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Recycling Woes: Indonesia Sends Waste Shipment Back to Australia

Summary:
By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans. Indonesia this week became the latest Asian country to reject – and return – a shipment of waste sent to it for recycling. As the Guardian reports in Indonesia sends rubbish back to Australia and says it’s too contaminated to recycle: Indonesia says it will send eight containers of household rubbish back to Australia after inspectors declared the material too contaminated to be recycled. It is the latest in a series of announcements by south-east Asian nations that they will not be dumping grounds for overseas waste. Indonesian customs officials said the containers of paper from Australia were contaminated by electronic waste, used cans, plastic

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By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.

Indonesia this week became the latest Asian country to reject – and return – a shipment of waste sent to it for recycling.

As the Guardian reports in Indonesia sends rubbish back to Australia and says it’s too contaminated to recycle:

Indonesia says it will send eight containers of household rubbish back to Australia after inspectors declared the material too contaminated to be recycled.

It is the latest in a series of announcements by south-east Asian nations that they will not be dumping grounds for overseas waste.

Indonesian customs officials said the containers of paper from Australia were contaminated by electronic waste, used cans, plastic bottles, old bottles of engine oil and loose shoes. Some of this was deemed “B3”, an abbreviation of “bahan berbahaya dan beracun”, which refers to toxic and hazardous material.

Opening the containers up for the press on Tuesday morning, gloved customs officials held up examples of the offending material, including used nappies and soft drink cans.

Speaking at Tanjung Perak port in Surabaya, customs officials said eight containers holding 210.3 tonnes of waste would be returned.

The worldwide market for recyclables was upended in 2017, when China – previously the destination for many waste imports, including plastics – announced it would no longer accept such shipments for recycling. Initially, Southeast Asian countries took up the slack and accepted these imports  (see Waste Watch: US Dumps Plastic Rubbish in Southeast Asia). But the volume of such material eventually overwhelmed the ability of these countries to process the waste, and they have more recently reversed course and rejected some shipments, thus in some instances returning waste to its country of origin, according to this post by Kate O’Neill, As Developing Countries Reject Plastic Waste Exports, Wealthy Nations Seek Solutions:

On May 28, 2019, Malaysia’s environment minister announced that the country was sending 3,000 metric tons of contaminated plastic wastes back to their countries of origin, including the United States, Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom. Along with the Philippines, which is sending 2,400 tons of illegally exported trash back to Canada, Malaysia’s stance highlights how controversial the global trade in plastic scrap has become.

Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam are all halting flows of plastics that once went to China but were diverted elsewhere after China started refusing it. They are finding support from many nations that are concerned about waste dumping and marine plastic pollution. At a meeting in Geneva in May 2019, 186 countries agreed to dramatically restrict international trade in scrap plastics to prevent plastics dumping.

The ten countries that participated at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit in Bangkok earlier this month adopted a declaration on combating marine debris, according to ASEAN commit to eliminating marine plastic. But the countries stopped well short of adopting a blanket ban on plastics and e-waste imports – disappointing activists, according to Scrap Collector: Southeast Asian activists call for ASEAN ban on foreign waste imports.

US Recycling Policies in Disarray

Waste Management in the US largely occurs at the local or state level. These policies are thrown into chaos when China imposed its ban – as the US lacks sufficient domestic capacity to process the recyclables it generates.

A quick scan of recent headlines on the Waste Dive site yields a hodge podge of current initiatives.

Some cities, such as Boston, are unrolling or updating comprehensive plans – with cost considerations a significant limiting factor to conditions. Boston is one of the few places attempting to implement textile recycling (see Boston casts wide net for organics options, including in-sink).

Michigan is betting on encouraging people to practice better recycling as being a sufficient soltiion – when far more ambitious policies are necessary, such as drastic reduction in waste generation in the first instance (as I’ve previously written). According to Michigan launches statewide educational campaign on recycling:

The recycling industry is undergoing a period of flux. Contamination concerns and loss or reduction of markets are taking a center stage, leading many cities to reconfigure the materials accepted in their curbside programs.

With those changes come consumer confusion, and communities fighting to save their programs have accordingly implemented educational initiatives around proper recycling — including one campaign launched last week in Michigan.

