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America generates more plastic waste than any other country in the world and is the third-largest contributor of plastic pollution in coastal environments, according to a new study. The country produced 42 million metric tons, or 130 kg per person, in 2016. 

The study, using World Bank data on waste generation in 217 countries, shines a light on the global waste export system, showing that wealthier countries often ship their waste to less developed countries with inadequate recycling methods. A 2019 investigation found that US plastic was being sent to some of the world’s poorest countries, including Bangladesh, Laos, Ethiopia and Senegal. 

Previous work had suggested that Asian countries contributed the most to marine plastic pollution and placed the US in 20th place, however this research neglected US waste exports or illegal dumping in the country. 

Nick Mallos, senior director of Ocean Conservancy’s Trash Free Seas programme and co-author of the study, says, “The United States generates the most plastic waste of any other country in the world, but rather than looking the problem in the eye, we have outsourced it to developing countries and become a top contributor to the ocean plastic crisis.”

Why Does This Matter?

Less than 10% of plastic waste in the US was collected for recycling in 2016, according to the study. Half of this was exported, 88% of which went to countries with ineffective waste management systems. The report says that “up to 1 million metric tons of US-generated plastic waste ended up polluting the environment beyond its own borders.”

The study also found that between 2-3% of plastic waste generated in the US in 2016 was either discarded as litter or illegally dumped. 

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Combined with waste exports, America contributed 2.25 million metric tons of plastic waste to global pollution levels. 1.5 million of this ended up in coastal environments, five times more than in 2010. 

After the US, India and China produced the second- and third- most plastic waste, but their large populations meant that their figures for per capita plastic waste was less than 20% of that of US consumers. In terms of plastic waste ending up in the ocean, Indonesia and India ranked highest, followed by the US. 

Mallos says, “America is 4% of the world’s population, yet it produces 17% of its plastic waste. The US needs to play a much bigger role in addressing the global plastic pollution crisis.” 

In 2018, China banned the import of plastic waste, and Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand, India and Indonesia have followed with their own restrictions. 

How effective are recycling programmes in East Asia? We crunched the numbers to compare Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore and Mainland China’s records on waste and recycling. The results show that Taiwan is ahead of the others, and has valuable lessons to share. 

Around the world waste is piling up. The rise of single-use packaging and our ‘throw-away culture’ is having a massive impact on our ability to deal with waste. Last year, over 2 billion tons of waste was generated globally. An estimated 5% of global greenhouse gas emissions are from waste in landfills and open dumps. 

The World Bank states that there are large disparities between high-income and low-income countries when it comes to waste. Waste generation is much greater in high-income countries as high-income means high-consumption and therefore high-waste. While waste collection and some recycling infrastructure is almost guaranteed in upper-middle-income and high-income countries, in low-income countries less than half of urban waste is collected. Likewise, recycling rates vary significantly in high-income and low-income countries. As countries develop and urbanise, this waste crisis is only going to get worse; the World Bank estimates that in the next 30 years, global waste generation will increase by 70%.

Recycling is a key component to stem the tide and eventually achieve zero waste. Further, it is a useful indicator of a country’s attitude to the overall waste issue. As such, it is telling that many high-income, high-consumption nations continue to export their waste abroad. This ‘out of sight out of mind’ approach was challenged at the end of 2017 when China banned the import of waste under the ‘National Sword’ policy. Hong Kong and to a lesser extent Singapore, both high-income states in East Asia, have struggled with this policy as a collapsed global export market has left their poor domestic recycling markets exposed. On the other hand, Taiwan is an importer of recycling waste and was affected by a flood of waste entering the country following China’s ban, with imported plastic and paper more than doubling from 2017 to 2018. 

East Asia Pacific produces 23% of the world’s waste, the most of any region. Within East Asia, Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan and China generate a combined 223 million tons annually. Of these four countries in East Asia, Taiwan is seen as a world leader in recycling and zero waste with high recycling rates and low waste disposal for their income level. Taiwan’s success with recycling is proof that the rest of East Asia can achieve a low-waste economy through effective policy, infrastructure and education.

