From the UN in 2017 to the EU in 2018, we have become accustomed to organisations and countries declaring ‘war on plastic waste’. However, less considered is a ‘war over plastic waste’ – a prospect which has been building in recent years and now threatens to boil over, potentially stretching already tense global diplomacy to breaking point.

Unlike the war on plastic waste, this hypothetical is not entirely figurative. In April, Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte declared “Let’s fight Canada. We’ll declare war against them, we can handle them”. Threats of war are not uncommon from populist strongman Duterte, but the cause was certainly novel – 2500 tonnes of Canadian waste sitting at the Port of Manila, labelled as recyclable plastic.

On inspection, Philippine officials discovered that the waste was not capable of being recycled, through contamination (plastics which have not been cleaned or contain nonrecyclable ingredients) and because of the inclusion of household waste such as used nappies. Canadian officials have now finally agreed to take back the waste, after Duterte vowed to dump it inside their Manila embassy if the situation remained at a stalemate by 15th May.

Children work and play in Smokey Mountain in the Philippines, a slum built on a 50m high, 2million tonne mountain of waste. Photo credit: Sabrina Iovino

While this particular confrontation has grabbed headlines globally, governments and plastics/waste industries in richer nations around the world have been quietly scrambling to resolve similar, increasingly serious problems for a number of years. Until recently, the vast majority of plastic waste collected – 95% in the EU and 70% in the US – was shipped abroad for recycling, almost exclusively to China. Container ships laden with Chinese goods would return filled with waste, rather than empty, comprising a significant percentage of a global waste industry the UN estimates to be worth $410billion officially, not including a huge informal sector.

However, China has rapidly expanded its domestic recycling programmes and virgin materials production, while aiming to reduce widespread pollution. Public opposition to the mass import of waste – 8.1million tonnes of plastic alone in 2016 – has also mounted, and the poor quality of many ‘recyclable’ imports, due largely to the transition to ‘single stream recycling’ (where all recyclables are placed into a single household bin), has impacted on the financial viability of waste processors.

In response to these factors, China instituted the ‘National Sword’ policy in January 2018, stipulating that 24 types of solid waste must be verified as 99.5% pure to be considered for import, including various plastics. Similar plans had been mooted for several years, but industries and governments in waste exporting nations were convinced that such a policy (which constitutes an effective ban given the difficulty of controlling waste contamination) would never be enacted. Facing the displacement of 111million tonnes of plastic waste by 2030, exporters turned to nearby South East Asian countries instead.

By April 2018, UK plastic exports to Malaysia had tripled and exports to Thailand increased fifty-fold, a trend mirrored across North America and the EU. Waste management systems in these and other countries – already less sophisticated than those in China – simply could not process such vast quantities of waste, leading to large spikes in respiratory illness due to burning plastic, contaminated water supplies and crop death caused by waste dumping in waterways, and organised crime.

A dolphin caught in a plastic bag swims off the coast of Brazil. Photo credit: Jedimentat44/Flickr

Governments swiftly enacted their own waste import bans, with Malaysia and Thailand ending some imports from North America and Vietnam temporarily halting all imports after ports became overloaded. In May this year, India – touted as a potential ‘new China’ in waste disposal – became the latest nation to ban solid plastic waste imports, with the government warning that 40% of domestic plastic waste still remains uncollected.

Consequently, global plastic waste exports have dropped by over 50%, from 12.5million tonnes in 2016 to 5.8million tonnes in 2018. Waste processors who could sell sorted recyclable plastics for around $300/tonne at their peak are now having to pay for disposal, and all US states have been affected, with many cities stopping recycling altogether. Australia has resorted to burying up to 1.3million tonnes of recyclables, while incineration rates in the UK overtook recycling in 2018, totalling almost 11million tonnes of waste burnt.

That richer nations are failing to deal with their own waste may surprise citizens of these countries. After all, household recycling rates in England soared from 11.2% in 2000/01 to 43.7% in 2014/15, although they have since stagnated. Recent government awareness campaigns, and consumer pressure on plastic waste prompted by stirrings of public consciousness (such as the ‘Blue Planet effect’), have led to promising initiatives such as the plastic microbead ban.

