A recent piece by Leslie Hook and John Reed for FT entitled “Why the world’s recycling system stopped working” illuminates a side of greenism so dark that we can’t help but reflect (and comment) on it.i So let’s!
More than 270 million tonnes of waste are recycled across the world each year, according to the World Bank — equivalent to the weight of 740 Empire State buildings. Since the introduction of kerbside household recycling in the 1980s, recycling has been promoted as the environmental answer to humanity’s growing amounts of rubbish. It has also developed into a $200bn industry globally, according to the Bureau of International Recycling. Companies and brokers have lined up to buy this waste and turn it into new products: a kind of straw-into-gold process that can at times be remarkably profitable. At the centre of the system is a brisk global trade in scrap materials shipped around the world. But this year, all that changed. On December 31 2017, China, previously the centre of the global recycling trade, abruptly shut its doors to imports of recycled material, citing the fact that large amounts of the waste were “dirty” or “hazardous” and thus a threat to the environment. The prices of plastic scrap collapsed, as did the price of low-grade paper. Suddenly, the lucrative trade that had sprung up shipping recyclables around the world was in crisis. The new policy, called the “National Sword”, was so drastic that when it was first announced many people in the industry did not believe it would actually be implemented. China and Hong Kong went from buying 60 per cent of the plastic waste exported by G7 countries during the first half of 2017, to taking less than 10 per cent during the same period a year later. “It really changed the world, in a way,” says Reed. “China was the world’s biggest customer for paper and plastic.”
While office towers are a suspiciously unfamiliar unit of measurement, the fact remains that China’s National Sword has cut open the underbelly of the greenwashed industry formerly known as “recycling,” in which neatly tied blue bags filled with all manner of unsorted slop were conveniently blackholed from suburban curbs in western countries to the previously laxly regulated World’s Factory in the east. It was fun while it lasted, eh ? Too bad that free lunches have a way of being paid for eventually. It’s true for ZIRP, it’s true for block sizes, and it’s true for trash. So wouldja please stop listening to philosophastic bureaucrats who “just want to help” and “just want to do the right thing” while having no skin in the game for themselves ? No manner of coloured bags is going to save you from the fact that you’ll eventually have to clean up after yourself.
Technically, China does still accept some forms of scrap, but it has set such a high bar for the cleanliness of the materials that can be imported that most people in the industry refer to it as a “ban”.
This is obviously a very childish perspective! So the carnies suddenly introduce a new 4′ height restriction on the roller coaster and now none of the 3-year-olds, not even the mighty pantagruels,ii are allowed to ride anymore, so WAAAH WAAAAAHHH the “banned” little
children bitches cry like, well, exactly what they are. But what’d you expect ? For the dirty recycling dumpers to take it on the chin and admit a lifetime of failure to that point ? To admit that they’d been exporting their problems like so many fake dollars ? That’s not really how the human brain works, as anyone who supported Shillary in 2016 well demonstrates. “It was her turn!” Uh… I’m not sure that’s how qualifications work.
“Recycling is like a religion here,” says Laura Leebrick, head of government affairs at Rogue Disposal & Recycling in Southern Oregon. “It has been meaningful for people in Oregon to recycle, they feel like they are doing something good for the planet – and now they are having the rug pulled out from under them.” After the China ban, Rogue Disposal & Recycling started to limit the types of materials it accepts from households: no more plastics (except for milk jugs), no more glass and no more mixed paper (such as junk mail and cereal boxes). With China out of the market, the cost of managing the recycling programme has tripled, Leebrick says.
Recycling isn’t like religion in Cascadia, it is religion there.iii That the bunch of them just discovered the Jesus was really a mothiv wouldn’t have been a bigger shock to their systems. Especially when there’s a tripling of costs involved.
The National Sword policy “challenges us to admit that recycling isn’t free”, says Zoe Heller, assistant policy director at the California state recycling agency, CalRecycle. “What this is really bringing up for California, the US and the rest of the world is that there has to be a paradigm shift in how we think about recycling globally.”
The National Sword policy also challenges you to admit that NOTHING IS FREE. But maybe that’s too much.
China’s combination of ready demand, cheap labour and lax environmental regulation made it ideal as the world’s recycling hub. Together with Hong Kong, it imported $81bn worth of plastic scrap between 1988 and 2016, according to the study in Science Advances. However, the mood shifted several years ago, as China got serious about cleaning up its environment. The recycling industry fell out of favour, due in part to corruption and poor environmental practices, but also because Chinese officials didn’t want the country to be seen as the world’s dumping ground. “If things are imported, they call it yang laji – foreign trash – but their own [waste], even if it is not such good quality, they call [it] resources,” Wong points out. China also wanted to get a handle on its own waste-management systems. Poorly run recycling plants that dumped wastewater and contaminated the environment kept popping up, despite the government’s repeated efforts to clean up the sector.
“OMG that’s, like, so totally racist. All trash is, like, equal, man! One love! You can’t call my organic plastic from Whole Foods “foreign trash” while your own a “resource”,” you can imagine a Californian saying in their typically outraged (and nasally) voice. Not that China gives two shits what some random pothead thinks, particularly when China’s environmental situation is so fucked and so tragic that even their “organic” rice plantations with limited pesticide use have unmanageable levels of mercury, lead, arsenic, and other heavy metals, which is then trickling down into baby and toddler foods. That’s some SOS shit! Throw Jinping the life preserver!!