You might also like: Asia’s Battle Against Plastic Waste 

asia recycling figures

From the data above on recycling in the various countries in East Asia, China has the lowest per person waste generation and disposal rates, due to a lower income per capita than the others. China doesn’t provide official statistics for recycling but it has a goal of achieving 35% waste recovery in major cities by 2020. Taiwan has similar disposal rates to China and a much more advanced recycling industry. It has the second best recycling rate, closely following Singapore. Hong Kong lags behind the other areas with high-generation, low overall recovery and very low local recycling capacity. 

Taiwan is a recent success story. As recently as 1993, it was called ‘Garbage Island’ as only 70% of waste was collected, while the rest was openly dumped or burnt in pits. Back then ‘Garbage Island’ had a paltry 5% recycling rate, but for the last 10 years, has boasted a recycling rate of above 50%. Similarly, daily disposal rates have improved from 1.14 kg per person in 1998 to 0.4 kg per person in 2013.

The remarkable turnaround was sparked by activists’ protesting to compel the government to stop using harmful incinerators to deal with waste and to instead adopt a zero-waste framework. The drive towards zero waste was achieved in the late 1990s and early 2000s with the implementation of a range of regulations. These policies were centred around a ‘4-in-1’ system of extended producer responsibility (EPR) that holds all stakeholders in the waste lifecycle responsible, from manufacturers to consumers. Additional measures, such as a municipal solid waste (MSW) charging scheme, were implemented to shift consumer behaviour and raise money for recycling infrastructure, collection services and education. In fact, education was a crucial component of the overall framework as communities have been a big part of Taiwan’s success. Recycling has become a ‘ritual’ with rubbish and recycling trucks playing classical music to alert residents and volunteers helping residents sort their waste correctly. 

Hong Kong and Singapore on the other hand have sky-high daily disposal rates. Both space-constrained cities face waste crises that are growing out of control. Hong Kong’s landfills are effectively full. Extension of an existing landfill provides capacity until 2030 and the city’s first incinerator is due to be in operation by 2024. Hong Kong only recycles 30% of waste and, due to the limited recycling infrastructure in the city, almost all of this is sent overseas to be processed. 

Singapore incinerates almost all waste that is not recovered for recycling which significantly reduces the volume sent to landfill. Despite this, the city’s only landfill will be full by 2035 if current levels of dumping continue. There is hope that the Singaporean government is taking the issue seriously as 2019 was declared a ‘year of zero waste’ to help kick start the waste reduction movement. One positive is that industrial and construction waste recycling is well established in Singapore which results in a high overall recycling rate of 59%, of which 34% is exported. Household recycling is lacking at 17% and is an obvious place for improvement.

Each city has detailed plans to respond to the crisis. Hong Kong’s 2013 Blueprint set ambitious goals to reduce waste by 40% from 2011 levels and increase recycling to 55% by 2022. Key to this blueprint was a focus on certain waste streams and an MSW charging scheme, where users pay to dispose of waste. The Environment Bureau described the MSW charging as ‘one of most forceful tools in waste reduction’. The scheme was first proposed over 15 years ago, in 2004, and after many delays, it was recently scrapped, serving a massive blow to environmental lobbyists. Measures such as education and a focus on certain waste streams, such as waste electronic and electric equipment (WEEE) have led to some improvements, however overall, ambitious goals and blueprints to reduce waste in Hong Kong have so far failed. 

Singapore’s Masterplan sets three goals, namely to reduce waste disposed of in landfills by 30% by 2030, increase the overall recycling rate to 70% and extend the lifespan of the Semakau landfill beyond 2035. Much like Hong Kong’s blueprint, the masterplan focuses on food waste, WEEE, and packaging. In fact, Hong Kong and Singapore have similar extended producer responsibility (EPR) schemes. Hong Kong’s, called a producer responsibility scheme (PRS), covers plastic bags, WEEE and glass bottles. Singapore’s is still being implemented but will likely cover WEEE by 2021 and plastic packaging and other waste streams in the following years. Both EPRs could be expanded to include more waste and be more holistic like the Taiwanese ‘4-in-1’ system. 

