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Waste shipped around the world for recycling

April 15, 2007 at 12:11 pm

Recyclers across Britain have been shocked by recent media reports showing that many of their carefully recycled goods end up causing environmental havoc in China. Figures show that in 2006, 1.9 billion tonnes of rubbish (mainly paper, card and metal) was sent 5,000 miles from Britain to China, where it ended up in unregulated recycling plants.

Rubbish is transported in empty container ships returning to China after delivering manufactured goods to the UK and Europe. This means that there is little additional energy or financial cost in transporting the goods, but the environmental impact on China is disastrous.

Most of the rubbish that arrives in China either ends up in landfill sites or is sorted out and anything which can’t be reused or resold is burnt. The effect on humans and the environment is significant. Some of the rubbish contains lead and, if this ends up in landfill sites, poisons can enter the water system, damaging both humans and the environment. Meanwhile, burning plastics and other waste products has effected air quality in many towns and villages, with locals arguing that deteriorating air quality is contributing to an increase in cancers and other serious health problems. Furthermore, rubbish such as plastic bags often blows away from recycling plants and ends up blocking waterways and destroying the landscape.

Despite legislation in China governing recycling issues, it is rarely reinforced due to a lack of resources, and much of the recycling takes place in places where health and environmental issues are not a priority. In some provinces, unlicensed recycling factories are now illegal, but when they are forced to close down they usually end up relocating to another area.

It is not only Britain that sends its rubbish to China, many other European countries such as France and Germany are also involved in this rubbish trade. Europeans are able to take advantage of EU regulations that forbid rubbish being dumped overseas, but allow sorted waste to be shipped abroad for recycling purposes.

Environmental organisations argue that wealthy countries need to learn how to deal with their waste problems themselves rather than exporting the problem to less developed countries. The question is whether or not it is right for us to expect poorer countries to pay the environmental price for our waste, or if we should be looking at more sustainable ways to recycle our rubbish at home?

At the end of the day, does knowing that your waste may end up being shipped out to China stop you wanting to recycle?

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One response to “Waste shipped around the world for recycling”

  1. Peter Hurrell says:

    I just can’t believe it that you have no commentary here, astounding! I will add mine.
    Our Government as part of a wider commitment across the World and the Environmentalists and the Waste Industry has thrown down the gauntlet to challenge the issue of waste. Whilst all attempts are made maximise these efforts by the notions of reduce, reuse, recycle and rethink the issue of the overall mechanism to effect same through any eventual treatment procedure has very seldom achieved any better than dumping the waste in other people’s back yards. Your discussion on the issues here resound to that.
    There are potentials that can be used to the betterment of Society and the Paymasters particularly in respect of Paper and Cardboard and Packaging. Whilst a certain proportion of this is available for incorporation in new paper manufacture alas the majority cannot be reused. So the inevitable happens it is dumped again. From the Republic of Ireland it goes to Belfast: from Ireland it goes through Liverpool to China [750,000 tonnes in 2005/6], from the rest of England Wales and Scotland it is variously transported across the country [using up fuel] to be rehandled and then returned to ports for shipment to China [Southampton, Sheerness are but two of these other ports.] All this seems to be contrary to the ideas promulgated of recycling.
    Wait what does recycling mean? Effectively it is a misnomer since it implies reuse but that cannot be done with paper as it needs cleaning and treating making it ready for incorporating into paper manufacture. The real term should be salvage and reworking prior to reuse. Taking this logic further then the best option is to rethink the issue altogether. In this therefore we should go back and think what we are attempting to do. For paper [as with any other biomass] the constituents are readily able to be identified and they can be reworked into a much more useful product. That product is the renewable or biofuel Ethanol. We have the technology and process already here in the UL and elsewhere across the World to effect this.
    By converting Biomass [including that in Municipal and any other source of Waste] to Ethanol we can transform the value of this recycled paper from that of a waste to a product. One tonne of paper will produce 400 litres of Ethanol and as a fuel. That is worth considerably more than shipping it overseas particularly if it is burnt! But more importantly we shouldn’t ship it overseas as, for example, last years 1,527,000 tonnes of recycled paper is worth 600 million plus litres of Ethanol fuel. This year’s 4 million tonnes of recycled paper is worth 1,600 million litres of Ethanol.
    The benefits to the economy are enormous…environmental and economic. Turning this paper to Ethanol avoids it being transported unnecessarily around the UK and across the World: it retains the Wealth in the Country: it would create jobs: it would reduce our dependency on fossil fuels; it would allow us to make a Renewable Biofuel from Non Food Sources [look at that issue again particularly in the light of recent UN and EU and UK publicity, even Prof. Dieter Helm would accept that position].
    By adding to this the Biomass from Municipal Solid Waste [and Sewage Sludge] the same process could be used to make Ethanol from our every day waste without the need of the environmentally unacceptable incineration programmes at a cost that is less than 30% of incineration schemes. More importantly the process is will pay for itself within a few years and then the Revenue Stream would be available for Real Council Tax Reductions for the Public. Two benefits in one.
    And the process is here now in the UK, and will be built in the NW of England, Wales, Scotland and the SE as well as Ireland the Far East [including China!]
    We must not lose out in this. Converting the Biomass from Municipal Solid Waste to Ethanol will Reduce Council Taxes for all and the Public as Paymasters will be the beneficiaries.

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