Monday, March 1

The world’s awash with plastic garbage

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A mountainous pile of garbage on a street corner.

AN unscrupulous British exporter dumped whole container loads of household rubbish in Malaysia but fortunately it was seized and re-exported back to its source. Malaysia has subsequently closed down 155 illegal processing plants but plastic waste from abroad is still imported into the country, albeit illegally.

Until its ban, China imported 45 per cent of the world’s waste amounting to seven million tonnes. In 2019, a British waste disposal company was fined approximately RM1.75 million for attempting to ship household rubbish to China.

Plastic and its outcome

Worldwide, we have seen this substance used in extending the shelf life of food products and enabling goods to be transported safely. Single use plastic is useless. Britain has taken a leading role in that 70 per cent of UK packaging waste has either become recovered or recycled – exceeding an EU target of 60 per cent.

Don’t I know it for it takes me 30 minutes a week to sort out plastic, tins, glass bottles, wastepaper, and cardboard, which have to be placed in separate bins before my waste disposal collectors deem it fit for the weekly collection. None of the commonly used plastics are biodegradable for recycling for they contain polymers. Plastic packaging for single use in food, drinks, and tobacco contribute to 61 per cent of the beach litter cast aside by thoughtless people.

Waste production rates

The highest income countries typically produce 2.1kg of waste per head per day while the lower income nations produce the equivalent of 0.6kg. These figures are rising exponentially. The residents of urban areas produced twice as much waste as their rural neighbours with higher income residents being the biggest producers amounting to 777kg per person a year compared with the poorest people in urban areas, who produced 219kg of waste per capita in 2010.

The USA is the only developed nation whose waste products outstrip its ability to recycle. A forecast from the World Bank suggests that poorer nations will increase their waste from 369 million tonnes per annum to 956 million tonnes by 2025.

China and India, whose joint populations already make up 37 per cent of the world’s population, create 27 per cent of the world’s waste. China has already made a stance in 2019, for individuals and companies in Shanghai and its 12 million people, to abide by the laws to sort out and recycle all household waste. With China no longer accepting waste from overseas countries where is this waste going to be dumped?

Vehicles move on a flooded road.

Where are the dumping grounds?

In 2016, worldwide exports of 28 million tonnes of paper fibre ended up in China. If China ceases taking this, then a huge hole will be left. Malaysia became a dumping ground when illegal recycling factories, located in Jenjarom near to Port Klang, saw a mountain of waste of 19,000 tonnes accumulate. Last year, Malaysia generated 38,142 tonnes of waste each day.

Clearly the country has been bedevilled with overseas waste, which has been imported under the pretext of recycling. The recycling factories at Jenjarom emitted air pollution and contaminated ground water supplies promoting cancerous diseases. The Malaysian government stepped in strongly and closed down the illegal factories with much of the waste placed in landfill sites. Thailand will ban foreign waste next year and Vietnam in 2025.

Frightening rivers

Ten rivers carry 93 per cent of the garbage that eventually ends up in the world’s oceans. The Yangtze River takes some 1.5 million tonnes, which is dumped in the Yellow Sea. In the declining order of dumping there is the Indus, Yellow, Hai, Nile, Ganges, Pearl, Amur, Niger, and Mekong.

Plastic thrown down as street or roadside litter often makes its way via heavy rainstorms into the drains causing flash flooding through blockages, as we have frequently witnessed in Kuching to the great annoyance of the local councils.

Singapore, by comparison, is the cleanest city in Asia where the Singapore River is daily cleaned by boats scooping out debris and thus is kept spotlessly cleaned. Woe betide anyone dropping litter in that city! Certainly, we do want to add to the North West Pacific gyre, fed by waste from North and South America and Asia, and is estimated to already contain 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic.

File photo shows Borneo International School students cleaning up Damai Beach in 2019.

Incinerators

Whilst these may provide an easy solution, they also present problems. Norway has for years incinerated some of the waste from European countries including that of the British cities of Bristol and Leeds. The heat generated boils water to create steam, which powers the turbines to generate electricity. The boiling water is used to heat public buildings.

The environmental effects are seen in the emissions from the incinerators in terms of ash and the release of toxic chemicals into the atmosphere, but much depends on the emission control technology and the incinerator’s design. The fly ash has been dumped in landfill sites. The United Nations Environment Programme has warned against the uncontrolled burning of waste which can create persistent organic pollution that damages human health.

Place of plastics

The discovery of plastic as a substance occurred 113 years ago by Leo Baekeland, an American scientist, but little did he know then that it would revolutionise our world. So many subsequent inventions of polymers have made plastic a natural wrapping substance for products and especially those containing food. Nearly everything we buy contains plastic of one sort or another. We have seen the demise of plastic bags in shops and supermarkets and their replacement with biodegradable bags, which decompose upon exposure to ultraviolet light and the sun’s radiation. Life would not be the same without some forms of plastic which, I add, is woven into the very fabric of the facemasks we wear currently to combat Covid-19! Complacency on our part has been the driving force behind the mountains of waste plastic substances that litter our planet.

With Christmastide about to descend on us, we need to set an example by responsibly sorting out plastic packaging and food coverings, and separating them for recycling from the rest of our household waste products. Plastic will bedevil the world for years to come but for now we should strive to keep our oceans plastic free so that marine life will not engorge on the junk that our rivers have deposited into the seas.

More efficient household rubbish collection systems need to be developed and imposed along with carefully monitored sorting stations where our garbage ends up. The problem is one of a macro-scale and currently we are just ‘tickling’ its edges. Governments globally need to tackle the scale of this problem before even larger mountain ranges of garbage over run our only planet Earth.