Sunday, December 13, 2020

Western world's waste heads to Southeast Asia, as China stops imports


China, which used to be the world’s salvage king, is shutting its door to all waste imports starting the first day of the new year. The recent announcement triggered the same kind of anxiety among waste-exporting countries as in 2018, when China enacted its “Operation National Sword” policy, which banned the import of 24 types of solid waste, including plastic waste.

The 2018 policy switch caused the world’s major waste-exporting countries – Europe, Britain, the US and Australia – to scramble for alternative destinations, including Southeast Asian nations like Thailand, Vietnam, and Indonesia, which quickly became overwhelmed by the volume of refuse they received. Soon after, these countries began to impose their own bans and restrictions on waste imports.

With China’s latest announcement about a blanket waste ban, concerns have been raised about the effects this might have on Southeast Asian countries, where limited waste-management capacities are common.

Vietnam, which borders China and was one of the countries most affected by Beijing’s 2018 waste policy, might not be ready for more imported waste. According to a national report released last month, various types of solid waste imported for manufacturing do not only not meet the national technical standard in regards to environmental protection but also put more pressure on waste-management services in the country.

Meanwhile, most of the domestically made solid waste processing equipment is unsynchronized, incomplete and not yet common in the country – going by the National Environmental Status Report in 2019 issued by the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment. No specific national guidelines exist on what technology to use to treat municipal solid waste.

Since 2018, the Vietnamese government has kept a tight rein of its scrap imports through various policies, including amending the country’s technical standard to ensure only quality scrap is allowed in and cracking down on illegal shipments of thousands of containers of paper, plastic and metal scrap. Vietnam imported 9.2 million tons of scrap in the same year, a 14 per cent year-on-year increase, according to Vietnam customs statistics.

By the end of October this year, there were about 3,300 unclaimed containers at Vietnamese ports – a significant decrease compared with the tens of thousands of such containers in 2018, according to the Ministry of Transport’s newspaper citing the General Department of Customs.

The country is also struggling with a mounting trash problem of its own, with its domestic solid waste volume having jumped 46 per cent from 2010 to 2019, according to the recent report by the environment ministry. Vietnam generated about 64,700 tons of municipal domestic waste a day last year – more than two-thirds of the waste is buried in landfills, while the remainder is either burned or turned into compost.

Only from 8 per cent to 12 per cent of such waste is recycled in Vietnam, according to the Institute of Strategy and Policy on Natural Resources and Environment.

Vietnam is also a mass producer and consumer of plastic – almost half of plastic designed and produced domestically is of the single-use type. Vietnamese officials announced last year that they would ban all imports of plastic scrap by 2025 as a way to lessen the environmental burden.

In neighbouring Thailand, another country facing waves of imported waste from rich countries, the government banned electronic waste and halted the issuance of new import permits for plastic waste in July 2018 before announcing that it would completely ban all foreign plastic waste starting in 2021. However, policies are in dissonance with reality in regard to imported plastic waste bans.

‘’Because existing import permits were valid for one year only, no valid permits existed after July 2019, and thus imports of plastic waste should have stopped. Nevertheless, imports of plastic waste continued,’’ So Sasaki, a visiting scholar at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, said in a September paper about the effects on Thailand of China’s waste import restrictions.

Penchom Saetang, director of the environmental foundation Ecological Alert and Recovery-Thailand (EARTH), said corruption is a major reason Thailand has imported so much plastic waste, and that recycling companies often bribe government officials to be granted permission to go about their work.

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