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How to end Asia's plastic waste war

Trade bans in Southeast Asia risk shifting problem to South Asia and Africa

| Malaysia
Malaysia has banned import of plastic scrap but the ruling has been poorly enforced and monitored.   © Reuters

The conflict currently raging in the world's recycling system wins far less attention than its trade war equivalent. But this battle over global plastics is an equally good illustration of the tensions bubbling up between emerging economies and the rich world, and the wider trend toward deglobalization they bring.

In 2018 China banned the import of many kinds of plastic waste, voluntarily giving up its position as the world's recycling giant. The plastic trade quickly moved elsewhere, mostly flooding into Southeast Asia. Countries with existing recycling sectors like Thailand and Malaysia were suddenly deluged with containers full of junk.

A fierce political backlash ensued. Local recycling businesses often import bundles of waste, processing what they can before dumping or burning the rest, creating myriad environmental problems. Indonesia in mid-July became the latest nation to return waste shipments, sending 210 tons back to Australia.

Other leaders have taken similar steps, most memorably President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines. In May he returned dozens of contaminated containers to Canada, having first threatened to dump the material in front of the Canadian embassy in Manila.

All this plays into growing public concerns about a worldwide plastics crisis, fueled by runaway use and rising pollution. Global plastic production is indeed rising and appears set to keep doing so. The world churned out around 300 million tons of plastic waste in 2015, a figure academic estimates suggest has roughly doubled in the last two decades. Environmental groups fear it could double again by 2030, clogging up oceans and toxic landfills alike.

These fears about plastics often lead to muddled thinking. Single-use plastics have become a particular boogeyman, with bans of plastic bags and straws now common. But such measures often prove environmentally dubious, for instance in exchanging plastic bags for cotton, which require more energy and water to produce.

At the very least, the current plastics row may have helped to drive home the fact that responsible consumers popping cans and cartons into recycling bins in Germany or Japan might still be creating hazards halfway round the world.

The row has also attracted attention because it fits neatly into a narrative of rich world heartlessness. In 1991, Lawrence Summers wrote a notorious memo in his role as World Bank chief economist, suggesting that toxic waste should be shipped to Third World countries, where it could be reprocessed more cheaply and efficiently. Summers later claimed he meant the idea as a joke, but the ensuing controversy tapped into a sense that wealthier countries are politically immoral and environmentally feckless -- feelings that underlie the public anger now coursing through much of Southeast Asia.

To be fair, in this case those feelings are at least partly accurate. Governments in countries including Canada and Australia have traditionally taken little care over the waste they send abroad. Recycled materials are traded via complex chains of middlemen, and often mislabeled and poorly regulated. Southeast Asian governments say they have little control over what they receive. Rather than clean recyclable material, Indonesia said the shipments it sent back to Australia in mid-July were actually filled with electronic waste and other toxic kinds of junk.

The container ship arrives at a port in Vancouver carrying 69 containers of mostly plastic waste returned by Philippine authorities.   © Reuters

These clashes over plastics might soon get worse. Other countries want to join China in banning imports, including Thailand and Vietnam, both of whom plan to phase the trade out. Even those who do not go for outright prohibition are likely to reduce their intake. New global rules on plastics were recently agreed under the United Nation's Basel Convention, a treaty governing the world's waste system ratified by close to 200 countries, although not the United States. Coming into force in 2021, these will give recipient nations more control over the waste they receive.

Environmental campaigners back further import bans in the hope of forcing governments in richer countries to act and pushing companies in plastic-heavy sectors like food and consumer goods to find alternatives. Such shock treatment might be needed, but it is far from clear that more bans alone, and with them a further deglobalization of the world's recycling system, would in fact be the best outcome.

Environmentalists often back an entirely circular system, in which waste products are processed and re-used close to home, rather than being shipped abroad. Much as with patterns of international manufacturing, some degree of "re-shoring" of waste recycling back to its country of origin is likely is part of the answer. Stringent recycling schemes must also become more common, such as the measures introduced in July in Shanghai, which threaten fines and public shaming for non-compliance. To work, however, such measures must be balanced by investment in domestic recycling facilities.

But new circular systems in which all waste produced by rich countries stays within their borders are likely to be impractical, at least in the short term. Instead, wealthier polluting nations would be wise to help emerging world recyclers to clean up their trade, both by being more careful about what they send and by sharing recycling technologies.

Politics aside, the route to fixing many of these problems involves straightforward administrative and managerial actions. Controls over recycling industries in Southeast Asia are often lax. Malaysia has already banned the import of plastic scrap, but the ruling appears to have been poorly enforced and monitored. With better regulation, improved management and more modern technology, there is no reason why the waste plastics trade should not continue to operate. Crucially, though, if richer countries do indeed want to save the present global recycling system, they must help those doing the dirty work abroad, before the backlash grows stronger.

Southeast Asia also needs to invest in its waste and recycling facilities anyway for domestic reasons, given that most of the world's plastics are produced in the region, and an increasing proportion consumed here as well. Were it to close its doors to plastic recycling entirely, there is also a risk that much of the world's poorly-regulated junk would simply shift elsewhere, potentially to countries in South Asia or Africa.

If no action is taken, the row over plastics will not only poison relations between richer and poorer nations but also exacerbate future global environmental disputes, especially as the problems caused by climate change begin to bite. Excessive plastic use is a global problem. It needs to be solved globally too.

James Crabtree is an associate professor in practice at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore. He is author of "The Billionaire Raj."

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