China is the world’s largest waste generator, and waste levels are rising fast as incomes continue to rise. By 2030 it is estimated that the country will produce double the municipal solid waste of the US, the second-largest producer. China’s waste generation per capita is low, due to its status as a lower-middle-income country. Despite this low waste generation, China is still faced with a growing waste problem. Major rivers in China are a significant source of ocean plastic, and landfills are filling up much quicker than expected

Landfills are major waste disposal methods in China with 56% of waste ending up in them. Incineration is growing and is currently responsible for 39% of disposal. Official recycling rates are not published in China so little is known about how much waste is recycled. Major cities in China are taking the lead in recycling with an initiative to increase recycling to 35% in 46 urban centres. In addition, there are 10 cities that are yet to be confirmed, to pilot China’s ‘zero waste cities’ programme. Shanghai is the first pilot city and now has strict rules on waste sorting and disposal in the hopes of improving its recycling rate which was as low as 10% in 2017. 

Taiwan is the clear leader of East Asia when it comes to zero waste and recycling, although the other three countries’ governments are starting to prioritise it. Taiwan’s turnaround from ‘Garbage Island’ shows it can be done. Policies to ensure that all stakeholders work together and are held accountable, investment in collection and recycling facilities, as well as community engagement appear to be crucial to Taiwan’s success. While conditions vary and different solutions may be required at each location, the Taiwanese model is a useful and proven starting point.

Featured image: Flickr

Canada will ban single-use plastics, including checkout bags, straws and cutlery, nationwide by the end of 2021, as part of larger plans to achieve zero plastic waste by 2030.

In a news conference, Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson, says, “Plastic pollution threatens our natural environment. It fills our rivers or lakes, and most particularly our oceans, choking the wildlife that live there. Canadians see the impact that pollution has from coast to coast to coast.”

The government set three criteria for products to fall under the ban- there is evidence that they are harmful to the environment, they are difficult or costly to recycle and there are ready available alternatives. The six items that the government plans to ban are plastic checkout bags, straws, stir sticks, six-pack rings, cutlery and food ware made from plastics that are difficult to recycle.

Wilkinson clarified that the single-use plastic ban “would not affect access to PPE or any other plastics used in the medical environment” in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, but he added that the government is looking at ways to properly dispose of PPE “so that it does not end up in our natural environment,” as well as investigating solutions to recycle PPE wherever possible and add options to make some of the PPE biodegradable. 

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This is certainly a welcome move as Canada produces an estimated 3.3 million tonnes of plastic waste per year and the government says that only 9% of this is recycled. Additionally, the country uses almost 15 billion plastic bags every year and close to 57 millions straws each day. More than a third of the plastics in Canada are created for single-use products or packaging. The plan was first announced last year, with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau describing it as a “problem we simply can’t afford to ignore.”

The government is releasing a discussion paper outlining the proposed plastics ban and soliciting public feedback, which will be available until December 9. 

Featured image by: Flickr

Scientists around the world are studying natural compounds found in the environment that could help break down plastic. So do they hold the key to solving the plastics crisis? We caught up with enzymes researcher Dr Emily Flashman of Oxford University to learn more.

First of all, can you briefly explain what enzymes are?

Enzymes are proteins found in all living organisms which speed up the reactions that take place in cells. Enzymes do this by bringing the molecules which react together in exactly the right position for the reaction to occur. This takes place at a region of the enzyme called an active site, which has a very specific shape and size for binding particular molecules. Without enzymes, the chances of the right molecules reacting together would be so low that life could not be sustained.

What do we know about how enzymes are interacting with plastic in nature?

We know that certain enzymes can break down the long chain PET molecules in some plastics. These have mainly been identified through searching through biological samples (like microorganisms in soil) for enzymes that ‘look’ as though they should be able to break down the relevant bond in PET plastics. This doesn’t mean that the microorganisms from which theses enzymes originate are specifically interacting with the plastic, it’s just that their enzymes have natural substrates which are very similar to plastic (in size and shape) so they can also break it down efficiently.

