Schlagwort: garbage


Out of sight, out of mind: Plastic waste isn’t recycled (yet)

Just because it is collected doesn’t mean it will get recycled. How shifting the meaning of recycling is blinding us to see the painful truth about our part in plastic pollution: Plastic rubbish travels the world already before it enters the oceans.

Rubbish collection and neglection

I’ve been living in different countries throughout the last years – with a focus on diving. Therefore I have not only seen how rubbish is (NOT) collected in many places, but how much ends up one way or another in the oceans. Just recently I had the shocking experience: A motivated dive team and attentive guests collected lots of rubbish during dives, carefully disentangling fishing lines and nets from in between corals, catching plastic bags floating by and picking up every plastic cup and bottle that isn’t already fused into the reef or otherwise completely overgrown. We knew we cannot win against the plastic flood this way, but at least it feels good to clean up – or so we thought. Until we figured out that the boat crew tossed it back into the sea when nobody was looking. Shocking realisation!

Easy to point fingers, and believe me we did, all these uneducated people in countries with growing populations, they have no understanding of how toxic plastic is for the environment, they don’t care about nature or hygiene and that’s why there is so much plastic accumulating in our seas (and all along the food chain in fact, eventually coming back to us …). But what about us? I’ve heard it so many times by so many divers (hey, that is the world I’m living in): THEY are responsible, after all WE have great rubbish collections. Our waste is separated and treated and for sure is not part of the ever increasing plastic disaster in the oceans worldwide.

What does recycling actually mean?

In Germany we are proud of our system to separate waste. We have differently coloured bins (like in many other countries btw). In fact I wouldn’t be surprise if actually a Scandinavian country happens to follow a way more specific separation of rubbish on a household level, but anyway we claim the title and call ourselves “Recycling World Champion” (DW: Plastic waste and the recycling myth). But what does recycling actually mean? What is happening with plastic in Germany? As it turns out, not a lot.

Recycling plastic is much more complicated than recycling glass or paper. At least if you stick to the original meaning of the world recycling (Oxford Dictionary): “The action or process of converting waste into reusable material.” Ideally this material can be used for the same purpose it was used for in the first place. In reality even glass bottles, unless they are actually cleaned and reused, will be recycled to become something different than a glass container, e.g. used as ingredient for road building etc. But hey, I can live with the fact that office paper gets recycled to cardboard boxes. Still great!

How to (NOT) recycle plastic: Creating your own comfort zone

Recycling plastic is so much more complicated. There are so many different kinds of plastics to start off with and in almost most products and particula

Pressed and stacked PET bottles
Ready to ship (Picture by Thomas Kohler flickr_4602797933 with CClicense).

rly packaging is made of a variety of polymer types, but only single-variety plastics can be recycled. So in order to make recycling of plastic reality, producers would have to design the products and packaging differently from the start (see also “Plastic Planet” for more info on that topic). Recycled plastic bags or juice bottles can be turned into flower pots, coat hangers and other plastic products that are not associated with food or personal hygiene. Exporting plastic waste is only allowed if it is recycled, nevertheless there are German products found on (open) rubbish dumps, e.g. in Malaysia as the Handelsblatt reveals in February 2019. Until the beginning of 2018 Germany used to export most of its plastic waste to China. Then China put a hold to this and as exporting rubbish is the cheapest way to deal with our rubbish and we believe in a free market that is problem solving capabilities, new destinations in Southeast-Asia were explored: Plastic imports of Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam and Thailand have increased dramatically (National Geographic News). Fantastic, that’s our recycling done then!

Not quite yet, we still have a great infrastructure in Germany (and within Europe) to deal with what is left of own rubbish mountains. Let it burn, baby! OK, it is not really turning waste into a reusable material, but we generate heat and energy this way and, even though it takes a lot more energy (and new raw materials) to manufacture a replacement product from scratch, we still call it recycling (Tree Hugger on Germany and Sweden). And that makes of World Champion!

What makes German recycling to efficient?

„Love rather than consume“ – Message on glass collection container in Berlin (Picture by Nicola Jaeger for PowerShift e.V.).

To be sure to be sure, we don’t base our recycling quota of plastic on what is actually happening with the rubbish; the statistics of recycling plastic waste in Germany are based on the amount that is collected and separated. But that’s where it ends. Some might get actually recycled, most of it won’t. Doesn’t matter. We have done our part. We buy and consume. We separate (mostly) and put it neatly together. But what happens to all the waste afterwards is really not our responsibility anymore, or is it?

No more!

In case you do want to know more about the depressing truth, take a look at the Greenpeace study “The recycling myth – Malaysia and the broken global recycling system” published at the end of 2018. For some first ideas on „Behavioural and production changes“ take a look here.

Avaaz petition (with the pathetic title: Before another whale dies …) goes out to environment ministers of Australia, Canada, Japan, Germany, and other leaders: “Add plastic under the Basel Convention on hazardous waste and then take bold steps to end plastic pollution everywhere!” This could put an end to exporting plastic “for recycling”. Greenpeace NZ is campaigning for “ocean sanctuaries across the planet, and for NZ to back the strongest Global Ocean Treaty at the UN to enable this”, you can add your name here.

