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March 5, 2018 | by  | in Environment Opinion |
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Environment: Waste Not, Want Not

On the banks of Daqing River sits the town of Wen’an. While the morning cool keeps the smog at bay, a throng of local men gather around a blue rubbish truck. The driver pulls a lever and out tumble bales of wild, plastic garbage. Back at the family home, the floor is flooded in litter. Women and half naked children squat amongst it. With quick, endless jerks they sift and sort. To one pile, they toss a snapped pink tiara. To another, a reeking meat tray. Fingers grasp the lid of a coffee cup you bought from VicBooks. Nearby a gloveless boy washes plastic petals in chemical soup. Above the village the visible stench of burning rubbish lifts with the rising sun.

Small scale workshops like this help to process the 7.3 billion tonnes of plastic arriving on China’s shores each year. According to Plastic NZ, New Zealand hauled 7 million kilograms of our own plastic recycling to China in 2016.

China began importing recyclables in the early 2000s to feed an increasing industrial appetite. Used plastic, paper and metal were inexpensive materials that could be reborn into toys, electronics and other cogs of modern life.

Yet in July 2017, China took a stand against “yang laji,” or “foreign garbage”. Prompted by acute environmental and public health issues, the “National Sword” policy banned the import of 24 kinds of solid waste, including almost all forms of plastic. The campaign also called for more stringent rules against dirty and unrecyclable materials.

China officially implemented the prohibition on 1st of January this year. Since then, the global recycling industry has been in a slow, sticky meltdown. Swaying towers of waste paper have been built in the streets of Hong Kong. Centers in the United Kingdom are burying recyclables in bloated landfills. In America, mountains of materials are simply being burnt.

New Zealand waits while the waste piles up. Domestic large scale processing plants are not feasible due to the low density, low value and technical hurdles involved in plastic recycling. Smart Environmental, who sends 12,000 tonnes of plastic to China yearly, is prepared to hoard the rubbish until an alternative destination is found.

China’s stand should cause us to reflect on our own brittle position. Each New Zealander produces 734kg of waste per year. As a nation, we’ve been ranked in the top five biggest wasters in the developed world. What we dispose of is the toxic shadow of what we consume. It is incumbent on us as consumers to reflect for a second on our purchases. Seek to avoid buying sexy, single use products. Invest in lunch boxes, Keep Cups, glass bottles, fabric bags, and beeswax food wrap, and resist the lure of products packaged in plastic. If one must buy disposable, choose material which has a higher recycling quality and can be recycled domestically. Glass, cardboard, and plastics stamped ‘1’ and ‘2’ on the bottom can be recycled onshore. Avoid grades ‘3’ to ‘7’ which cannot. We should seek to implement a deposit-refund scheme on plastic containers. We could encourage plastic free aisles at supermarkets and blanket bans on certain single use plastics, like straws.  

By all means recycle! But keep it clean, sorted and to a minimum. Our responsibility for waste stretches far beyond the curbside collection. Our responsibility reaches all the way to a house full of plastic, in a town barely visible amongst the smog.

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