With China’s door closed since the beginning of the year, much of the plastic scrap has flowed to south-east Asia instead – where it has triggered a new type of environmental crisis. Out of China’s 1,700 licensed importers, at least a third have relocated to south-east Asia, Wong estimates. The region has been inundated with plastic scrap in far greater quantities than it can handle.
In the span of just a few months, Malaysia has become the biggest importer of plastic scrap in the world, with a volume that is now twice that of China and Hong Kong. Between the first half of 2017 and the first half of 2018, Vietnam saw its imports of plastic scrap double, while shipments to Indonesia rose 56 per cent, according to data compiled by the FT. The country that has seen the biggest percentage increase of all is Thailand, where imports surged 1,370 per cent.
Greeeeat. So the west’s effluent just keeps rolling downhill until it finds a flat spot. Maybe it wouldn’t be so terrible if all those shipping containers leaving southeast asian factories destined for our pristine shores went back home empty, y’know ? Or they just went one way and we used them to build more houses for the hard-working immigrants breaking down our doors for a humble glass of clean water and a simple breath of fresh air. Needless to say, hope you enjoyed your thai massages and vietnamese noodle soups while the girls were still cancer-free and the soups didn’t glow green with radioactivity. Because they’re gonna be gone before you know it.
“When we talk about recycling, the concept is good and the objectives are good,” she says. “But if the recycling industry is good, why do America, Europe, Korea and Japan have to export to other countries? Can you answer me that?”
As Nietzsche put it, “Sympathy for all would be harshness and tyranny for thee, my good neighbour.” So no
soup sympathy for you! Neeext!!
Amid cassava fields in the village of Thathan, on Thailand’s eastern seaboard, blue tarpaulins barely conceal heaps of electronic waste exposed to the open air. Local residents say trucks full of e-waste began arriving shortly after New Year – 10 or 20 a night. By April, the factory’s Chinese and Thai owners, He Jia Enterprise, had begun burning plastic e-waste to extract copper from it, blanketing the fields with noxious smoke that made some villagers feel faint.
As if you needed more reasons for Canadians and Americans to each have their own Elbruses… There’s no way in hell you’d subject your cousins on the farm to being downwind and downstream of e-waste smelters. But some random schmucks 10`000 miles away ? In a heartbeat! All while measuring your heartbeat! With a device that you’ll throw away in 3 years!!11 Muaahhaa oh god you’re a sick puppy.
“In the long term it will prove positive, because we will have to focus more on our own recycling capacity,” says Karmenu Vella, European commissioner for the environment. He estimates that an additional 250 sorting facilities and 300 recycling plants will be needed by 2025. For companies that make the necessary machines, sales are booming and order books have developed a backlog. [...] China’s new rules are also forcing American scrap traders and producers to do more of the dirty work themselves, to meet the very high standards that China will still accept. George Adams, chief executive of SA Recycling, one of the biggest scrap metal traders in the US, says he recently installed a new line to wash aluminium waste before it is sent to China. “You can eat off my aluminium, it is that clean,” he says. Similar changes are taking place elsewhere: the Recology facility in San Francisco recently spent $3m installing a new optical sensor that will reduce the impurities in its bales.
This is not only an optimistic perspective but the only morally defensible position to take, and therefore the one that should’ve been taken from the 1980’s onwards. That the Ricardian criminality was permitted to persist for as long as it did is a tragedy of no minor proportions and one that history will look unkindly on. You made your bed, lie in it.
“One of the most important lessons we’ve learnt from zero waste is that a lot of the solutions are in the past,” Reed says. “Just ask yourself, what was it like when your grandparents were alive? They didn’t have single-use coffee cups, didn’t have water bottles. And yet they survived – thrived, in fact.”
Indeed, the ancients have much wisdom to impart to us, but wrapping ourselves in the flag of “progress” is the surest fire way to miss the lessons of history and to repeat its gravest mistakes. Some ideas are worth recycling, but not all.
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- Archived. [↩]
- Our own pantagruel is currently 110cm tall at 38 months of age. That’s… big! At this rate he’ll be, well, bloody close to 4′ tall by his 4th birthday. Is it any wonder that, while trick-or-treating this week, a boy in kindergarten asked young pantagruel if he was in the other class ? [↩]
- Holy christ on a cross if you haven’t seen the Province of BC’s new Energy Step Code you might not even believe me, but implementing Passive House for all rezoning submissions, particularly as being implemented effective immediately as in the City of Vancouver is like telling the automotive industry that all new cars sold in your market have to be hydrogen-powered luxury sedans. Regardless of what the market thinks it wants, that’s what you’re getting! Ideology this strong scarcely exists in any geography outside the caliphate, I swear. [↩]
- Has anyone else been inundated with moth memes lately ? If not, here’s one of the better ones I’ve seen :
I admit that it might be a dad thing, even if you don’t have kids. [↩]