The closer we get to the end of the year, the more we need to think about the China Waste Ban. Right now, I would like you to consider the thoughts of John Trotti regarding the subject.
The following is the editorial he wrote for the November/December 2017 issue of MSW Management magazine and although China’s impending actions are somewhat recent, Mr. Trotti has been on this track for many years.
Shortly after the article was published, we received some insightful and encouraging responses. I would like to hear more. Look it over carefully and let me know what your thoughts are. Whether the China Waste Ban goes into effect or not, this may be the time to rethink “recycling.”
“Overcoming Stranded Political Investment”
By John Trotti
Quality, quantity, timeliness, and public involvement are the basic ingredients necessary to operate a fully-functioning, effective materials management system, starting with its strategic basis, tactical alignment, practical implementation, and carrying all the way through to the broad acceptance by the various constituencies involved. So, where do we stand?
Well, for American waste officials, the clearly demonstrable success in the quantity category seemed to have been enough to make up for shortfalls in the others. That is, until July 17 of this year when the Chinese waste officials stated that the enormous quantity no longer made up for the poor quality of many waste materials, declaring that by the end of the year, a very large part of America’s MSW exports would no longer be accepted.
What amazes me most about this initiative is not that its impact will be felt at least as much by Chinese recycling interests as by those in the US, but that it doesn’t seem to have raised much comment in our press, despite the fact that wastes of various kinds are our leading export commodity, accounting for more than a quarter of the goods that are our contribution to the world marketplace.
International trade with esoteric aspects such as balance of payments may seem remote to most, but consider for a moment the impact the initiative is likely to have on just a small aspect affecting all of our citizens—the retail price of cheap goodies to which we’ve all become accustomed—when the holds of all those cargo ships plow their way back to wherever, with seawater as ballast rather than the banned materials. These materials, by the way, are already bearing the not-insignificant cost burden of a system organized for the purpose of declaring them “recyclables.”
Neither you nor I know exactly what, in fact, will happen when January 1, 2018, rolls around. For all I know, it could be another Y2K non-event, but for argument’s sake let’s suppose nothing happens. Suppose, for instance, the Chinese say, “Surprise, you guys, we were only kidding. Keep on sending us your trash.” Would that mean that our material stewardship is what it should be, or that we’ve met the philosophical basis on which our waste management efforts purport to exist (public health and safety)? I don’t think so.
Perhaps it’s time for us to view the Chinese initiative as the perfect opportunity to reassess the premises and practices on which our waste and material management systems rest.
Who Cares Where Our Stuff Goes?
The public places in our hands the responsibility for managing materials that, were they left untended, could seriously compromise health, safety, and quality of life. Subtitle D holds our feet to the fire when it comes to landfill disposal, and a host of air-quality regulations do the same with WTE, but when it comes to recyclables, all too often we seem to be satisfied trusting the good intentions of those in whose hands we place materials, content to reap whatever diversion credits apply while patting ourselves on the back for the pittance we see in return. Is this what the public expects for the proper disposition of its discards?
Even if no greater expectation of waste management than its scheduled disappearance from in front of the house is involved, the fate of those materials lies with us until they no longer represent a threat to the public’s health and safety, no matter on whose turf the threat exists . . . ours, China’s, or the denizens of the bottom of the deep blue sea.
Now here’s the rub . . . the public and its elected officials have been led to believe that recycling is the goal of our waste management efforts, but in light of China’s ban, it appears rather than panacea, the practice led us down a path of wasteful and counterproductive action fueled by the public’s ignorance of waste management activities and obfuscation over the true fate of materials on the disposal side of the fence.
For the last three decades, waste management practices have followed a path of increasing regulatory control in which ideological hierarchies have supplanted the marketplace, leading inevitably to the erroneous belief that our fundamental mission is recycling rather than public health and safety—not just locally, but in whatever venue the ultimate fate of our discards reside. It’s a situation the Chinese initiative has brought into bold relief; one that when viewed dispassionately is not only unsustainable, but whose continued existence compounds the problems we face. But therein lies the daunting task of changing the public’s perception on the role of waste management in its truly sustainable materials management efforts . . . what I am wont to view as that of overcoming stranded political investment.
I’ve made no bones about my dislike of offshoring waste materials under the questionable recyclables label when, if they are truly recyclables rather than wastes, we should be retaining and increasing their value at home without the added economic and environmental burdens imposed by handling and transporting them elsewhere. Moreover, what’s the difference between offshoring and the covert practice of landfilling of supposed recyclables for which no markets exist? Good stewardship over discards belongs with those closest to their creation, and moreover, the marketplace should be the arbiter in the approach to their disposition.