When I was a kid, my friends and I used to find empty lots in or around the neighborhood and turn it into a temporary baseball field. Inevitably, the lot would be developed or someone would figure out it was our playground and fence it off. When that happened—when we were “banned”—we simply looked for another open lot in which to conduct our business.
According to a recent National Geographic article, it seems hundreds of Chinese recyclers are following the same M-O.
“With China’s door to plastic waste effectively closed, hundreds of small-operation Chinese plastics recyclers relocated to other Southeast Asian countries. They set up new factories, often illegally. They began buying imported plastic trash for reprocessing. In the first half of the year, imports of plastic trash increased by 56 percent in Indonesia, doubled in Vietnam, and rose in Thailand by 1,370 percent, according to an analysis of trade data by the Financial Times.
In Malaysia, Yeo Bee Yin, whose full title is Minister for Energy, Technology, Science, Climate Change, and Environment, watched in dismay as plastic waste made a massive detour across Southeast Asia, and overnight turned Malaysia into the world’s largest importer of plastic trash. Between January and June, Malaysia received hundreds of thousands of tons of plastic scrap–215,000 from the United States, 115,000 tons from Japan, 95,000 from the U.K., and 37,000 from Australia, according to figures provided to National Geographic by Yeo’s office.”
Once these Chinese recyclers had relocated, the plan was to melt plastic scrap into pellets that they were hoping would be pure enough to get past inspectors back home in China. The problem (for these “rogue” recyclers) is that inspectors have been on the lookout for just that kind of material. Since June, about 134 criminal investigations have begun that involve 254,000 tons of trash.
And as it was with the landowners of my temporary childhood playgrounds, there is resistance.
“Meanwhile, as the renegade plants began melting scrap, their new hosts moved to shut them down. Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand, India, and Indonesia imposed a slate of restrictions on imported non-recyclable plastic, including bans, inspections, freezes on new licenses, new taxes and fees, and raids on illegal operations.
In Malaysia, Yeo and two other ministers also shut down 30 factories that had been importing plastic waste illegally. Yeo says the government is taking steps to permanently ban non-recyclable plastics and allow imports of only high-value recycled plastic.
‘At the height of my anger, I wanted to send it back to the country of origin,’ she says. ‘What I realized is there is no tracking. There is a gap between what the citizens know about their waste and what actually happens to their waste. The United States is the biggest exporter of plastic waste to Malaysia. I believe Americans must know what happened and take shared responsibility as global citizens.’”
Right about now I’m wishing that we had cleaned up after ourselves a bit more once we had had our fun on an empty neighborhood lot.