Plastic waste is sent to distant countries as a raw material for recycling, but it often spoils the environment there. Is it legal world trade or junk colonialism? The shipping company is moving forward and announced that it will no longer be shipping plastic waste from June onwards
On the banks of the Ciliwung River near Indonesia’s capital Jakarta are piled up with old yogurt and soup pots, beverage containers, squeezed toothpaste tubes, and empty plastic bags. These are the consequences of the plastic waste business. The industry talks about valuable raw materials, and countries actually export plastic for recycling. But a lot ends up on the banks of rivers and beaches in distant lands.
But there is movement: from January 2021, the export of non-recyclable waste is banned under the “Basel Convention to Control the Transboundary Movement and Disposal of Hazardous Waste”. EU companies can only export clean and well-sorted plastic waste for recycling.
And the third-largest container shipping company in the world, French company CMA CGM, has announced that it will no longer transport plastic waste from June 1, 2022. According to the company, the promise has already been delivered. Is this the beginning of the end of this business? It doesn’t look that way.
Plastic waste as “legal load”
Hamburg-based shipping company Hapag-Lloyd, the world’s number 5 container giants, emphasizes that resource conservation and recycling management are important. However, she is worried about the plastics recycling industry. – That is why we do not intend to stop this type of transport for the time being – says a spokesman for the German Press Agency.
Industry leader Swiss freight forwarding company MSC also considers plastic waste a legal cargo. And number 2, the Danish Maersk, would consider an industry-wide solution at best.
Greenpeace talks about garbage colonialism
Plastic waste expert from the environmental organization Greenpeace, Manfred Santen, talks about the colonialism of waste. “Do we want to send our dirt to developing countries and say: do something about it? We don’t think that’s right. ” Take Indonesia as an example: plastic waste usually ends up there mixed with paper waste, says Yuyun Ismawati of the Nexus3 environmental foundation. Since the local recycling industry needs paper, they accept plastic as delivered.
Of the paper containers, 40 percent is mostly plastic and other waste, says Muhammad Kholid Basyaiban of the Ecoton environmental group. Importers dumped plastic waste into paper mills. “People are looking for secondary raw materials and sell them to plastic recycling companies. Sometimes they earn over € 30 a day, ”he says.
Plastic waste pollutes the environment
What is not recyclable is partially dried and used by factories for heating. This would release toxic substances including dioxins. In 2019, Nexus3 and Ecoton reported that pastured eggs near such factories were high in dioxin levels.
Material debris pollutes rivers or beaches. In early June in Geneva, more than 180 Basel contracting states will conclude whether the stricter export rules are being complied with.
Exports of plastic waste from Germany are declining. According to the Federal Association of German Waste Management, Water and Raw Materials (BDE), in 2021 it was 766,000 tonnes – more than the January estimate (697,000 tonnes), but still not much.
This is probably partly due to the crown pandemic, says BDE spokesman Bernhard Schodrowski. However, the trend has been going down slightly for several years. Indonesia hardly plays a role for German waste, most of it goes to the Netherlands and Turkey.
Plastic is a valuable resource for world trade
Plastic is a valuable raw material, says Schodrowski: “World trade lives off the international exchange of goods. This also applies to waste, because as a recycling material it is a commodity ”. The association believes that most of the exports are properly sorted and processed in the destination countries. “Of course, illegal waste shipments must be rigorously prosecuted,” says Schodrowski.
Ecologist Jim Puckett, executive director of Basel Action Network, says household plastic waste cannot be sorted as flawlessly as would be required for legal exports. It also does not consider plastic a valuable resource. On the one hand, the material consists of countless different polymers and environmentally harmful additives. On the other hand, plastic becomes so weak during recycling that it only survives one or two cycles, and new products always require a large amount of fresh plastic.
Only one thing helps: use less plastic. “It’s like a flood in the bathroom. You don’t get a rag to wipe it first, you turn off the faucet first, ”says Puckett. Until then, you have to take care of the dirt in your own country, Greenpeace Santen says: “Germany prides itself on having everything under technical control, so it should also be able to recycle the waste that accumulates here.”