UN environment chief: China's import ban should spur recycling
- Erik Solheim, executive director of the United Nations Environment Program said in a recent interview with Reuters that rich nations should, in light of China's scrap import policies, increase domestic recycling and reduce use of non-essential products such as single-use straws and microbeads.
- Solheim praised existing bans on microbeads in the U.S. and Europe, and suggested bars and restaurants only offer straws if specifically asked. "There are lots of products we simply don't need," he said.
- "It's a much better idea if nations overall take care of their own waste," rather than ship it abroad, Solheim said. He added that nations like India and Vietnam may not want to "be taking over" the exports that were previously shipped to China.
There is still a global sense of uncertainty as China, previously the largest purchaser of scrap material from recycling, begins enforcing its new import bans and contamination standards. Efforts to stall Beijing's implementation from international groups and U.S. policymakers appear to have failed and the industry is already developing new markets in Southeast Asia to make up for the lost capacity.
However, between Solheim saying this week that nations "like India and Vietnam" may not want to pick up the slack dropped by China, and an Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries official saying in mid-December that other governments are starting to think about waste in their scrap imports, there could be reason for concern. No other nations have made similar import restriction announcements yet, but it's possible. As Solheim said, it may be time to focus on domestic processing and waste reduction rather than exporting waste and recycled material.
That shifting focus will require change. In order to make recycling profitable, contamination education will need to improve and sorters will have to hone in on increasing quality so purchasers know they're getting high-quality products. For some companies, increasing bale quality has meant hiring more workers to work the line at MRFs, investing in new optical sorters or artificial intelligence, and slowing down lines.
Solheim alluded to developing a more circular economy with less overall waste, too. There are countries, regions and cities around the world already taking concrete steps in that direction: Governments of varying sizes continue to pass fees or bans on disposable packaging, Coca-Cola and McDonald's have both recently made commitments to making their packaging more recyclable and Seattle is in the process of banning plastic utensils and straws. None of these steps will single-handedly take the industry to a new, zero-waste model, but may be steps in that direction.
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