The global waste crisis has become an issue of concern worldwide in an age of climate change. The World Bank warns that global waste will increase up to 70 percent on current levels by 2050 unless urgent actions are undertaken. The international financial institution also mentions that global annual waste is expected to jump to 3.4 billion tons over the next 30 years.
The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) also reports, “The world produces over 2 billion tons of municipal solid waste every year, enough to fill over 800,000 Olympic sized swimming pools.”
The lack of solid waste management both by developed and developing nations is of the major reasons behind the increase of global waste at an alarming rate. The United States ranks first of the garbage pile only re-using 35 percent of solid waste, while the European countries produce 25 million tons of plastic waste annually remaining less than 30 percent recycled. In addition, at least 33 percent of the global waste is mismanaged through open dumping or burning where the poor and most vulnerable are disproportionately affected. It is because over 90 percent of waste openly dumped or burned in low-income countries.
The decline of recycling trade following China’s recent waste ban has triggered the concern on the waste or trash management crisis across the globe. China, the biggest worldwide importer of foreign waste, has imported around 45 percent of plastic waste since the early 1990s. However, due to environmental concerns, China has banned the import of 24 types of waste including electronic items; plastics such as PET, PVC, polyethylene, ashes, wool and cotton waste; mixed and unsorted paper; and slag from manufacture of steel since December 31, 2017. Prior to that, Beijing announced to reduce the imports of global plastic and paper waste in July 2017 at the meeting of the World Trade Organization (WTO) held in Geneva. To be noted, domestic garbage has increased largely with the production of some 520,000 tons of waste every day in China alone, because of the country’s consumption-driven economy.
China’s firm position of no longer recycling the foreign waste has made far-reaching effects on the overseas exporters of waste and China-based purchasers of waste, including companies purchasing raw materials made from reprocessed waste. Most particularly, the developed countries, dependent on Chinese recycling industry to handle their excess waste, are facing challenges not only in waste trade but also waste management with efficient technology. China’s renouncement from accepting certain types of plastic and paper recycling since two years have become a matter of concern for industrial nations to find other countries to export their waste. It is because many countries, including the developed ones, lack the necessary infrastructure to process and recycle all the waste that they produce. China is the export destination of the US and the European Union (EU) trade in metals, plastics and paper. The EU sent 1.6 million tons of plastic waste only in 2016, while the rest of the world’s amount was 7.3 million. It is also becoming more complex with the shipping containers of low-quality recycling sending from the Southeast Asian countries, mainly the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia back to Europe and North America.
The widespread plastic particles and use and disposal of plastic materials across the globe are posing severe challenges to the environment, especially for the planet’s oceans. Environmental scientists say that 8 million tons of plastic are dumped in the sea every year. Around 70 percent of trash in the ocean is the result of single-use plastic objects and fishing gear. Frans Timmermans, First Vice-President of the European Commission said, “If we do not change the way we produce and use plastics, there will be more plastics than fish in our oceans by 2050. The only long-term solution is to reduce plastic waste by recycling and reusing more.”
In a recent report conducted by International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) titled “Ocean deoxygenation: Everyone’s problem”, the environmental experts have raised the concern that the loss of oxygen from the world’s ocean driven by climate change is causing disastrous consequences both for sea and human lives. The report shows that roughly 700 ocean areas– compared with 45 in the 1960s–across the globe are affected by low oxygen conditions caused by the constant increase of areas of water with low oxygen concentrations. Eutrophication resulted by the increased nutrient run-off from land and sewage pollution, nitrogen deposition from the burning of fossil fuels and ocean warming have been referred to the primary causes of deoxygenation of world’s ocean.
Given these concerns, in March 2019, the United Nations’ member states agreed to significantly restrain hazardous items such as plastic bags and straws and reduce single-use plastic products by 2030. The move aims to curb the use of disposable plastic products including bags, cups, cutlery and drinking straws. Almost all the world’s countries also agreed on imposing the restriction of the shipments of hard-to-recycle plastic waste to poorer countries. Earlier, the UN member states, committed to fight plastic pollution together in an event held on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly (UNGA) at the UN Headquarters, New York, in September 2018. The EU also unveiled plans to reduce single-use plastic, make all plastic packaging recyclable and curb micro-plastic by 2030.
The sole dependency on China, burdened with its own problematic waste, for the garbage management cannot be a solution. It is highly crucial to completely implement the pledges committed by the world’s nations at the earliest possible time. Along with the ban of several plastic products, the nations need to sort their waste better with advanced technologies. Booming up world’s waste management industries through setting up recycling plants across the globe and raising awareness about the severe danger of plastic waste are also crucial to tackle global waste crisis.
Yesmin is a PhD Candidate at the School of Politics and International Studies
(SPIS), Central China Normal University (CCNU), Hubei, China. She was a
Visiting Research Fellow at the Yunnan Academy of Social Sciences (YASS) in
China in 2015. She holds BSS and MSS in International Relations from the
University of Dhaka, Bangladesh. Her research interests are broadly in China
Affairs, regional and sub-regional cooperation, security studies, South Asian
and East Asian affairs. Email: email@example.com