China’s trash ban lifts lid on global recycling woes but also offers opportunity
China’s decision to ban imports of foreign waste, including some plastics, has reverberated around the world, with recycling operations in other countries struggling to deal with the new reality. But is this an opportunity wrapped in a crisis?
Some experts argue that developed nations will, at last, have to face up to the true cost of their plastic addiction instead of shipping the problem to China, which has taken nearly half the world’s waste since 1992.
This could spur much-needed investment in domestic recycling facilities as well as innovation in plastic manufacturing to make products more suited to repurposing. It could also invigorate the vociferous public campaign to change our throwaway culture.
Last year, China decided to ban imports of 24 categories of solid waste, including certain types of plastics, paper and textiles, citing environmental and health concerns. Essentially, it is seeking to upgrade its economy and deal more effectively with its own growing mounds of trash. The material it was importing added 10-13 per cent to its overall waste levels.
Another problem was the poor quality of waste imports, which made them more difficult to recycle and consequently hit profits for the Chinese companies involved.
The ban came into force in January and the effects are now being tallied.
In a new study, published in June in Science Advances, scientists from the University of Georgia (UGA) found that 111 million metric tons of plastic waste will be displaced by China’s new policy by 2030. All that rubbish will have to go somewhere else.
The ban is already beginning to bite. The Washington Post says states such as Massachusetts and Oregon are lifting restrictions on pouring recyclable material into landfills.
AFP has reported that significant stockpiles of recyclables are piling up in the US, with some municipalities saying they will no longer collect certain materials or send them to landfills, while some recycling facilities are storing the extra waste outside or in parking lots.
“Our team has been and will be closely monitoring reports and impacts from the ban and have certainly heard that waste is accumulating within the borders of countries that have long depended on China or other countries to import their plastic waste,” said Amy Brooks, a doctoral student at UGA’s College of Engineering and lead author of the plastic waste study.
The ban has also exposed systemic weaknesses in recycling processes in the United States. The National Recycling Coalition (NRC) said in May that the ban exposed the problems caused by dirty recyclables. The introduction of single-stream recycling in the United States, which mixes paper, metal, glass and plastics — means recyclables are less pure and less valuable.
“The good news and bad news is that customer enthusiasm for recycling is strong. The public wants to recycle, but they express that enthusiasm by recycling materials that are not eligible. A combination of ‘wishful recycling’ and insufficient enforcement of quality is proving very damaging to the industry – abysmal and volatile markets, a dirty product that is not a reliable ‘commodity’, closed plants, and programs that are hurting economically,” Marjorie Griek, the NRC’s executive director, said in a statement.
“We cannot continue to act and behave as if business as usual will offer a solution to today’s issues. We must fundamentally shift how we speak to the public, how we collect and process our recyclables, and what our end markets accept and utilize to truly recycle,” Griek said.
Such changes will, of course, take time. As will new investment in recycling facilities to fill the gap left by China, which imported around 7 million tonnes of waste in 2016. This is even more concerning when one realises that, to date, only 9 per cent of waste has been recycled globally, with most of it ending up in landfills or in the environment, including in our seas.
Some developed countries reacted to the ban by sending their waste to other Southeast Asian countries, such as Thailand and Malaysia, and some Chinese recyclers have opened factories in nearby countries to cash in on this new business.
However, experts point out that some of these countries do not have the capacity to deal with the waste influx and are already considering imposing restrictions of their own. Another concern is that Asia is already home to five of the world’s top marine plastic polluters and sending more trash to countries that are ill-equipped to deal with it will simply exacerbate that problem.
Since the Chinese ban, Britain’s waste exports to Malaysia have tripled, the Financial Times has reported, with the domestic recycling industry seen to be languishing and underfunded.
Peter Skelton of the sustainability organisation WRAP, believes the government, waste management firms and local authorities can rise to the challenge.
“We’ve been reliant on export markets for a lot of our recycling and that’s got to change. In some ways, it’s a forced decision,” Skelton said. “There’s been a great response from the waste and recycling organisations … because they see the landscape has shifted,” he said.
Governments also have a role to play by investing in recycling and waste management, he added. The British government is due to publish a Waste and Resources strategy later this year.
UGA’s Brooks agrees that governments must step up by educating people about recycling and encouraging innovation.
