Editorial | China gives plastics debate new urgency
The need for the Government to settle on a policy on the use of plastics - under consideration for more than a year - has suddenly become far more urgent.
On January 1, China accelerated its campaign against yang laji, or foreign garbage. It implemented a ban on the importation of 24 categories of solid waste, which Beijing, last July, warned the World Trade Organisation (WTO) it would do. Among the items on the prohibited list are polyethylene terephthalate, or the PET bottles that are so widely used in Jamaica, some other types of plastic bottles, as well as used paper.
There are several reasons this development should exercise policy minds in Jamaica. Not least of these is that China is the world's largest importer of rubbish for recycling purposes. In 2016, it imported 45 million tonnes of the stuff, for which it paid the world more than $18 billion. Plastics comprised over seven million tonnes, or 16 per cent of those imports, a portion of which, though minuscule, came from Jamaica.
So, China's decisions, which will disrupt, according to some estimates, US$5 billion worth of trade, is having global impact, both in terms of business and solid waste management.
In Britain, for instance, lower-grade plastics, which are more difficult and expensive to recycle, are already accumulating at recycling facilities, and local councils are beginning to worry about the oncoming solid waste management problem.
"Plastic is building up, and if you go around the (collection) yards in a couple of months' time, the situation will be even worse," said Simon Ellin, the head of the UK Recycling Association. As part of response to these developments, Michael Gove, the UK environment minister, has stirred debate on the prospects of, among other things, cutting the volume of plastics in circulation in Britain, reducing the number of types of plastics in the market, and developing policies to make recycling easier.
In Jamaica, Beijing's action, at least in the short to medium term, is likely to be negative for the country's still embryonic, but potential growth business in plastics waste collection for exports. Under the circumstances, we are surprised that there has been so little public discussion, either by business or the Government, on this aspect of the matter.
Even more surprising is that it appears to have neither accelerated debate nor induced specific action on how to manage plastic waste in the country. Fourteen months ago, the Senate approved Matthew Samuda's private motion calling for a ban on plastic bags of below 50 gallons in capacity, as well as styrofoam packaging, unless they are biodegradable.
HAVOC ON ENVIRONMENT
Mr Samuda's motion, as is the case in other countries that have either banned or restricted the use of plastic packaging materials (PPMs), was primarily a response to the problem they pose in solid waste management and the havoc they cause to the environment. According to the think tank, Caribbean Policy Research Institute (CAPRI), Jamaica imports enough plastic bags annually that each resident of the island could have 500. Roughly, that would be 1.4 billion bags. Most of these, after they are used, find their way to landfills, and too often, on the side of roads, as well as river streams and gullies and, ultimately, into the sea. Plastic bags, though, are not the only culprits. There are, too, the ubiquitous PET bottle and styrofoam containers that are collected in their tens of thousands during beach cleanup events and blamed for the blocking of drains and as the cause of several recent floods in Kingston and other towns.
Having been passed, Mr Samuda's motion was the subject of a government-appointed task force to suggest specific policy proposals. Its conclusions have not been announced, although its chairman made known his personal preference for an outright ban on certain types of PPM, against CAPRI's suggestion for taxes on these materials.
The China development, clearly, has made the resolution of this matter far more urgent. Or, perhaps, others have offered alternatives, and see in Beijing's actions opportunities. However, staying in plastic limbo, or maybe, purgatory, is not an option.