By Rajendra Shende
When he heard that India would be the host country for 2018 World Environment Day, to promote a theme of ‘Beat Plastic Pollution,’ one Chinese journalist in Beijing retorted, “And what about the ghost countries in the developed world who are yet to regulate the single-use plastics?”
Statistics and infographics on the global quantity of plastic waste generation induces reflection. But the Chinese journalist, encountered during a recent trip to China, interestingly blurted out statistics of another kind, about the countries that do not yet have taxes, incentives or laws regulating or banning plastic bags and single-use throw away plastics like straws. What’s more, these countries are mainly from the developed world.
“More countries in the African continent have banned plastic bags than in any other continent. While India and China have been in the forefront in banning plastic bags and single use plastics almost totally, except for few industrialised countries like France and Italy, no other country in the developed world has a total ban in place,” he said. “These developed countries that invented plastics, commercialised them globally, amassed huge profits, kept exporting the plastic waste to China till recently. China became the ‘global backyard’ where 60 % of the world’s traded waste-plastic was recycled. Industrialised countries kept producing single-use throw away plastic with great comfort and complacency,” he added.
In July 2017, China wrote to WTO declaring an import ban on 24 types of waste including five types of plastic waste. The ‘urgent’ implementation would start from January 1, 2018, considering the damage it does to Chinese environment and people, it stated to WTO.
“That was the day when China virtually hosted World Environment Day with an effective theme of a ban on yang laji (foreign garbage),” said a professor in Beijing University. “The most loathed word on Chinese streets today is yang laji, and these words have been more effective in beating the plastic pollution in China than any United Nations brand ambassadors,” he added with sarcasm.
Not only news about the ban, but even the plastic garbage started piling up on the streets of cities like London in early 2018. News agencies in the developed countries described the Chinese ban with headlines such as earthquake, wake-up call, trade-war, lessons, and an opportunity to change lifestyles. The USA, where there is no national ban on single-use plastics, except in some states like California, warned China to ‘reconsider the decision’. China reacted by expanding import bans on an additional 32 waste items. China is obviously ready to give up the nearly USD 20 billion market of reprocessing of plastic waste.
There are now hectic efforts to divert the plastic garbage to other ASEAN countries like Indonesia and Vietnam, and even India.
Earlier, in 2016, India allowed SEZs (Special Economic Zones) to import plastic waste for recycling. India is the ninth largest importer of plastic waste after the front runner China. Indian imports come from more than 50 nations, according to the Ministry of Commerce and Industry. The categories of plastic waste that are banned by China are included in imports to India.
The plastic waste processing industry in India is predominantly in SMEs and the informal sector. Though data on the capacity of processing of such waste is not available, if India decides to take advantage of the ban in China, it could certainly benefit in terms of enhancing employment and the billions of dollars of waste-recycling business.
There is caveat, though. India would need a strategic approach from the lessons learnt from the China story to face the public, who are getting more aware about dangerous consequences of pollution caused by industries. The waste processing industry needs strict control and monitoring.
The real problem with China’s waste import was lack of control on dangerous import of plastic wastes that affected the Chinese people and environment. There was more emphasis on profits and scale of economies in handling waste. Further, countries that imported Chinese plastic-products criticised China for exporting reprocessed plastics containing hazardous and toxic material. China retorted by banning the imports which, it says, contain hazardous materials.
India therefore needs, if it decides to step in, herculean efforts to position itself as a leader in regulating, reusing, recycling its own plastic waste and also managing the challenge of reprocessing imported plastic waste.
Strict global environmental rules need to be set so that each exporting country must set stringent bans on single-use plastics and ensure that it exports only non-hazardous plastic as per the United Nations Basel Convention. These will have to be the key pre-conditions for accepting exported plastic waste.
It is important to rigorously ensure that, at any cost, plastic waste and its reprocessing does not affect the health of people and the environment and ecosystems. That would require international agreements and punitive measures for the exporting countries that fault on this key requirement. Crucially, the exporting countries should be ready to take back reprocessed plastic at mutually agreed costs.
In short, India should be recognised as ‘global frontal courtyard’ and not as ‘ global garbage backyard’. Abandoned or new offshore platforms could be potentially effective sites for plastic-reprocessing. Such measures are easier said than done. However, the 2016 amendment of the ‘Plastic Waste (Management and Handling) Rules in India shows a forward looking strategy.
The rules stress “giving thrust on waste minimization, segregation of waste at source by generators, gainful utilization of waste through recycling and recovery”. There is also a thrust on the Producers Extended Liability (PEL) to be an integral part of the plastic reprocessing.
India and China have unprecedented opportunity to make a global impact. Lessons learned by China over two decades as a global leader in recycling plastic waste could be leveraged to make mid-way corrections in the global waste trade. There is opportunity to promote sustainable production and consumption globally, to contribute to attaining SDGs and to create wealth from waste and cash from trash.
(The author is Chairman TERRE Policy Centre, Pune and former Director UNEP was recently in China. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)