Why Is Australia Sending Its Plastic Waste Overseas?

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Plastic pollution has become a global concern worldwide.

Research shows Australians used 3.5 million tonnes of plastic in 2016-17, with about 180,100 tonnes reprocessed in Australia.

To address this issue, Australia and other countries started to ship their plastic waste overseas to nations willing to recycle it.

In the beginning, 235,100 tonnes of waste from Australia was sent overseas.

Unfortunately, many receiving countries have complained about receiving contaminated and non-recyclable waste illegally shipped from Australia.

In this article, I will highlight the key issues that sending waste from wealthy nations to other countries brings to local communities, the history of shipping plastic waste to China and discuss our growing dependency on plastic.

The History Of Shipping Plastic-Waste Overseas

Single-use plastic consumption is a global problem. It is convenient, cheap and everywhere. Eventually, there became a serious issue. Recycling facilities and systems lacked the ability to keep up with demand and consumers continue to purchase more plastic than ever before.

The emerging markets in China during the 1990s came as a solution to this issue since they found plastic materials could be used profitably to manufacture goods for sale or export. China began managing the excess plastic waste from outside countries.

Since 1988, high-income countries have been the primary exporters of plastic waste, contributing to 87% of all exports. For decades, China was the centre of the global plastic waste trade.

The Chinese managed to feed their manufacturing industry with recycled materials made out of plastic waste and ship manufactured goods back to the United States and Europe; this went on and on for years.

China reached 51% of the world’s recyclable waste imports by 2016, mostly from developed countries.

China’s Ban For All Waste Streams

In January 2018, China enforced a new policy to protect its nation from foreign pollution.

This policy banned the import of 24 different kinds of waste, including various plastics, and enforced quality standards that exporting countries found impossible to comply with.

This caused China’s imports to drop 99.1% from 2017 to 2018 and global plastic waste exports to drop close to 50%.

Where Does Australia’s Plastic Waste Go Now?

After China’s ban came into effect, other Southeast countries as Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia started to take in more imported waste than ever. Thailand increased their imports by 1000 per cent!

By November of 2018, Malaysia was the world’s top importer of plastic scrap, receiving 15.7% of all plastic waste worldwide.

In 2018, Australia exported a total of 127.000 tonnes of plastic waste.

The majority was shipped to Malaysia (35%), with Indonesia (22%) and Thailand (18%) also receiving considerable amounts. In most cases, the nations were unprepared, which lead to the same environmental and social issues that China had to deal with until 2017.

The contaminated streams (with garbage, toxic substances, and non-recycling materials) lead to burning these materials and discarding them into dumps, rivers, and oceans.

These countries are also shipping back contaminated waste to the high-income countries they initially received it from.

“Eight Australian containers that were supposed to have only paper in them but also contained mixed plastics have been impounded at the city's port. Indonesian customs officials said the containers of paper from Australia were contaminated by electronic waste, used cans, plastic bottles, old bottles of engine oil and loose shoes. Some of this was deemed “B3”, an abbreviation of “bahan berbahaya dan beracun”, which refers to toxic and hazardous material”. The Guardian 2019

“The impact on Indonesia was significant, with East Java receiving 250% more waste from Australia in 2018, than it did in 2014. Whilst the waste was ostensibly sent for recycling, Ecoton Group told the ABC last year, that much of the waste is either burnt or dumped into the Brantas River, thereby harming the local environment. The Brantas River supplies tap water for 5 Million Indonesians”. AIYA, 2020

Malaysia has also pushed back against Australia after receiving contaminated waste in plastic recycling shipping containers. In 2019, The Malaysian government announced it had to send back up to 100 tonnes of Australian plastic waste because it was too contaminated to recycle.

The Malaysian environment minister, Yeo Bee Yin says “It is unethical for Australia to send its non-recyclable, residual waste to be burnt in cement kilns in other countries, effectively escaping Australian regulatory responsibility". The Guardian, 2019

Currently, Australia ships excess waste to Southeast Asian countries including Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam.

What’s Wrong With Shipping Plastic Waste Abroad?

Although we may think it is a good thing for low-income countries to offer an additional source of income for Southeast Asian nations; plastic waste treatment is not an industry we should be enhancing or supporting.

Key Issues:

- Due to inadequate controls and available technologies, waste streams are causing massive environmental and health problems to Southeast Asian countries.

- The amount of non-recyclable and polluted waste that ends up being burned and landfilled in these areas is causing crop death, respiratory illness and water supply contamination.

- These practices generate the rise of corruption and organised crime towards this industry due to the high potential and the high levels of poverty in the Southeast region.

- The number of illegal businesses is increasing, and the majority of waste ends up in landfills or burning facilities rather than being recycled.

- Exporting plastic pollution enables the current industry model to encourage even more plastic consumption for developed countries.

- The fact that certain countries seem to make their waste “disappear” leads to a total lack of concern for the consequences of its actual disposal or treatment.

- Sending Australia's waste to regions with minimal infrastructure in place to cope with their own environmental issues is placing a burden on an already broken system.

Final Thoughts

Rather than improving their own recycling infrastructures, and updating policies, Australia continues to rely on other countries to fix the problem.

We need to transform our productive models and shift to an economy that no longer requires single-use plastics. The promotion of recycling from large corporations is filled with controversy given that less than 10% of the plastic they produce is recycled.

The Australian Government has announced a plan to stop sending its waste and plastic overseas and start increasing recycling capabilities in its own country. Leaders hope this can be done by transforming plastic and other waste into high-value recycled commodities.

There is a lot of opportunities to create a better system, boost education on the lifespan of single-use plastic and encourage less recycling and more zero-waste options for consumers.

About The Writer:

Belén Silva is a Chemical engineer from Argentina. She started her freelance writing and environmental consulting career after working for many years in the automotive industry as an environmental engineer. She has a personal project of environmental communications that includes a blog, an Instagram account and a Youtube channel. You can read more from her on her website Idonella

Edited by:

Cherie Julie, Founder of Travel For Change

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