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25 May, 2019 18:54

Buried in waste? Developed nations live in shadow of looming garbage crisis

Buried in waste? Developed nations live in shadow of looming garbage crisis

An ongoing spat between developing and developed nations over garbage imports has drawn attention to an issue that ‘advanced’ countries seemed to have put on the back burner – waste management.

A bitter feud between the Philippines and Canada over a shipment of garbage made world headlines when President Rodrigo Duterte threatened to dump the waste in the North American country’s territorial waters, but this situation is in fact only the tip of the iceberg, or the garbage pile.

Major producers of waste

The developed nations that are among the biggest garbage producers have turned out to be unable to safely process it. They also produce the biggest volume of plastic waste, which was recently added to the Basel convention as a hazardous substance in need of special treatment.

The US and Germany, in particular, topped the list of advanced nations which produced the most plastic waste back in 2010. America generated 38 million tons of plastic trash at that time, followed by Germany at 14.5 million and Brazil at 12 million tons, according to a study published in September 2018.

In terms of plastic waste generation per person, Germany and the US were again at the top, this time joined by Ireland. Some other developed nations also did not trail far behind but this fact apparently stayed unnoticed for many years – all because the advanced nations found a “perfect” solution to this issue: exporting their waste.

No more outsourcing

But when China – arguably the world’s biggest waste importer and producer – refused to take in any more garbage from other nations in 2017, the US and other developed countries soon found themselves “drowning” in their own waste. Washington rushed to blame Beijing while urging it to reconsider its “catastrophic” ban on foreign garbage imports.

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Japan’s survey of 102 local governments found that a quarter of them accumulated plastic waste since the Chinese ban came in force, in some cases overreaching sanitary norms. The authorities admitted that they simply could not find new destinations to outsource their plastic after domestic costs of processing waste shot up.

The situation got worse, at least for the developed world, when India – another major waste importer – followed China’s example and banned the import of solid plastic waste as well. This time, it was Australia that sounded the alarm by saying that its recycling industry is “greatly under threat” because of the closure of the Asian markets.

It also appears that, in the near future, developed nations might find themselves all alone against the enormous pile of garbage they are producing as Malaysia and Thailand have already announced a ban on plastic waste imports by 2021 and the Philippines could potentially also follow suit.

‘Critical situation’

Meanwhile, domestic waste treatment in the advanced nations seems to be much less ‘advanced’ than they would like it to be. In 2018 the UK plastics recycling industry was investigated for widespread abuse and fraud. According to the Environment Agency (EA), garbage that should have been recycled was in fact simply dumped somewhere and left to leak into rivers and oceans.

Also on rt.com UK’s plastics recycling industry accused of widespread fraud & pollution

Another report showed that Britain, which is struggling to meet a target of reprocessing more than half of its own garbage output by 2020, found a cheap alternative to exporting waste to China in dumping the trash in Poland. While some of the British waste was indeed properly recycled in the Central European state, large quantities of it were simply dumped in remote and fairly large makeshift landfills and burnt.

France, meanwhile, even faced a series of protests linked to its waste treatment. In May 2018, a group of local officials on the French island of Corsica blocked a road leading to a nearby dump where 78 percent of the island’s waste was dumped. Joseph Giovanni, a local community councilor, described the situation at the site as “critical.”

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In February 2019, the French authorities still decided to expand the landfill area to store an additional 220,000 tons of garbage in the next four years despite the vehement opposition of locals.

A Paris suburb of Meaux saw a similar development in 2017 when locals protested against the construction of a waste treatment facility nearby, which was expected to process the garbage collected across the entire Paris region.  In February 2019 the local prefecture authorized the construction despite more than two years of protests.

A 2018 report by France 24 also showed a dump located some 40 kilometers outside the French capital that covered an equivalent of seven football fields while the authorities do little to nothing to resolve this issue. The channel said that other French villages saw “mountains of trash piling up” nearby as well.

In the US, the recycling crisis is less visible yet looming. China’s waste import ban has already led to the virtual collapse of recycling programs in some US cities due to the rapidly rising costs.

These developments prompted US authorities to turn to garbage incineration or just to dump it at a nearby landfill. The growing trash incineration industry leads to the release of a higher amount of toxic smoke polluting the air and threatening communities living not far from the plants.

Also on rt.com ‘Clever trade move’: Residents in US city fear pollution spike after China bans waste imports

While America has no shortage of free space that can be used to store garbage, this approach clearly has its own drawbacks. It gets increasingly more expensive to ship waste hundreds of miles to those new landfills. Besides, the waste left to decompose can still pollute the soil and poison the groundwater aquifers.

As it increasingly looks like developed countries will be forced to rely mostly on themselves in their future waste treatment they are facing an uneasy task of either drastically limiting their waste production or finding an extremely efficient way to process their garbage unless they are comfortable with the prospect of being almost, literally, buried in trash.

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