Plastic Planet: Minimising plastic pollution

Indonesia’s garbage problem, community solutions to reduce plastic waste, legislation and initiatives on production and use of plastic, behavioural changes and campaign pressure supported by NGOs and all of us who take action.

On our way back to Wakatobi last Monday we read about the problem of plastic waste in Indonesia in general (The Jakarta Post) and new initiatives to deal with the problem (The Jakarta Post and International Bali Post). It is very encouraging that, firstly, the topic of plastic pollution is not only present online, discussed among divers and other ocean lovers or within NGO campaigns, but prominently featured in the (English) Indonesian press; and secondly, that there is a clear demand to get politicians into motion on the issue. Rules and regulation are needed to minimise use and production of plastic as well as to oblige producers to design products in a way that the materials can be recycled after the product is used. Apart from supporting initiatives and campaigns we can also avoid buying and using plastic products wherever possible because what’s here today, unfortunately will be there tomorrow too.

Indonesia’s garbage problem

According to a study led by Jenna Jambeck (University of Georgia) in 2016 83% of Indonesia’s waste is mismanaged. This ends up in 3.22 million tons of mismanaged plastic garbage every year of which in return 1.29 million tons end up as marine debris, killing marine organisms and entering the marine food chain. Since this study, nothing really happened to tackle the plastic flood.

Living on a very remote island we note the change in the amount of plastic in the ocean throughout the year. The plastic wave hits a lot of small islands with westerly winds, when rainy season seasons starts. Actually a lot of the garbage, also in Indonesia, is collected in the first place and then brought to open landfills. However, when the rains come – and rainy season in this part means monsoon-like downpours – a lot of this rubbish is washed into the sea. The rain very conveniently “cleans” other parts of the cities and countryside as well. Currents and wind bring part of this plastic pollution also in sparsely populated areas like Wakatobi. Of course, on top there are still people (households, boats, corporations …) that see the sea as the private disposal area: Out of sight, out of mind.

Every day of the year, in rainy season (December to February) even multiple times a day, gardeners clean the beaches here. As divers we pick up trash every dive every day, but there are designated trash picking dives needed now to collect what is accumulating on the house reef and elsewhere. But end-of-pipe solutions, like cleaning up the plastic that’s washed onto our reefs, are not going to be enough. We need real change, tackling plastic before it actually turns into (marine) waste.

Community solutions combined with legislation to reduce plastic waste

Showing the announcement of Bali Buda in their newspaper/menu to not give any plastic bags anymore and to take back packaging for recycling

In the beginning of the year Bali has implemented a ban on plastic bags. Unfortunately so far this legislation only applies to super- and hypermarkets, though some eco-minded small shops are following the legislation already and offer even more to their customers (see picture). But it’s a first step. Also the pattern of waste transportation changed. There is a waste management officer in each community. The idea is to strengthen integrated waste management system and making it easier for the population to participate in the separation of garbage, hereby increasing recycling numbers and reducing the overall amount of rubbish going to landfills.

“The story of plastic” shows how this decentralized model works in in some parts of Manila (The Philippines). “We believe in the power of the communities to solve their own waste problems if only given the right support to actually do it.” Communities are working towards zero waste by separating organic waste for composting as well as those materials which can be recycled. Communities are left with about 20-30% of non-reusable rubbish. And here it is getting interesting: By checking which companies are actually producing these products and packaging in the first place and asking them to eliminate them or come up with alternative designs. “The Story of Stuff Project” (NGO who produced the clip) supports the idea that products that can’t be managed by the communities properly, shouldn’t be created in the first place. This way the bottom-up initiative presented by „The Story of Stuff Project“ addresses the plastic problem at its actual root:

Also Indonesia wants to work on both ends: legislation to reduce plastic in production as well as changing use of plastic products from the users. The central government’s role is guidance and a series of programs (like early childhood education, cooperation with other ASEAN countries). Local administrations have to draft their own regulations. Fingers crossed!

Behavioural and production changes – Minimise plastic pollution

We can all help to reduce plastic rubbish. Most importantly, by putting pressure on corporations and supporting any administrative initiatives to reduce the production and use of plastic and to support reusing, recycling and upcycling. Holding companies responsible for the waste they are producing seems to be a valid angle and Greenpeace encourages people to take pictures of plastic sitting somewhere it doesn’t belong on our pretty planet and post these picture to social media (tag brand and use hashtag #IsThisYours?). More info online: Is it yours? “That’s what we’re asking the brands whose plastic pollution is choking our planet. We’re gathering evidence that single-use plastic packaging is ending up where it shouldn’t be, and holding the corporate polluters accountable.”

One day a year dedicated to clean up is not going to cut it. Support campaigns and NGOs that are fighting fundamentally against the plastic pollution that is flooding our planet, like the ones mentioned in this article and/or on this list. And of course, let’s try to minimise our own plastic pollution already by buying and using less. After all the best plastic is the one that isn’t produced, the one that isn’t entering the ocean in the first place.

To be continued.