China’s trash disaster

From ToxicLeaks

Singles Day trash is the tip of the iceberg[edit | edit source]

The annual Chinese celebration of Singles Day started out innocently enough. Students at Nanjing University launched the day to celebrate their single relationship status in 1993; before long, the tradition of exchanging gifts on November 11 took off. Supported by social media and the retail advances of the digital age, it became in 2017 a 24-hour shopping marathon driven by Jack Ma’s Alibaba – sales reached USD$25.4 billion there, of $38 billion overall – and retail operations large and small. At its peak, Alibaba was handling 256,000 transactions per second, in what it hopes to make a global event.

That makes for a lot of packaging waste and cardboard shipping containers, since just 10 percent of the Singles Day-related materials are recycled. So an estimated 160,000 metric tons of trash was headed for the incinerator and landfill, according to Greenpeace. The 2016 Singles Day accounted for 52,400 tons of carbon dioxide emissions, the group said, an amount that exceeds the CO2 absorption rate of half a million trees, and that’s just the delivery end. Even China’s leading cardboard producer, Nine Dragons Paper Holdings, spiked prices in September 2017 over fears of a shortage caused in part by the biggest shopping day in the world. There are other reasons for shortages, though, because China can’t handle its own trash and doesn’t want to import other people’s anymore, so used paper isn’t available for the packaging and shipping operations. The problem is not just changing China, but the rest of the world.

Exploding domestic trash disaster[edit | edit source]

With its industrial air pollution, water crises and toxic soils, China has enough environmental disaster on its hands – and now it can’t handle the trash either. As China’s population and consumption patterns grow, managing domestic waste is a challenge, let alone the hefty amounts imported to support the country’s manufacturing and industry. The mountains of trash surrounding Beijing have been a problem for years, threatening the water supply with runoff; in 2011, a documentary filmmaker calling attention to the problem was threatened by people with knives and dogs for telling the story. Major cities today are producing 2 billion tons of waste each year, and China has a notorious reputation for failing to recycle trash safely. Migrant workers and scavengers are routinely exposed to toxic waste in the piles.

China has turned to burning trash because there’s limited landfill space for 520,000 tons generated every day; the World Bank expects nearly triple the amount by 2025. Chinese officials want to burn 40 percent of their waste by 2020, and that’s a concern for environmentalists who warn that most of China’s incinerators do not have the infrastructure and technology to do so without raising emissions. Many operators are already filling the skies with toxins, but China does not release the emissions data.

As Beijing struggles to control its overwhelming domestic trash apocalypse, it’s cracking down on foreign trash recycling that has long been an economic mainstay. That strategy may not make much difference – analysts say the problem is as much domestic trash as it is imports – but that means changes elsewhere.

National Sword: Changing China’s import policy[edit | edit source]

In July 2017, China told the World Trade Organization that it will no longer accept imported solid waste in some 24 categories. The campaign against yang laji 洋垃圾 or “foreign garbage” applies to plastic, textiles and mixed paper, because China is replacing imports with domestic recyclables. At least five WTO members – the United States, the European Union, Australia, Canada and Korea – want a longer transition period of up to five years because of the challenge it presents to their business and industry. There’s also global concern about the low levels of contaminants on trash China is willing to accept.

China says a six-month transition period has been provided and the ban is in effect at the end of 2017. In the meantime, Beijing is cracking down with more than 250 arrests through November 2017. More than 300,000 metric tons of Illegal waste imports have been seized and import licenses have been restricted.

Global trash implications and a silver lining[edit | edit source]

As China’s own Singles Day waste demonstrates, trash isn’t disappearing anytime soon – although the consumption that generates it must change if the international community is going to achieve its sustainability goals and reduce climate change impacts. For now, that means the world’s trash once needed by China’s voracious industries must go somewhere else. Countries like Indonesia, Vietnam and Philippines already have the world’s worst plastic waste problems; pushing the developed world’s trash offshore and into India and Bangladesh won’t be reducing the overall total. It’s just moving it. Eyeing up new locations in Africa will pile trash on top of the mountains that already exist in Nigeria or Ethiopia or Benin, countries where citizens live on the dumps and routinely die while scavenging for recyclables.

One study found that 15 million scavengers live in the world’s cities and their work has real economic impact but no protections, a situation advocates say can be remedied for win-win outcomes at a smaller scale. Yet the amount of displaced trash imports is huge, and environmental activists in the developing world – in The Gambia or Sudan, Mexico and Argentina – have spent decades fighting off trash and toxic waste dumped in their countries. They’re not likely candidates for the next best thing since China quit.

There are no easy answers as cities and countries question what they’re going to do with recyclables that China no longer imports to the tune of 47 million metric tons in 2015. That includes two-thirds of all U.S. waste paper and 40 percent of its recyclable plastics. While the Chinese ban creates a challenge, it also creates opportunity for more sustainable practices in trash-generating countries including its own.

In October, Target Corp., Procter & Gamble, Keurig Green Mountain, Campbell Soup, Coca-Cola North America and other businesses agreed to start using more recyclables and demand it in their supply chains. Mitsubishi in Japan is investing in electronics recycling facilities and is likely to pick up some of the EU’s e-waste in the future. Ethiopia just opened the first waste-to-energy plant in Africa, and expects to handle 80 percent of Addis Ababa’s daily waste while supplying 30 percent of its electrical power, all while meeting EU emissions standards. They’re proving that new approaches to recycling work, and consumers – also making new consumption choices – can follow their lead in reducing the trash crisis.