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EU-Asia cooperation on plastics

By Ariane Combal-Weiss

3 April 2018

Both the EU and Asia are facing a massive problem of how to tackle plastic pollution. Plastics are a part of our daily lives and have brought about a revolution in sanitation and food sectors. But their carbon footprint is a disaster for our environment, including the oceans.

China bans waste imports

In July 2017, China notified the WTO that it would ban imports of 24 categories of waste from January 2018, including plastics and mixed papers and totally phase out waste imports by 2019. This puts an end to China’s massive plastic waste imports, as it was the world’s main importer of plastic waste for decades.[1] The waste was recycled, sent to landfills or dumped in rivers or at sea, thus contributing to marine litter. The ban is part of Beijing’s campaign against harmful ‘foreign waste’ launched in the wake of scandals and illegal smuggling in the waste market and concerns over public health. China has recently further tightened restrictions of waste packaging, generated by rising online retail and takeaway foods.[2]

The ban challenged the global waste supply chain and put many stakeholders in a quandary, given their high dependence on China for their waste management. For instance, the EU exported three million tons of plastics every year to China. Since alternative export markets are not available today, it should therefore prompt the EU to re-think its plastic waste consumption, generation and management.[3]

As for Asia, the ban leaves Southeast Asian countries in a dilemma. On the one hand, it is likely that their recycling industries will jump at the chance to replace China as an outlet for exports of plastic waste.[4] Yet if Southeast Asia were to become a major player in importing plastic waste, the marine pollution could be exacerbated if there is no significant upgrade of the waste management infrastructure.[5] Therefore the other option would be to tackle the plastic waste problem at its root, i.e. develop sound recycling schemes and raise awareness among citizens. Could the China ban prompt the other stakeholders to rethink plastic waste management, or just replace China as the world’s dump?

Asia bogged down in plastics 

Economic development and urbanisation in Asia means that the continent is home to the world’s worst plastic offenders, including at production, consumption, generation and collection stages. More than half of the plastic that pollutes oceans originates from eight Asian countries, i.e. Bangladesh, China, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Vietnam, Sri Lanka and Thailand. Plastic bags often end up in waterways and oceans, raising concerns over their high-toxicity.

 

In Indonesia, more than a million plastic containers per minute are consumed, half of which are single-use items. This plastic litter often ends up in oceans – 3.2 million tons of plastic every year, having serious environmental and economic impacts on tourism, fisheries and shipping. [6] The hazardous chemicals in the composition of plastic waste severely damages coral reefs in the Pacific Ocean. It also deteriorates the water quality, which makes it a serious public health concern. 

waste collection ratesThe current state of play of the waste management infrastructure in Asia cannot keep up with the increased demand and generation of safe and disposable products.[7] Adequate solid waste collection and waste recycling strategies are lacking. Only 40% of plastic waste is collected in China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam.[8]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

disposal methodsEven when it is collected, the lack of sectorial regulations to separate recyclables from waste significantly reduces efficient waste recycling. 10% of waste disappears between the collection point and final disposal. Transporters are often incentivised to abandon waste before reaching their final destination.[9] Since open dumping is the prevailing disposal method in Asia, collected plastics are dumped in informal dumpsites, which are often located beside rivers, or even in waterways.[10] Plastic releases from Asian rivers contribute to 86% of the global marine litter– the top 20 polluting rivers are mainly located in Asia with the Yangtse Kiang in China the worst.[11] Furthermore, plastic litter in oceans is often mistaken for food by fishes, which we then eat. In a word, plastic has entered the food chain.

 Asian countries have taken various measures to tackle the plastic waste plague, as resource efficiency requires a multi-layered approach. Within the ‘3Rs’ hierarchy (Reduce, Reuse, Recycle), reusing is already widespread, with the plastic waste pickers and scavengers being traditional players in the waste management landscape. Bans on the use of plastic bags and other disposable products have been introduced, including in Australia, Bangladesh, Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Singapore and Taiwan. Governments also opted for involving the industry to use and produce biodegradable materials, such as in Singapore[12] or Indonesia.[13]