In contrast to this is the bacterial strain identified at a plastic bottle recycling facility in Japan, which have evolved to be able to excrete an enzyme to break down PET into smaller components, which the bacteria can then absorb and use as a source of food. To my knowledge this is the only location where bacteria (and the enzymes from those bacteria) have evolved to specifically capitalise on the plastic in their environment.

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Do you think it’s inevitable that enzymes will evolve to consume plastic, if it continues to accumulate in the environment?

I am not surprised that in an environment which is predominantly plastic (i.e. the recycling facility) that bacteria have evolved to take advantage of this as a food source; bacteria after all reproduce very rapidly so when under environmental pressure (no other food readily available) they will quickly evolve such that those with enzymes that allow them to use the plastic as a carbon source have a competitive advantage. I think this may happen at a local level in specific environmental niches (i.e. high levels of plastic and not much else) but I don’t think that  this is a phenomenon which will take place in the general environment where bacteria can acquire carbon from sources that are much easier to access.

What about in labs? Have we started modifying enzymes to tackle plastic?

Yes, there are a number of labs around the world working very hard on engineering enzymes which have the capability to break down plastic waste into useful components that can then be used to make more plastic products, i.e. for closed loop recycling. One example is the Centre for Enzyme Innovation at the University of Portsmouth who have already engineered the enzyme identified in bacteria at the plastic bottle recycling facility to be more efficient.

What is the end result when these enzymes ‘eat’ plastic – what’s left over?

PET (polyethylene teraphthalate) is a polymer – a long chained molecule made up of repeating units connected by specific chemical bonds called ester bonds. The bacteria from the plastic recycling facility actually have two enzymes, one which breaks an ester bond to form MHET (mono-2-hydroxyethyl terephthalate) and another which breaks an ester bond within MHET to form the ultimate breakdown products – ethylene glycol and terephthalic acid. The bacteria use these as a carbon source to help them grow but if we can engineer the enzymes in isolation then the breakdown products could be used for PET reformation.

Other enzymes (like from the bacteria in compost) can break down both ester bonds at once to directly form the breakdown products ethylene glycol and terephthalic acid which can then be isolated to reform PET plastic. For plastic recycling purposes, these processes would take place in a bioreactor – a closed container with optimal conditions for the enzymes to work like temperature, pressure, etc.

So what are the next steps – where do you see enzymes being used in the future?

Enzymes are being engineered for all sorts of purposes, for instance using them to make chemicals that currently use energy-intensive synthetic processes, as part of the production of pharmaceuticals, as well as the engineering of enzymes within plants to make them more tolerant to different types of stress – this is the focus of my work.

This article was originally published on Parley, and is republished here as part of an editorial partnership with Earth.Org. 

Retailers in Japan have started charging for plastic bags, in a move aimed at cutting down on plastic packaging and waste. Shops can decide how much to charge customers for the bags, with a common price being three yen (around three US cents). 

Stores are being asked to charge at least one yen for bags and they may also start distributing free, reusable plastic shopping bags, as well as bags that are decomposed by microorganisms in the sea and those containing at least 25% biomass materials.

Japan’s Plastic Waste

According to the UN, Japan is the second-highest producer of plastic packaging waste per capita in the world, behind the US. The country produces more than nine million tons of plastic waste a year, and in 2018, it vowed to reduce this by 25% by 2030. In December 2019, the government revised the law on containers and packaging recycling, hoping to encourage more people to bring their own bags when going shopping. 

You might also like: Op-Ed: Moving to a Circular Economy Model is Vital for the Planet

The government said in a policy document that the fee “is aimed at prompting people to think twice if a bag is really necessary and helping people to review their lifestyles.”

To tackle the high rates of marine plastic waste in the country, its Environment Ministry has launched a campaign to raise the proportion of shoppers who do not seek plastic bags at stores from 30% in March this year to more than 60% at the end of this year. 

