to give up on the idea of making money off waste. Levies must be reformed to support the object of recycling, not to create a revenue base.

And, as objectionable as it is, a major part of it must be burned. A December 2018 study by the Asian Development Bank says that “As Asia continues to experience rapid urbanization with high population density, there is an increasing need to better manage municipal solid waste. One waste disposal solution is to convert waste to energy to reduce the waste volume and minimize the environmental and social impacts.”

The Philippines, with mountains of garbage picked over daily by hundreds of people, faces some of the most crucial problems. After the infamous Smokey Mountain dump closed in the Tondo suburb of Manila, another dump opened in Patayas in Quezon City. As of 2007, 80,000 people lived at the Payatas dump. In 2000 a landslide at the dump killed over 200 scavengers. It is to be closed.

The anticipated closure has prompted the local government to open a public-private partnership project that will build a PHP22 billion (US$415 million) waste to energy facility to process 3,000 tonnes of combustible waste per day to produce 36 megawatts of energy, partly funded by the ADB. The project is expected to generate revenues mainly from tipping fees, power generation fees, and the sale of by-products such as recyclables although the economics of recycling are dismal.

The People’s Republic of China, India, Bangladesh and the Philippines are target countries for waste-to-energy conversion, according to the study, titled “Creating an Enabling Environment for Public-Private Partnerships.”

But the more waste that is burned, of course, the more greenhouse gases enter the atmosphere. In addition, according to the Philippines’ Department of Environment and Natural Resources, while waste-to-energy is a means to reduce the volume of solid waste, anywhere from15 percent to 60 percent of the 15 million tonnes of solid waste the country generates annually go into illegal dumpsites or litter the streets.

The government recently outlawed single-use plastic bags, a huge plus. But litter remains an enormous problem in the Philippines along with other third-world countries.

End-of-life producer responsibility is the key way to prevent pollution and pay for recycling in a circular economy, according to study after study. As countries close off their dumps to the vast amounts of waste generated by the west, it is becoming critical.