Mon | Jan 18, 2021

S. Brian Samuel | Dear rich countries: Stop sending us your garbage! - The West is exporting its environmental liabilities to the poor

Published:Thursday | December 3, 2020 | 12:17 AM
S. Brian Samudl
S. Brian Samudl

When I moved to London from Jamaica in 1980, a young man on a budget, I was amazed at what English people called an illegal tyre – back home you could drive another 10,000 miles on that! Not in England, boyo. As I soon discovered, police carried a little gadget that measured the grooves, and just one millimetre over the limit attracted a hefty fine. I’d see piles of old tyres waiting to be thrown away, and my Jamaican brain would think: they’d be worth a fortune back home!

Four years later when I returned to Jamaica, I saw those same nearly new tyres again: imported from England. I worked for a shipping company and we’d import hundreds of tons of used tyres – and very profitable they were. This is what economists call a double coincidence of wants: England gets rid of its unwanted tyres; and Jamaica gets cheap, goodish tyres. A win-win situation, right? Wrong. If it’s a win-win for anyone, it’s for England. Which of us has the problem of ultimately disposing of England’s old tyres? Jamaica has since banned the importation of used tyres but, as usual with enforcement of regulations: ‘things fall apart’.

Jamaica is not alone; international trade in rubber waste in 2018 was nearly two million tons, equivalent to 200 million tyres. To put this into some physical perspective, this is equivalent to about 130,000 40-foot containers per year. Full of dirty, toxic rubber for us to burn. And it’s not just rubber; global exports of plastic waste have skyrocketed over the past three decades. Thanks, Europe.

Recycling: the sustainable solution to humankind’s staggering production of waste, right? Wrong.

Commencing in the heady green days of the 1970s, recycling has grown into a trillion-dollar global industry, practised by virtually every country in the world. Sweden touts itself as recycling’s gold standard: barely one per cent of all waste goes to Sweden’s landfills; they even have to import waste, to keep their waste-to-energy plants producing electricity.

The good citizens of Stockholm’s leafy suburbs feel justifiably righteous as they diligently sort their garbage into paper, plastics, glass and organics. But what they don’t realise, or don’t ask, is: what happens to their carefully sorted recyclables, after they’ve disappeared from view? Increasingly, the same thing that’s always happened: dumped in landfills or burnt.

Don’t believe the hype, the recycling of garbage is a dirty, smelly business – and requires a lot of a particular kind of labour, cheap labour. When the West talks about waste recycling, what they’re really talking about is waste sorting. But what happens after that? Who turns that old plastic, paper and bottles into new plastic, paper and bottles? The world’s poorest countries, that’s who. For decades, China was the world’s dumping ground, at one point accounting for 70 per cent of the world’s plastic waste.

Like most things in China, the recycling industry is highly unregulated, with underpaid workers toiling in unhygienic conditions, no safety gear and very few workers’ rights. The industry’s environmental record is even worse: Shantou University’s investigation of the world’s largest electronic waste dump in Guangdong province found that up to 80 per cent of children in the town had excess levels of lead in their bloodstream. Also typical of China, several new billionaires were born, out of its love affair with the world’s garbage.

All this changed in January 2018, when China turned the world’s recycling industry on its head. Trying to clean up its act, the Communist Party enacted the wonderfully named National Sword Policy, banning all but the highest quality recyclables. Overnight, this closed the door to 45 per cent of the world’s waste. Cue shock and horror: how dare China refuse to take our rubbish? But dare they did, and all of a sudden, the West’s recycling (i.e., sorting) plants had nowhere to sell their millions of tons of recycled waste. So what did they do with it? Same thing they’ve always done: dumped it and burnt it. In 2017/18, London’s Westminster Council sent 82 per cent of all household waste – including from recycling bins – for incineration. Currently, only nine per cent of the plastic produced globally is recycled.

Civic-minded citizens are up in arms: we can’t be landfilling our recyclables that we’ve so self-righteously separated in our kitchens. But herein lies the rub: if China won’t do it – who will? Up steps Malaysia: we’ll take your trash! In the first seven months of 2018, Greenpeace found that plastic waste exported to Malaysia from the USA more than doubled over the previous year. When it comes to dealing with the West’s garbage, the world’s poorest countries are in a race to the bottom; and it is those nations that are most willing to facilitate the exploitation of their own citizens and environments that are the ‘winners’.

© © 2020, S. Brian