China’s ban has also shone a spotlight on the parlous state of international regulation about plastic waste.
The UGA study argues that the International Basel Convention, which governs the export of hazardous and other waste, could be applied to plastic waste if the latter was characterized as “waste requiring special consideration”. It could then be regulated while knowledge could be shared and standards harmonised.
One potentially positive side-effect of China’s ban has been to focus attention on the need for a more sustainable circular economy, where resources like plastics will be kept in use for as long as possible. However, with oil prices relatively low, virgin plastic is cheaper than recycled plastic — a financial obstacle that must be surmounted.
“This is definitely a complex situation financially and socially,” Brooks said. “I prefer to remain optimistic that our relationship with plastic can be improved, despite some of the financial barriers. Every person plays a role in our global use of plastic and the circular economy can be embedded in that relationship so that waste is more valuable and less likely to end up in the environment.”
European authorities appear to have recognised the value inherent in plastics. The European Commission’s Plastics Strategy, which was unveiled in January, says its drive to make all plastic packaging recyclable or reusable by 2030 could create 200,000 jobs but only if recycling capacity is multiplied fourfold.
For Brooks, and her co-author Jenna Jambek, an associate professor at UGA’s College of Engineering, China’s ban should serve as a wake-up call and an opportunity to improve domestic management of plastic waste and invest in technology and new initiatives.
“The bottom line is that our solutions going forward need to incorporate all stakeholders, citizens, governments and industry, both locally and internationally,” said Brooks.
Climate Smart Agriculture Can Help Balochistan bounce back
Climate change brings disaster to the province Balochistan, which is an arid region located in west of Pakistan. The drought-stricken region struggling to increase its agricultural productivity, faced a backlash due to catastrophic floods. The predominantly agriculture-based territory reached the dead zone as farmers had stopped farming, shepherds kept their animal numbers low, which put people’s lives on stake, as it increased food insecurity. This highlighted the need to start a policy debate for climate smart agriculture.
Climate smart agriculture is an approach that is making the planet prosperous again. It is an ambition to increase the integration of food security with enhance resilience in productivity. It is a sustainable agriculture practice that promotes soil health, water management, and biodiversity conservation with economic benefits. Its practices like, cover/tunnel farming, drip irrigation, crop livestock systems can help Balochistan to go green and integrated again. These practices can sequester carbon in soil and can fight the impacts of climate change more efficiently.
Climate change is affecting the province in various ways. The region of Balochistan is characterized by extreme aridity, with annual precipitation levels below average, causing severe droughts, which is leading to a catastrophic impact on the province’s agriculture and livestock.
Flash floods in Balochistan becomes the new common during the monsoon season as a result of heavy rainfall, with the most significant in 2022. These floods have a detrimental impact on the environment, causing soil erosion, depletion, and the loss of fertile topsoil. The soil is already deficient in minerals and cannot endure further depletion, requiring several hundred years to recover and cannot support agricultural growth.
In an interview with wealthPk, Dr. Hanif-ur-Rehman AP from university of Turbat said, that high efficiency irrigation system (HEIS) can play an efficient role in climate effected regions like Turbat, Makran, Kech where farmers had traditionally cultivated the crops for source of income. The use of drip, rain guns, Centre pivot, and sprinkler have the ability to bring back the lush green pastures that have turned barren.
Climate smart agriculture could not only fetch the lost agriculture but also increase the productivity rate by making the rest of the region green. Balochistan accounts for only 6% of cultivable land for agriculture which not only failed to meet food security needs but also added little in Pakistan’s 25% agriculture GDP.
Balochistan people despite having less literacy are very conducive to cultivating lands with new cultivation techniques. In late 1990s and 2000s when the entire western part of the province was severely hit by droughts, people brought the techniques of less resilient tunnel farming to moist the soil. They grow crops beneath protective plastic tunnels. This technique helps them cope with their immediate needs but it fails to produce yield on a massive scale. Cultivation in proper climate resilient tunnels usually requires 10 to 20 acres of area or economically 3 acres feasible, and the tunnels are created by using steel pipes, or aluminum pipes that support plantations that are usually 3 to 12 feet in height and 5-10 feet wide.
