Save the oceans – stop recycling plastic

30th June 2018 | Recycling

The headline may sound surprising, but the sad fact is that the global “recycling” industry has significantly added to the marine plastic litter problem. I have put recycling in quotes, because only a small fraction of plastic recovered from consumers is actually recycled: the material collected is dirty and so mixed up that it is impossible to produce the high-quality raw material required by, for example, the food packaging industry. Most recovered plastic is simply burned or dumped: on land, in rivers, or directly in the oceans.

Unable to recycle waste in line with the targets imposed on them, rich countries have chosen to dump it – plastic, paper and cardboard – on poorer ones, especially China. Lower environmental standards in much of Asia have made it cheaper to manage waste there and low-quality recycled plastic can sometimes by profitably produced, albeit in highly pollute conditions.

Sea Pollution

In recent years, the stream of waste delivered to China expanded vastly. Annual imports reached 85 million tons, including 8 million of plastic. The quantity was so huge that inspection at ports became impossible, and the unscrupulous found that mixed or even hazardous waste could profitably be sent, disguised as “recycling”, to avoid landfill tax or high management costs in rich countries. Unable to handle this tsunami of refuse, the Chinese were forced to burn or dump vast quantities. An unknown amount found its way to the oceans.

The consequences for the environment and for public health of this “recycling” madness have therefore been horrendous, and have ultimately proved too much for the Chinese, who have now banned waste imports entirely. Recent figures suggest that recycling businesses in the UK have responded by shipping waste to Asian countries with even weaker environmental standards. So yet more waste will end up in the oceans.

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