The new “Know It Before You Throw It” campaign from Michigan’s Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) aims to educate citizens throughout Michigan on proper recycling. It’s Michigan’s first statewide campaign — a unique approach, considering recycling education campaigns generally target just one city or metro area.

“We thought it best to have a cohesive approach to inspire collective action statewide,” Jill Greenburg, public information officer for EGLE, told Waste Dive.

I know these people are well-meaning, but this is really pitiful:

The state’s goal is to double its current 15% annual recycling rate to 30% by 2025, eventually reaching 45%. The clean recycling campaign improves the chances of doing that, Greenburg said.

Lexington, Kentucky, is flummoxed by collapsing prices for many recyclables Lexington, Kentucky mayor calls for revamp of ‘sputtering’ recycling program -and is considering whether further privatization is the answer. Strikes me that when in a hole, stop digging might be good advice. If a market-based approach isn’t working – less rather than more resort to markets seems to be blindingly obvious. Especially as Lexington has journeyed less far than others down the primrose privatization path  and continues to operate its own municipal recycling facility – a situation that is somewhat unusual in the US.

Moving westward, Oregon’s governor signed an etiolated ban on plastic bags and straws into law (see Oregon governor signs laws banning plastic bags, straws). If this is at the best a blue state like Oregon can come up with, the situation is more dire than I’d like to admit. And a further cause for pessimism: the state Senate rejected a ban on polystyrene food containers (see Oregon Senate rejects statewide polystyrene foam container ban). The first person who explained to me what a menace these containers were was my high school English teacher, Mr. Gordon Muir – way back in the late 1970s. Here, now, in 2019, they’re still legal in the great state of Oregon.

Previously, Oregon shipped many of its recyclables to China and was one state affected earlier and heavily by the recycling imports ban. Now,it’s well understood that there’s a need for domestic capacity, according to Oregon communities reach agreement with Waste Connections to revive recycling:

“Where we seem to be heading is domestic capacity for reprocessing,” he said. “The approach we have now is skewed towards urban environments, and it’s harder to pursue that approach here.”

Despite discussions of investment in new facilities, domestic processing options in the west are more limited than in other parts of the country. This has compounded challenges faced by small communities in Oregon.

“It’d be nice to get some markets [on] the west side of the Mississippi and some mill support that would allow the further growth of the processing,” Winterbottom said.

Next Up for Disruption: Global Trade in Scrap Metal?

Finally, I noticed that changed Chinese regulations for scrap metal imports may cause some disruption in scrap metal markets, similar to that which has occurred in the markets for other types of recyclable waste. According to Chinese port shuts out scrap metal imports 3 days before new restrictions take effect:

Copper is expected to be the commodity hit hardest by the new regulations. U.S. exports of copper and copper alloy scrap to China already were down by about 80% this year as a residual effect of other material bans and stricter contamination standards.

Concerns now center around the potential ripple effects these new regulations could have on other scrap metal markets. [The Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI) ], specifically, is monitoring whether metal exporters seeking new markets will cause an influx of material to other Southeast Asian countries.

“We don’t want to have a repeat of what happened with plastics when other Southeast Asian countries became overwhelmed and put restrictions on scrap imports,” [Joe Pickard, chief economist and director of commodities ISRI] explained. Vietnam, Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia all implemented tighter regulations on scrap plastics and/or paper when they received a surge in materials from exporters shut out of Chinese markets.

The Bottom Line

I want to close by mentioning that many Asian countries have yet to address their own waste management issues – let alone enjoy sufficient capacity to process waste sent to them from foreign shores. To return to where I started – Indonesia. The Guardian notes:

As it repatriates unsanctioned waste, Indonesia has its own huge domestic rubbish issues to contend with. Many across the archipelago continue to burn toxic waste as a form of disposal, while each year tonnes of waste are dumped in the country’s rivers and oceans. Indonesia is the second-largest global contributor to marine plastic waste after China.

Indonesia has some of the best scuba diving in the world: Raja Ampat, Sulawesi. Those who dive its waters can’t fail to notice the ubiquitous marine plastic.

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