Examples of success stories include the cooperation between the Pollution Control Department of the Thai Ministry of Environment and five manufacturers. Since plastic drinking bottles are extremely harmful when released in the oceans, they decided to join hands to remove the clear plastic wrap around the cap of plastic bottles and redesign the cap to ensure hygiene. This small step could significantly reduce plastic waste.[14] Technology can also play its part, as revealed by the technology supported by China’s Ministry of Science and Technology, which monitors marine micro-plastic pollution.[15] Shifting towards a circular economy and sustainable waste management and recycling remain a priority under the 13th Five-Year Plan (2016-2020). Under the Blue Bay environment improvement programme, China aims to carry out pollution governance in several bays, such as Hangzhou, Liaodong, Bohai and Xiamen.[16]

But major challenges remain. China’s recycling sector after the introduction of the ban will have to deal with lower-quality and unsorted domestic waste.[17] In addition, reducing plastic consumption must take into account sanitary constraints and food conservation; it will require finding sustainable alternatives to wrap food. Waste management infrastructure is often not developed enough to sustain campaigns such as the Indonesian Clean Seas Campaign launched last year.[18] While the bans on single-use plastic bottles have proven successful, all-encompassing bans are sometimes difficult to enforce and can therefore lose credibility. In addition, the lack of awareness among the general public about the plastics’ carbon footprint adds to the lack of legislation.

A wake-up call for the EU?

On 16 January 2018, the EU released its Plastics Strategy ‘A European Strategy for Plastics in a Circular Economy’ to lay the foundation for a circular economy where plastic would not only be a feedstock but a product in itself. The EU’s headline goal is to make all plastic packaging produced in the EU reusable or recyclable by 2030 and all plastic waste generated in the EU recycled by 2030. The EU considers the whole life cycle of plastics. It identifies plastic litter in oceans – amounting to 500,000 tons released by the EU every year - as a major ground for concern. The EU places emphasis on the ‘3Rs’ strategy, thus combining prevention and mitigation measures.

While it was not the sole push factor for the adoption of the Strategy, the China ban was seen as an opportunity for EU recyclers to expand their activities and for the EU to boost innovation, competitiveness and jobs. It proposes scaling up innovation to develop more sustainable and high-quality plastic. It also plans to establish a market for recycled and innovative plastics, launching awareness-raising measures and improving separate collection and sorting as well as increasing the demand for recycled plastics. These would be the four key principles in the fight against marine litter. Policy dialogues on environment and industry with third countries and dialogues under FTAs will be used as vehicles to that end.

 

Stepping up EU-Asia cooperation on plastic litter

Since OECD countries and East Asia and the Pacific region are responsible for 65% of the world’s waste generation[19], there are avenues of opportunities for the EU and Asia to address together the plastic waste management issue. Given the robust waste management and collection system in Europe, the EU could share its expertise with Asia on upgrading sanitary landfilling infrastructures and dumpsites to reduce plastic leakage.[20] Asia as a champion of upcycling[21] could also share its good practices.[22] They could also engage with business to urge them to use recycled plastics. The EU and Asia could step up research cooperation to develop more eco-friendly raw materials and upgrade the plastic recyclability to find alternatives to single-use plastic bottles. Improving statistics on waste in Asia would be a useful first step towards a sustainable management of plastic waste.[23] Last but not least, scaling up awareness programmes should be high in the cooperation agenda on plastic waste management. In this regard, the EU-funded project to reduce plastic waste and marine litter in East and Southeast Asia that will be launched this year will be a litmus test.

In short, EU-Asia cooperation in tackling the scourge of plastic pollution has a large agenda ahead, an agenda that is vital for the future of the planet.

 



[1] 70% of the global plastic waste was shipped to China in 2015 and China imported 7.3 million tonnes of waste in 2016. In: Feng Hao, “Waste ban forces unlicensed recyclers to clean up act”, China Dialogue, 13/03/2018. URL: https://www.chinadialogue.net/article/show/single/en/10438-Waste-ban-forces-unlicensed-recyclers-to-clean-up-act?mc_cid=e08503abda&mc_eid=5ef2ebe550

[2] Liu Qin, “China promises restrictions on plastic waste”, China Dialogue, 21/02/2018. URL: https://www.chinadialogue.net/article/show/single/en/10412-China-promises-restrictions-on-plastic-waste

[3] Kimiko de Freytas-Tamura, “Plastics Pile Up as China Refuses to Take the West’s Recycling”, The New York Times, 11/03/2018. URL: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/11/world/china-recyclables-ban.html  

[4] “South-east Asian plastic recyclers hope to clean up after China ban”, The Straits Times, 16/01/2018. URL: http://www.straitstimes.com/asia/se-asia/south-east-asian-plastic-recyclers-hope-to-clean-up-after-china-ban 

