Plastic Recycling Myth — Are Plastics Actually Recycled?
Updated: Oct 15, 2020
If you send your plastic wastes to the recycling centre, most often than not, they WON’T be recycled.
This is shocking info that I got when I attended the Zero Waste Festival Malaysia back in June. One of the speakers that they had was Heng Kiah Chun from Greenpeace. He relayed the “Recycling Myth” that Greenpeace had uncovered:
Only 9% of plastic waste is recycled worldwide!
And here I thought that at least a good half of it is being recycled. So what happens to the rest of the plastic waste?
12% are burnt, the rest are dumped.
I would understand if this was only the case in countries like Malaysia where there are barely any reliable recycling facilities let alone enforcement.
But this is a WORLDWIDE issue.
When I was living in the UK where household waste must be separated to ease the waste collection process, I genuinely thought the recyclables would all be recycled.
I thought that being a so-called “first world” country, they would have state-of-the-art facilities to recycle plastic waste.
But recently, I learnt that it actually takes up a lot of energy and a lot of money to do so.
For some reason, due to the economic or political system which I can’t even begin to fathom, there is a lack of energy and money.
And perhaps they are just overflowing with waste due to extravagant human consumption habits.
So what do high-income countries do when their facilities are swamped with waste and they can’t spare their precious money?
They export their waste to low- and middle-income countries.
HUNGRY FOR MONEY
When China banned most imports of plastic waste in January 2018, other Southeast Asian nations grabbed the opportunity.
The opportunity to generate more income.
While high-income nations could generate income by other means, low-income nations would scramble at just about anything.
And the import of waste is lucrative.
High-income nations are paying big bucks. Low-income nations are taking them.
When you’re desperate for money, it’s hard to say no despite the potential environmental and health consequences.
Malaysia took the lead by importing nearly half a million tonnes between January and July 2018.
The international trade system is supposed to regulate the selling, buying, importing and exporting of recyclable plastics wastes.
But the system is broken.
WHAT HAPPENS TO IMPORTED WASTE?
Remember these filthy keywords:
The plastic wastes that are imported are either burnt or dumped, often illegally.
Even though there are recycling centres or companies collecting recyclables, low-income nations simply do not have the technology or money to properly recycle the materials. Sure, some plastic waste might be recycled but most of the time, they are burnt or dumped on bare ground.
Burning and dumping is apparently easier to handle.
That’s how illegal operators get rid of the waste so that they could bring in more waste and cash in more money.
This impedes the efforts of legal operators, which I’m not sure whether their operations are practically similar anyway…
WHAT IS THE GOVERNMENT DOING?
When the Greenpeace report came out, there were protests from environmental groups and concerned citizens.
The government then took the step to impose a temporary import ban on plastic waste and is working on phasing out plastic waste import over the next 3 years.
This has recently turned into a permanent ban on plastic scraps, though this definition is still vague.
Despite the ban, unregulated burning or dumping of waste is still on-going.
I guess the government is trying to tackle this big issue and they could only tackle one thing at a time due to—you probably guessed it—limited resources.
But I really hope that despite the lucrative business of waste import, which may be contributing to the country’s income, the government would prioritise environmental and human health by:
regulating or monitoring the burning and dumping of waste
enforce new regulations for household waste separation
WHAT CAN WE DO AS MERE CITIZENS?
It seems like this issue is more of an international or governmental issue that we the people can’t really do much about.
But as the protests have shown, we the people do have the power to demand justice.
While making noise is an effective way to sway the politicians into doing something in the people’s favour and educating the public about this issue, it’s also important to take individual action as best as we can.
So the question now—
Is it better to just throw plastic waste together with the general waste where they’ll end up in landfills, or do we continue separating them?
Any sane person would say the latter.
While it’s good to separate waste for ease of waste management (as long as the government play their part as well), it still doesn’t solve the main issue:
Our plastic consumption habits.
We rely on plastic like we do oxygen these days. Just look around. Your phone probably has a plastic screen protector and/or casing. Your food containers are made of plastic. Both your junk and non-junk foods are most probably wrapped in plastic.
It’s easy to say that we should:
Reduce or refuse plastic items.
Reuse existing plastic bags or items.
Buy items in bulk or choose plastic-free options.
However, having lived in both Malaysia and the UK, I’d definitely say it’s much harder to do the above in Malaysia mainly due to the inaccessibility of plastic-free items in common supermarkets.
One can argue that you could go to the wet market instead, but for most people, it’s highly inconvenient.
I’ll explore this topic deeper in another blog post!