The world’s ‘pollution sinks’ have had enough

The world’s ‘pollution sinks’ have had enough

By Luke Vargas   
Flickr photo: Brandon
Flickr photo: Brandon

Indonesia is joining China and the Phillipines in restricting imports of contaminated waste – bad news for countries used to sending trash abroad.

NEW YORK – Indonesia announced this week it’s sending five containers of contaminated waste back to North America, after 100 tons of what was supposed to be Canadian scrap paper actually contained plastic, cooking waste and diapers.

It turns out the politics of trash is about as messy as the trash itself.

Last year, China launched a policy called National Sword that limited imports of scrap material like paper, metal and plastic.

Those materials helped power Chinese economic growth, and many developed countries paid to ship their waste abroad instead of building recycling facilities or clogging up landfills.

No more. The National Sword policy basically banned the import of plastic and other scrap to China by setting minimum purity levels of 99.5 percent.

That’s bad news for the U.S.. which does a really bad job keeping recycling clean.

Joshua Reno is an associate professor of anthropology at Binghamton University and the author of “Waste Away: Working and Living with a North American Landfill.”

“This has been ongoing for decades now and has been sort of the shadow or the underside of the global economy.”

In the 1990’s, 27 African countries announced they’d no longer be a dumping ground for the world’s hazardous waste. That move sent even more trash to China.

“China is doing what African countries did previously, where they are recognizing how valuable they are in the pollution economy globally and then asserting their power, if you like, and good for them.”

As the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia follow suit, Reno says U.S. trash budgets will swell as landfills raise prices.

Where does that leave us? With even Japan’s famous seven-stream recycling system struggling to meet minimum contamination levels, limiting waste production may be the only answer.

“What I think this exposes, whether you’re Japanese, European or American, is the problem with plastic.”

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