For over two decades, many developed countries have sent massive amounts of plastic wastes to China for recycling.
But that option is drying up following a Chinese ban on rubbish imports this year, forcing countries, particularly developed nations, to seriously rethink how to process their unwanted materials - a question that have been dodged for many years.
This (ban) will accelerate the collapse of a business model that is efficient in terms of money but not effective in terms of pollution
Antonis Mavropoulos, President of International Solid Waste Association (ISWA), describes the ban as the ‘end of recycling as we know it’. He welcomes the move very much as it forces the industry to move into more advanced and quality recycling.
“It is the end of cheap and low quality recycling,” says Mavropoulos during an interview in Kuala Lumpur recently. “This (ban) will accelerate the collapse of a business model that is efficient in terms of money but not effective in terms of pollution.”
“For me, China’s ban is welcomed as it makes the countries around the world adjust their recycling programs and to think about circular economy in a more serious way, and not just a political mantra,” says Mavropoulos, who has experience in solid waste management projects in more than 20 countries over the last two decades.
China's Plastics Ban Forces The West To Rethink Recycling
The immediate reaction from the the China-ban shake up, says Mavropoulos, led trash exporters to find other countries to take in its waste; Malaysia, Vietnam and Indonesia had been key destinations. However, none of these countries have China’s purchasing capacity.
(Malaysia had recently issued a permanent ban on the import of plastic waste. It will also phase out the import of other types of plastic within three years.)
With the export waste product market drying up, industries are now convinced that the solution lies in science, while conversations on the other two R’s - recover and reduce - have moved to a higher gear, says Mavropoulos.
“There are countries that trying to use 3D printers to reuse plastics.” These printers grind scrap plastics into digestible pieces, melts it down and turn them into powder that can be used again.
“There are efforts in many companies in Europe to close the cycle of plastics by tracking them with Internet of Things in its life cycle.”
“I believe with the support of robotics and sensors, we will be able to, in one of two years, adapt much better in redefining the business models. Also, improving the flow of materials through innovations brought upon by Industry Revolution 4.0, such as finding materials that can substitute plastics and have less environmental impact,” he adds.
Successful recycling is not necessarily to recycle 20 percent (of materials) but maybe to recycle 15 or 10 percent of a very high quality waste
“There are also a lot of ongoing efforts to reduce plastic content in materials. A lot of the clothes we wear have plastic fibers. These fibers, when we wash them, they become microplastics; and sooner or later they will go into the ocean. So, there are efforts to ban microplastics and to consider them as hazardous wastes.”
The European Union has also just voted to ban single-use plastic products such as plastic straws, plates, cups, cotton buds by 2021, in an attempt to stop the unending stream of pollution making its way into oceans. An estimated 8 million tons of plastic waste enter the world's oceans each year.
“We have to stop the leakages and it can only be done with better waste management, especially in the poor countries and the developing world.”
When it comes to the business of managing waste, Mavropoulos says that most developed countries are still grappling with a new reality as industries re-strategise their business models following the China ban, creating what is called a new ‘plastics economy’.
“It’s very early, most countries are in the phase where they are shaping new national policies,” says Mavropoulos.
“The new business model should be very lean and focused on specific material streams. We should focus on materials with high recovery potential and has market value.”
“We have to rethink recycling. Successful recycling is not necessarily to recycle 20 percent (of materials) but maybe to recycle 15 or 10 percent of a very high quality waste,” he says.
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Finally, Mavropoulos emphasises that it is also crucial for countries and its regulators to ensure that only treated, high quality waste gets accepted for recycling.
“Waste exports from one country to another have to be carefully monitored, regulated.”
“Exports to developing countries should not be accepted unless there is high quality treatment - this is a major rule. Because if there is no high quality treatment capacity in place, then the waste export is akin to just exporting pollution, not as a secondary resource.”