“It used to be thought that the events that changed the world were things like big bombs, maniac politicians, huge earthquakes, or vast population movements, but it has now been realized that this is a very old-fashioned view held by people totally out of touch with modern thought. The things that really change the world, according to Chaos theory, are the tiny things. A butterfly flaps its wings in the Amazonian jungle, and subsequently a storm ravages half of Europe.” 
                    ― Neil Gaiman in Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch

china waste ban

Even though I have heard the word “Chaos theory” few times in the past, I got a first-hand thorough understanding of the theory while watching the Tamil movie – Dasavathaaram, The movie details the story of a scientist trying to save the world from a biological weapon/virus and how other characters, unrelated, help him achieve this, including a Vishnu idol sunk into the sea during the 13th century that triggers the earth quake resulting in a tsunami, thereby offsetting the impact of the released biological weapon.

I am not a big fan of the theory until recently, when I started my own waste management business named Trashgaadi that was involved in the collection of dry waste recyclables for recycling from households in Chennai. I always believed (most of others would corroborate as well) the Indian recycling market to be localized and informal and completely shielded from the impact of the global market changes but I was completely wrong about it. At the start of this year, China banned the import of certain waste categories from foreign countries and it has created a ripple effect across the Chinese domestic recycling market as well as on the other waste management sectors across the globe, including India. Well seems like the chaos theory is at work. Read on to get a better understanding as to why it so.

All these years, countries like US, Japan and their European counterparts thought it was cheaper to put all their trash on a ship and send to foreign countries like China to be taken care of, rather than putting efforts on processing the waste on their own. During that time, China, as a developing country, thought of recycling world’s trash as an opportunity to keep its growing population engaged with work and became a sought after destination for the world’s recyclable trash. To put things in perspective, consider this data; during 1988 to 2016, the world’s richest countries such as US, Japan, Germany, UK, France, Germany and Canada contributed 75% (170 million metric tonne) of the world’s plastic waste exports to other countries, out of which almost 45 to 50 percentage was imported by China for further processing. According to government statistics, China imported a staggering 49.6 million tonnes of rubbish in 2015 alone. The last couple of decades have witnessed a huge surge in the Chinese economy, which in turn has boosted the living standards of the Chinese that they don’t want to be the world’s dump yard anymore. So starting this year 2018, China had banned the import of a list of 24 waste categories, including some plastic and paper types and is planning to include few other categories to the list by the end of next year. It has also proposed to include a complete ban on the import of all waste categories by the end of 2021 so that they can work on improving their infrastructure for the collection and recycling of domestic waste.

This “not in my backyard (NIMBY) syndrome” of western countries has put their waste management sectors in a fix as they are ill prepared to deal with the huge quantities of waste on their own. So now all these countries have to recycle so much quantity of this trash and since they don’t have the appropriate facilities for processing it, they would have to either send it to their own landfills or incinerate. Or else they could look for other countries to fill in China’s shoes and this is exactly what has happened. Since the china ban, the focus has shifted towards the south East Asian countries like Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and India but filling the gap left by China could still be a challenge for these countries as they don’t have the required infrastructure to process such a huge volume. The US waste exports to these countries have already witnessed growth rates in the range of 170% to 300% in Q1 2018 when compared to Q1 2017, according to data from PIERS of JOC.com. In terms of volumes, India recorded the highest growth with a total volume of 70,550 TEUs (TEU = Twenty-Foot Equivalent Unit, a measure of ship’s cargo carrying capacity) in Q1 2018 at a growth rate of 170% Vs Q1 2017. India’s market share rose to 21.7 percent while China’s fell to 47% in the same time period. The A.P. Moller – Maersk’s trade report  for Q1 2018 corroborates this data as it found that recyclables such as paper and metal have witnessed import growth rates of 61% and 55% respectively Vs last year in India and a major portion of the waste came from North America and Europe. These data clearly shows that India is becoming the new hub for recycling world’s waste.

The problem just doesn’t end here. One of the strong reasons why China put a ban was the contamination that was there as part of the imported waste which cannot be recycled and hence dumped in landfills, thus polluting their environment. As part of the ban, China also announced that the waste categories that it will still accept have to meet the contamination standard of just 0.5%, which the western countries are struggling to meet as they are used to having contamination in their exported waste stock piles. China has put in place a strong quality check process in place at their ports that has resulted in majority of these stocks refused entry due to their high contamination levels and finally being sent to India and South East Asian countries due to the lack of rules restricting their import. This is again going to pose a major challenge for India which is already grappling with managing the huge quantities of waste produced domestically.

Just after few months from the china ban taking into effect, the south East Asian countries have been finding it difficult to manage the imported waste getting into their ports and some have already contemplated to follow the foot-steps of China even if it means a loss to their economy. Vietnam has temporarily banned the waste imports since July 2018, unable cope up with the traffic congestion at their ports due to the waste ban. Thailand has also put a ban of the plastic waste imports since June this year citing negative public sentiment and to protect its own environment and plans to ban waste imports completely by 2021. The last country to join this bandwagon is Malaysia which has put a permanent ban on the import of plastic waste effective from 26th of October after complaints from the general public about the opening up of many illegal recycling units which burned plastic waste that cannot be recycled.

Contrary to their Asian counterparts on the waste imports, India’s response has been muted so far and a recent press release from the Indian government which proposed a policy framework to standardize and improve the infrastructure of recycling industry in India, has been welcomed with a sigh of hope by the international waste exporters. The problem doesn’t just stop with the foreign waste coming into our country and polluting our land, water and air but how it impacts the local recyclables market as well. The wholesalers or processors would be able to get plastic or other scraps at a cheaper price from the imports due to the china ban, thereby reducing the demand for the locally produced waste. The local markets have already been hit by the ban as the buying prices of certain recyclable categories such as OCC (Old Corrugated Cardboard or carton box), mixed paper and certain plastic types have reduced by 30 to 60 % since the last 6-8 months owing to the decreased price of these in the world markets and the increased import by India. The kabadiwallahs, scrap shops, private waste collectors and the rag pickers, who constitute the lower levels of the recycling value chain, have been hit the hardest by the change. The business which has already seen many setbacks over the past few years like the drop in crude oil price in 2015 (leads to reduced virgin/new plastic price as it is derived during petroleum processing, thereby resulting in reduced price for used plastics), note demonetization in late 2016 and the GST roll out during July 2017. Just when the industry was trying to bounce back from all these hurdles, the china waste ban has only worsened the situation. Unlike the western countries, the waste management sector in India is so unorganized and informal that getting the attention of the government when such changes occur is either delayed or not done at all, resulting in the worsening of livelihoods of the people working in the sector.

India produces a staggering 26,000 tonnes of plastic every day and an astonishing 56 % of this is recycled, according to a reply given by Anil Madhav Dave, former Union environment minister, in the parliament in 2016. This is mainly due to the efforts of the rag-pickers, a critical part of the invisible informal sector, who work under hazardous conditions in landfills and street garbage bins to sort through the unsegregated waste (wet+dry+sanitary wastes) and salvage whatever is possible of value for recycling. So, the Indian government needs to ensure that these rag-pickers and others involved in the lower rungs of the informal recycling chain are shielded from the impact of this waste ban so that more waste is kept out of the landfills.

Replying to a question in the parliament, Union Minister of Environment, Forests and Climate Change mentioned the lack of data on the capacity to recycle plastic waste in India, with the government unaware about the number of unregistered and registered plastic recycling plants. So allowing such import of foreign waste without a long term plan and proper data could prove dangerous to India and will only bring more harm to its environment and local recycling market.

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