“We will roll out plastic shopping bags fees in hope of making people aware of [the seriousness] of the global issue,” said Environment Minister Shinjiro Koizumi at a news conference on Tuesday last week. 

Japan has a robust waste management system, with government statistics saying that more than 80% of its plastic waste is recycled. However, much of this recycling involves incinerating plastic, often to produce energy, which generates carbon dioxide.

Although plastic shopping bags account for only around 2% of all plastic waste produced in the country, the government hopes that this fee will encourage consumers to change their packaging habits and be more mindful of their impact on the environment. In the long term, it hopes that the fee becomes the catalyst for more widespread reductions in the overall plastic waste.

Featured image by: Keng Susumpow

Germany will ban the sale of single-use plastic straws, cutlery, cotton buds and food containers from July 2021, aligning with an EU directive intended to reduce plastic waste. 

Federal Environment Minister Svenja Schulze, says, “Many disposable plastic products are superfluous with no sustainable use of resources. In addition, plastics end up too often in the environment or in the oceans. We are taking an important national step in the fight against the plastic flood.” The ban on these single-use plastics in Germany will go into effect on July 3, 2021. 

The German Association of Local Utilities (VKU) estimates that common plastic items make up around 10% to 20% of waste from parks, public places and streets with takeaway packaging for food and beverages made from polystyrene having the largest share. 

Globally, about 1.3 billion tons of trash is generated per year. In Europe, the amount of plastic waste has increased 13% in the last decade and in Germany alone, 3 million tons of plastic packaging waste is produced annually; according to official statistics, 48.8% of this plastic waste is recycled.

You might also like: Op-Ed: Moving to a Circular Economy Model is Vital for the Planet

Certainly, Germany’s recycling system is revered worldwide; its ‘green dot’ system earned the country the title of recycling world champion by the World Economic Forum in 2017 and it has the biggest collection system for reusable PET and glass bottles worldwide. Yet, experts argue that Germany doesn’t actually recycle as much waste as statistics suggest, especially when it comes to plastic packaging. 

A lot of waste that ends up in sorting facilities is incorrectly collected; in Germany, up to 50% of general rubbish ends up in bins designated for plastic, including waste that needs to be separated from plastics. 

Automated facilities are also unable to sort food containers made from different types of plastics, meaning that a lot of mixed plastic packaging ends up being discarded. This waste then ends up in landfills or incineration sites, yet it is counted as being recycled.

Meanwhile, the Bundestag and Bundesrat- Germany’s lower and upper houses of parliament- passed legislation in early July that would phase out coal use in the country by 2038 as part of a road map to reduce carbon emissions, after agreeing on the plan in January. The new plan also legislates the closure of eight brown-coal operations by 2022 as the number of jobs in renewable energy increases. 

If the planet continues producing and discarding as much plastic as it does now, by 2050, the plastic industry would represent 20% of all crude oil production, consuming 15% of the global annual carbon budget. Germany banning single-use plastic is a small step in reducing our reliance on fossil fuel, but an important one nonetheless. 

An investigation by Hong Kong news media outlet HK01 has found that nearly two-thirds of housing estates surveyed, both public and private, have sent plastic bottles collected in recycling bins to landfills. 

— 

HK01 surveyed 14 housing estates and found that nine were sending plastic bottles intended to be recycled to landfills. In 2019, reporters at the news outlet attached GPS trackers onto a number of plastic bottles that were put inside the recycling bins of the housing estates in Hong Kong. 

The journalists located seven of the devices in the Nim Wan and Lin Ma Hang landfills, and two devices in waste collection stations in West Kowloon and Sha Tin. Shockingly, five of the nine housing estates sending recyclable waste to landfills and waste collection stations had been awarded under the Environment Protection Department’s (EPD) Source Separation of Domestic Waste Award Scheme in 2018/2019. One estate, Metropolis Phase 2, has received the highest “Diamond Grade” for two consecutive years.  

