Wed, Jul 17, 2019 - Page 9 News List

Tackling the world’s growing trash problem

Technological innovations and a change in social behavior can help reduce or even eliminate waste

By Ann Koh and Anuradha Raghu  /  Bloomberg

Illustration: Mountain People

The stench of curdled milk wafted from a shipping container of waste at Malaysia’s Port Klang as Minister of Energy, Science, Technology, Environment and Climate Change Yeo Bee Yin (楊美盈) told a group of journalists in May she would send the maggot-infested rubbish back where it came from.

Yeo was voicing a concern that has spread across Southeast Asia, fueling a media storm over the dumping of rich countries’ unwanted waste. About 5.8 million tonnes of trash was exported between January and November last year, led by shipments from the US, Japan and Germany, according to Greenpeace.

Now governments across Asia are saying no to the imports, which for decades fed mills that recycled waste plastic. As more and more waste came, the importing countries faced a mounting problem of how to deal with tainted garbage that could not be easily recycled.

“Typically, 70 percent of a shipment can be processed and the other 30 percent is contaminated with food,” said Thomas Wong, manager of Impetus Conceptus Pte, a Singaporean company that shreds locally produced plastic waste before sending it to recycling mills in Malaysia and Vietnam.

Contaminated trash is sent to incinerators and landfills for a fee, but some recyclers “just find a corner and burn it,” Wong said. “The smoke smells just like palm oil, so they hide in a plantation and light up at night.”

Greenpeace investigations in Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand revealed illegal recycling, open burning, water contamination and a rise in illnesses tied to pollution, the organization said in an April 23 report.

When China banned imports in January last year, it started a domino effect. Shipments were diverted to Southeast Asia, which soon became overwhelmed, forcing governments to take action.

Malaysia announced a ban in October. Thailand stopped issuing import licenses last year and is likely to impose a ban next year, said Yash Lohia, an executive director at Indorama Ventures Pcl, a Bangkok-based plastics producer and recycler.

The Philippines said it is sending 69 containers of garbage back to Canada. Indonesia said it would tighten waste-import rules after discovering shipments containing toxic waste. India and Vietnam have also announced restrictions.

Yeo said garbage is still getting into the country in falsely declared cargoes, but the government hopes to stop the trade completely by the end of this year.

As Southeast Asia stops accepting the material, companies will look somewhere else, Wong said.

“I think Africa will be next,” he said.

However, social media have ensured public awareness of the problem in both developing countries and the wealthy nations that export the trash. That will make it increasingly difficult to export unwanted refuse.

“Everyone can voice their opinion on waste,” Lohia said. “That’s when countries start taking this more seriously.”

The long-term message for nations is clear: Deal with your own garbage. But how to do that?

Humans generated 2.01 billion tonnes of solid waste in 2016 and by 2050, that could rise to 3.4 billion tonnes, according to the World Bank. About 12 percent of all municipal waste in 2016 was plastic — 242 million tonnes of it.

The solution could lie in new technologies and a change in social behavior that reduces and even eliminates the need for landfills and incinerators.

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