China’s plastic waste ban
Out of sight, out of mind. That’s the phrase that has provided us all with collective reassurance over the last two generations as far as unsustainable use of the earth’s resources is concerned. This may - finally - be the year that our profligacy with global resources becomes all too evident.
For many, recycling is becoming a welcome habit. We separate our waste, and assume that doing so addresses the problem, when in fact it is the amount of waste itself that’s the real issue. The sheer volume of plastic packaging - whether from drinks, food or manufacturing industries is mind-blowing. Until now, we’ve blindly accepted that recycling capacity will meet the demands of our consumption.
However, China will imminently cease accepting 7.3m tonnes of waste plastics, effectively ending its role as destination of choice for half the world’s low grade plastic waste, as well as unsorted paper and other recyclates. That’s the kind of shock to the system we need to end complacency and address the problem in two key ways.
Firstly, we can no longer assume that packing sorted waste onto container ships to cross the globe is the end of our problem. This is our problem and we need to change consumer behavior urgently. We need to find ways as individuals to reduce consumption and live more sustainably. How many of us make a genuine effort to buy fruit and vegetables loose packed? How many of us use our own cup when buying takeaway coffee? Some do, but not nearly enough of us.
Secondly, we need to understand that packaging waste is not someone else’s problem, it is our problem as a country. We can reduce our individual use of resources significantly, but for that which remains we urgently need greater domestic recycling capacity. We can no longer assume that poor quality plastics will find a home in someone else’s backyard half a world away. Unless we can process more here in Scotland, we will end up sending ever greater volumes to landfill, or see it flytipped in a further abdication of our responsibilities to our children and grandchildren.
As the UN’s Sustainable Development Global Goals acknowledge, we have been living unsustainably, using resources that cannot be replaced or reused. China’s raising of the drawbridge provides us with an opportunity to challenge our individual behaviour, and build the infrastructure we need that will benefit our economy and our environment.
First published in The Times on 20 October 2017.
21 October 2017