You might also like: Asia’s Battle Against Plastic Waste

plastic recycling hong kong
West New Territories Landfill. (Source GovHK).

Cleaners at some of the estates were interviewed and said that much of the plastic is not recycled and is ‘abandoned as garbage’. Others claimed that collectors had not picked up recyclables from the building for at least six months, and that cleaners had to therefore send them to municipal waste management. 

The Plastic Recycling Landscape in Hong Kong

Some attribute the lack of recycling to the low value of plastics in Hong Kong. According to local environmental group, Green Sense, one kilogram of collected, separated and processed plastic waste may generate HKD$0.30- $0.50 for recyclers. The price of recycled plastics has been in decline since 2018. In Mainland China (where Hong Kong was sending much of its waste before China banned foreign waste), the value per ton dropped from 8010 yuan (HKD$8700, USD$1100) in October 2018 to 7164 yuan (HKD7800, USD$1012) at the end of 2019. 

Further, in June 2019, recycling prices for paper and cardboard were slashed by nearly half, adding to the woes of waste collectors in Hong Kong and contributing to a buildup of waste in landfills, which are projected to be full by the end of the year. To meet the city’s demand for waste disposal, the government is expanding the South-east New Territories Landfill by an additional 13 hectares, which should meet the city’s landfill needs until 2030. 

The Hong Kong Environmental Protection and Recycle Industry Sustainable Development Association says that the government and property management companies should provide monetary subsidies to recyclers to incentivise the proper collection and recycling of plastics. The association also urged property management companies and housing estates to disclose the names of recyclers, something that is not currently done, meaning that residents have no channels to monitor recyclers. It also urged the Environmental Protection Department to compel estates to publish detailed monthly recycling records and receipts.

Recent statistics from the Environmental Protection Department have indicated that the average daily disposal quantity of plastic bags in 2017 rose to 793 metric tons, just short of the 867 ton level recorded in 2008, a year before the levy scheme was introduced.

In 2018, Hong Kongers sent an average of 1.53kgs per person of solid waste to landfills every day; in 2013, the Hong Kong government set a target that, by 2022, each person would throw away no more than 0.8kg of waste per day. It is unknown whether waste being sent to landfills has increased or decreased in the months since the outbreak of the coronavirus outbreak, as municipal waste data for this period has not yet been collected.

Facts About Plastic Pollution & Recycling in Hong Kong

The city sent a total of 5.87 million tonnes of solid waste to local landfills in 2018. Just 30% of solid waste was recycled in the city in 2018, which is made all the more concerning due to the fact that recycling facilities in the city are very basic, sorted by hand. In 2016, just 14% of plastic was recycled and in 2017, it was estimated that Hong Kong threw away 5.2 million bottles every day.

According to WWF Hong Kong, about 80% of the city’s marine litter is plastic, especially disposable products such as plastic bottles, plastic bags and packaging material. 

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Hong Kong government has adopted two subsidy schemes for recycling facilities that are currently financed by its recycling fund. The first is the One-off Rental Support Scheme (ORSS), which assists recycling facilities by covering 50% of their rent or up to HKD$25 000. The second is the One-off Recycling Industry Anti-epidemic Scheme (ORIAS), which helps support recycling facilities’ operational costs with HKD$20 000 every month. So far, over 580 applications have been approved for the funds, which have provided over HKD$90 million to recyclers in the past few months. 

However, there has been a delay in the implementation of the Legislative Council’s Municipal Solid Waste Charging Scheme (WCS). The scheme was formally introduced in 2018 and taxes residents according to how much waste they send to landfills. The fee for disposing a ten-litre bag of waste is set at HKD$11, meaning that the average household would pay between HKD$33 to $51 a month. 

It is vital that we reduce our use of plastic on a personal consumption level, but it is also imperative that the Hong Kong government -and others- implement effective recycling measures and financially incentivise recyclers to collect plastic waste. Our landfills will not be able to bear the burden of the city’s waste for much longer.   

Featured image by: South TinHau markers

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