Household waste recycling rate in England 2000-2018. Credit: Sam Peters/Jericho. Data source: DEFRA

Keen recyclers could be forgiven for thinking that they are ‘doing their bit’, and that developing nations are lagging behind on pollution – after all, 88-92% of all plastic entering the marine environment comes from ten rivers in Africa and Asia. However, with the UK and other rich nations largely lacking significant infrastructure to handle their own recycling, much of the waste choking the exotic beaches seen on famed BBC documentaries may in fact be our rubbish. Governments are keen to point out high recycling rates, but far less keen to ensure that exported waste is actually processed properly, or that destination countries are even capable of adequately recycling waste at all.

Those in developing nations will be less surprised. This hypocrisy is mirrored in the broader climate crisis – while the UK government recently claimed to have cut carbon emissions by 42.1% since 1990, this figure ignores the impact of aviation, shipping and ‘embedded emissions’ (greenhouse gas emissions associated with the production and delivery of a product or service). The UK’s embedded emissions have doubled since 1990, potentially cancelling out the 40+% drop in domestic emissions entirely, or at best cutting total emissions by less than 7%. Over a quarter of all global emissions are ‘externalised’ to developing nations in this way – essentially outsourcing both pollution and climate change.

Accounting tricks may enable rich nations to evade responsibility for plastic waste, but they do not minimise damage to the environment or biodiversity. Plastic is so long-lived and so ubiquitous that it has been suggested as a geological indicator of the ‘Anthropocene era’ – a permanent record in landfills and on ocean floors that marks the age of mass human impact on the planet.

Plastic debris can be found in all ocean basins and even in the Mariana Trench, the most remote environment on Earth. 12million tonnes are dumped in the oceans every year, degrading and moving up the foodchain – seafood eaters may already consume up to 11,000 pieces of plastic annually.

Plastic waste found nearly 11km deep in the Mariana Trench, the deepest point on Earth’s surface. Photo credit: Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology (JAMSTEC)

It is clear that richer nations cannot keep exporting their problems forever, and prompted by the Chinese waste import ban, governments have begrudgingly started to take real action. Backed by almost 1million citizens from around the world, representatives from over 180 countries met in Geneva last week to agree a landmark change to the Basel Convention, which covers the adverse effects of hazardous wastes on human health and the environment. Proposed by Norway, the amendment requires countries exporting plastic waste to notify and acquire consent from importing countries before shipping.

This change will mean that countries like Thailand, Malaysia and Vietnam, which are all in the top 10 for plastic waste entering the ocean, can better manage recycling of imported waste, and should also limit unscrupulous illegal dumping. The convention also reiterates the importance of reducing waste generation at source, ultimately the only way of preventing the permeation of plastic into the environment and ecosystems. Questions still remain as to how waste-exporting nations will deal with their newfound plastics problem.

The UK approach in recent years – incineration – may reduce the amount of previously exported plastic piling up in recycling centres nationwide, but it is no solution. Even state-of-the-art incinerators under perfect conditions still generate harmful dioxins and other pollutants, with huge impacts not only on health but also climate change. Burning recyclables is also a monumental waste of resources and the embedded energy used to create them, particularly as recycled plastics in UK could provide 71% of domestic demand.

A video taken by British diver Rich Horner in Bali shows the staggering impact of plastic pollution in nations less equipped to handle waste. Video credit: Rich Horner

Efforts to reduce plastic use, and particularly single-use plastics such as packaging (which makes up over a quarter of all use by volume) are welcome. Initiatives such as the EU Single-Use Plastic Directive, banning all single-use plastics by 2021, are a key component of Europe’s aim to ensure all packaging is recyclable by 2030.

However, the world’s dependency on plastic will not come to an end any time soon, and with rifts widening between developed and developing nations over climate change, the threat of global trade wars and financial inequality, it is unlikely that poorer nations will accept a return to the ‘solution’ of simply importing waste and pollution from richer nations again.

President Duterte’s threats of a ‘plastic war’ may not be taken seriously by even the most ardent of his supporters, but he has struck a chord with citizens of the so-called ‘Global South’ when he states “I cannot understand why they are making us a dump site…the world runs on arrogance”. It remains to be seen how quickly richer nations, newly devoid of this option, can adapt to deal with the wave of plastic waste they are rapidly creating for themselves.

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