The drip irrigation technique also has enormous potential for minimizing production costs by moderating the input use of water, fertilizers and pesticides. Drip irrigation keeps the field capacity constant by enabling the crops to easily take in water and nutrients, which result in uniform growth of plants and enhances the quality that produces well. Drip irrigation distributes water through a network of valves, pipes, emitters, and tubing that can save 50-70% of irrigation water which can not only resolve the water scarcity issue of Balochistan, it also can produce efficient, extensive production of crops such as apples, cherries, tomatoes, and citrus.
The province also needs to move towards an integrated crop-livestock system (ICLS), which is sustainable, productive, and climate resilient compared to intensive specialized systems. ICLS have increased over time in arid regions but still, Balochistan lags behind due to lack of skills by producers, lack of investment, lack of sustainable awareness and market competition. Livestock production is the largest sector of the province’s economy. It is nearly impossible to have a dream of economic development for the rural masses without prior attention to Livestock and crop management.
After floods, the crops fields are destroyed due to which livestock become the main source of food for many rural households that make the rural farming through livestock less practicable. It can only be enhanced by administration policies through capital funding, educational services and markets to subsistence farmers.
CSA is a method that includes several elements entrenched in local settings rather than a collection of practices that can be used everywhere. CSA requires the adoption of technologies and policies, and it refers to behaviors both on and off the farm.
According to FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization) of the United Nation 2023 report, Local farmers are the foremost holders of knowledge about their environment, agro-ecosystems, crops, livestock, and climatic patterns. Therefore, the adoption of Climate Smart Agriculture should be aligned with the local farmers’ knowledge, needs, and priorities. . Farmers of Balochistan have shown a keen interest in drip irrigation, tunnel farming technique but the high cost of imported pipes, emitters, plantation of aluminum tunnels from china has become their hindrance.
Mainstreaming CSA in Balochistan requires critical stocktaking and promising practices by financial and institutional enablers that can create an initial baseline for discussion and investment from the globe. If the government of Balochistan supports the farmers through public funding or by joint ventures with farmers for covering the startup costs, the techniques can be very useful not for food security but also for economic benefits on a constant level. According to a report on Climate smart practices, the CS techniques could not only help to save water up to 50-70%, reduce the fertilizer use by 45%, increase yield up to 100-150%, reduce the production cost by 35%, but could also mature the crops with better quality for uneven topography.
Human History and the Wonder of the Horse
Imagine a person accustomed to traveling at 3 to 4 mph, who discovers a means (the horse) to speed up to 5 times that pace with occasional thrilling bursts doubling even that.
At 15 mph, it is then not unreasonable to assume a 1000 mile range for a week on horseback allowing for breaks and sleep at night. It must have expanded enormously the horizons of those early Kazakhs who first domesticated the horse some 6000 years ago.
If the Kazakhs roamed west, the Mongols, a few thousand years later, roamed back and began a vast empire that eventually included all of China. Ties with Russia were close but as a hegemon, until a few centuries later when the Russians threw off the yoke.
As Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping shake hands forging a new treaty, China is once again a more powerful economy, the largest in the world, while Russia’s is more akin in size to Italy’s.
If the horse made the vast Central Asian steppes explorable, its remarkable navigational skills ensured the rider would eventually be able to return home.
Apparently horses are sensitive to the earth’s magnetic field, and not unlike homing pigeons can find their way home. Confirmatory tests have shown that when magnets are slung over their withers, they get completely lost. Observers have also noted that, in pasture. they tend to stand north-south aligned with the earth’s magnetic field.
Up until the advent of the internal combustion engine, horses were used for all kinds of transportation. Where the rail line ended, horses took over. They hauled freight in covered wagons; pulled stagecoaches in the Wild West and elegant carriages in Europe; they were a cowboy’s bread and butter, and personal transportation for anyone who could afford one; horses in the cavalry delivered the punch generals were seeking in battle; in racing, they provided thrills for the audience and excitement for punters — such is true also today, and with all the special attention given to the triple crown races, the casual observer might forget the weekly calendar of racing events across the country.
Horses for courses is a common saying for they are bred for speed in short races and stamina for long steeplechases like the famous Grand National in England.
Hark back to the wagon drivers of old, when on lonely long journeys the driver could talk to his horses — like dogs they are able to understand and develop quite a vocabulary of human words plus silent signals from the reins and legs of the riders.
