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Southeast Asia Should Want the World’s Junk

Jun. 5, 2019

Forcing rich countries to keep and process all of their own recycling isn’t the best way to protect the environment.

Southeast Asian nations no longer want your trash. Last week, Malaysia announced it was sending 3,300 tons of scrap plastics including CDs, insulated electric cables and milk jugs back to countries ranging from Australia to Bangladesh, Canada, China, Japan and Saudi Arabia. Days later, the Philippines shipped back 69 containers of dirty Canadian diapers and other refuse brought into the country between 2013 and 2014.

It’s easy to see why: Smaller countries don’t want to become dumping grounds for trash that looks like it belongs in a hazardous-waste bin rather than a recycling facility. What’s ironic is that some of the countries forced to take back their scrap plastics don’t necessarily mind. In China, Japan and especially Europe, there’s growing momentum behind the idea that economies should strive to be more “circular” -- in other words, that any waste they generate should be processed, recycled and reused at or close to home. Europe has set ambitious targets to achieve a continent-wide circular economy over the next three decades.

It’s an attractive idea. Unfortunately, it won’t work. A true circular economy can’t be national or even regional. It has to be global.

For the most part, that’s what the world had until quite recently. In the 19th century, an up-and-coming U.S. imported scrap clothing from Europe to feed its paper mills and scrap steel from the U.K. to help build its railways. After World War II, Japan and Taiwan rebuilt their economies by importing vast quantities of low-cost scrap metal and paper from around the world.

Beginning in the early 1980s, China surpassed all predecessors by becoming the world's largest importer of recyclables. Everybody won. Countries that might otherwise have sent recyclables to a dump for lack of proper processing facilities found a huge customer willing to pay a premium for it. Meanwhile, China was able to integrate recyclables into its manufacturing supply chain on a mass scale. To take just one example, in 2016, China made as much as half of its copper from recycled resources, half of which were imported.

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