[5] Cody Boteler, “Closed Loop Partners expand Southeast Asia ocean plastics initiative”, Waste Dive, 06/03/2018. URL: https://www.wastedive.com/news/closed-loop-partners-southeast-asia-ocean-plastics-initiative/518489/

[6] Resty Woro Yuniar, “Journey to the Waste: Has the West learned its Lesson from China’s Plastic Ban ?”, South China Morning Post, 12/02/2018. URL: http://www.scmp.com/week-asia/politics/article/2132771/journey-waste-has-west-learned-its-lesson-chinas-plastic-ban

[7] Source : PlasticsEurope Market Research Group.

[8] Martin Stuchtey, Steven Swartz, “Four ways Asia can cut the amount of plastic waste it dumps in the ocean”, The Guardian, 19/10/2015. URL: https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2015/oct/19/cut-plastic-waste-oceans-south-east-asia-fish-birds

[9] Martin Stuchtey, Steven Swartz, “Four ways Asia can cut the amount of plastic waste it dumps in the ocean”, The Guardian, 19/10/2015. URL: https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2015/oct/19/cut-plastic-waste-oceans-south-east-asia-fish-birds

[10] Pia Ranada, “5 ways China, ASEAN countries can stop plastic pollution – study”, Rappler, 08/10/2015. URL: https://www.rappler.com/science-nature/environment/108552-5-ways-china-asean-stop-plastic-pollution

[11] Laurent C.M. Lebreton, Joost van der Zwet, Jan-Willem Damsteeg , Boyan Slat, Anthony Andrady & Julia Reisser, “River plastic emissions to the world’s oceans”, Nature Communications, 07/06/2017. URL: https://www.nature.com/articles/ncomms15611

[12] Under the 2007 voluntary Singapore Packaging Agreement, companies signatories commit to reduce their packaging waste over a period of 5 years and use more recycled materials… since the launch of the agreement, 10 000 tonnes of packaging have been cut down by the parties companies, saved €22 million.

[13] Martin Stuchtey, Steven Swartz, “Four ways Asia can cut the amount of plastic waste it dumps in the ocean”, The Guardian, 19/10/2015. URL: https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2015/oct/19/cut-plastic-waste-oceans-south-east-asia-fish-birds

[14] Telephone Interview with Chindarat Taylor, Resource Efficiency Pathway and Vice President of Solid Waste Management Association of Thailand, 16/03/2018.

[15]Liu Qin, “China promises restrictions on plastic waste”, China Dialogue, 21/02/2018. URL: https://www.chinadialogue.net/article/show/single/en/10412-China-promises-restrictions-on-plastic-waste

[16] Scientific and Technological Innovation Promotes Marine Sustainable Development, State Oceanic Administration.

[17] Feng Hao, “Waste ban forces unlicensed recyclers to clean up act”, China Dialogue, 13/03/2018. URL: https://www.chinadialogue.net/article/show/single/en/10438-Waste-ban-forces-unlicensed-recyclers-to-clean-up-act?mc_cid=e08503abda&mc_eid=5ef2ebe550

[18]Johnny Langenheim, “Indonesia pledges $1bn a year to curb ocean waste”, The Guardian, 02/03/2018. URL: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/the-coral-triangle/2017/mar/02/indonesia-pledges-us1-billion-a-year-to-curb-ocean-waste

[19] Hoornweg, Daniel; Bhada-Tata, Perinaz. 2012. “What a Waste: A Global Review of Solid Waste Management”, Urban development series;knowledge papers no. 15. World Bank, Washington, DC. © World Bank. https://openknowledge.worldbank.org/handle/10986/17388 License: CC BY 3.0 IGO.

[20] Telephone Interview with Chindarat Taylor, Resource Efficiency Pathway and Vice President of Solid Waste Management Association of Thailand, 16/03/2018.

[21] Upcycling, dubbed “creative using” consists in transforming by-products and waste materials into products of better quality. The benefits lies in the extension lifetime of used products, components and materials, increase material efficiency, adds value and reduces environmental footprints.

[22] Telephone Interview with Chindarat Taylor, Resource Efficiency Pathway and Vice President of Solid Waste Management Association of Thailand, 16/03/2018.

[23] Telephone Interview with Chindarat Taylor, Resource Efficiency Pathway and Vice President of Solid Waste Management Association of Thailand, 16/03/2018.