And pity the poor trucker now and his lonely cross-country trips — not much to say to a noisy diesel engine! The only chance to talk he gets is when he takes a break to eat, rest and sometimes sleep at truck stops along the way.
With all that horses did for humans, one can wonder what they got out of it. Apparently they form close bonds with their owners, and as with dogs, the feelings are mutual.
Race to zero in Asia and the Pacific: Our hopes in the climate fight
The latest synthesis report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change makes for grim reading: Every fraction of a degree of warming comes with escalated threats, from deadly heatwaves to severe hurricanes and droughts, affecting all economies and communities. It is a reality that the people of Asia and the Pacific know only too well. “The worst April heatwaves in Asian history” last month was just a taste of the worsening climate impacts we will continue to face in the years to come.
Our latest report highlights that the sea level is creeping up in parts of the region at a slightly higher rate than the global mean, leaving low-lying atolls at existential threat. Annual socioeconomic loss due to climate change is mounting and likely to double in the worst-case climate scenario. Inequity is yet another threat as climate change sweeps across the region. Asia and the Pacific already accounts for more than half of global greenhouse gas emissions and the share is growing.
But there is another picture of hope in our region: 39 countries have committed to carbon neutrality and net zero between 2050 and 2060. The cost of renewable energy is falling almost everywhere, with installed capacity growing more than three-fold in the past decade. Electric vehicles are entering the market en masse as countries such as China, India, Japan, the Republic of Korea and Thailand have made electric mobility a priority.
This momentum needs to accelerate like a bullet train. Because nothing short of a breakthrough in hard-to-abate sectors will give us a good chance of stopping catastrophic global warming.
Accelerating a just and inclusive energy transition
The recent energy crisis has kicked renewable energy into a new phase of even faster growth thanks to its energy security benefits. There is opportunity now to leverage this momentum and turn it into a revolutionary moment.
Cross-border electricity grids can be the game changer. ESCAP has simulated different scenarios for grid connectivity and scaling up renewables. It shows that a green power corridor, cross-border power grid integration utilizing renewables, can help to remove the last hurdles of the transition. We are working with countries to chart a path to improved regional power grid connectivity through cooperation.
Achieving low-carbon mobility and logistics
The exceptional growth of electric vehicles has proved that electric mobility is a smart investment. And it is one that will help stave off carbon dioxide emissions from transport, which has stubbornly increased almost by 2 per cent annually the past two decades.
Through the Regional Cooperation Mechanism on Low Carbon Transport, we are working with the public and private sector to lock in the changeover to low-carbon mobility, clean energy technologies and logistics. This is complemented by peer learning and experience sharing under the Asia-Pacific Initiative on Electric Mobility to accelerate the penetration of electric vehicles and upgrading public transport fleets.
Building low-carbon industries through climate-smart trade and investment
The net zero transition is not complete without decarbonizing the industrial sector. The region accounts for nearly three quarters of global greenhouse gas emissions in manufacturing and construction.
Binding climate considerations in regional trade agreements can be a powerful tool. While climate-related provisions have entered regional trade agreements involving Asian and Pacific economies, they offer few concrete and binding commitments. To unlock further benefits, they will need to be broader in scope, deeper in stringency and more precise in obligations.
As foreign investment goes green, it should also go where it is needed the most. It has not been the case for any of the least developed countries and small island developing States in the region.
Financing the transition
The transition can be only possible by investing in low- and zero-emission technologies and industries. Current domestic and international financial flows fall well short of the needed amount. The issuance of green, social and sustainability bonds is rapidly growing, reaching $210 billion in 2021 but were dominated by developed and a few developing countries. Both public and private financial institutions need to be incentivized to invest in new green technologies and make the uptake of such technologies less risky.
Linking actions and elevating ambitions
The code red to go green is ever so clear. Every government needs to raise their stake in this crisis. Every business needs to transform. Every individual needs to act. A journey to net zero should accelerate with a fresh look at our shared purpose.
At ESCAP, we are working to bring together the pieces and build the missing links at the regional level to support the net-zero transition work at the national level. The upcoming Commission session will bring countries together for the first time in an intergovernmental setting – to identify common accelerators for climate action and to chart a more ambitious pathway. This is the start of an arduous journey that requires cooperation, understanding and determination. And I believe we have what it takes to get there together.
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