But the economics of this trade work only when the health and environment of the poor are de-valued. It was in 1991 when the then chief economist of the World Bank, Larry Summers, had advocated that toxic waste and polluting factories should be moved to least developed countries. Summers, who then went on to become president of Harvard University, was pilloried for this idea by all — but he has the last laugh. This is the business order of the globalised world. It moves polluting factories and mountains of waste into the lands and hands of the poor, all in the name of commerce and livelihoods.
When China finally stopped the import of plastic waste
in 2018, new markets had to be found. Many countries, including Malaysia and Indonesia, became the willing dumpyards, till they decided enough was enough. But plastic waste is finding new ports where the costs of recycling would be cheaper and would benefit local business and provide employment. All good. This is the modern world’s notion of a circular economy. Summers’ version has come true.
It is another matter that these receiving countries are already drowning in their own waste. The fact is that if the rich could pay the real costs of recycling, they would not ship it to poorer countries (I mean the rich of the first world and the rich of our world). The business is about cutting costs. And it is growing. At the May 2019 meeting of the Basel Convention — an international agreement that binds countries to be responsible in their trade of hazardous substances — plastic waste was included for the first time. But not without a fight. The amendment by Norway to regulate trade in certain kinds of plastic was contested strongly by the US; and finally, after much dilution, it was agreed that a distinction would be maintained between contaminated plastic waste and the so-called clean plastic waste, which is destined for recycling in an “environmentally sound manner”. So, some control has been brought in, but trade will continue and it will supposedly work for all. The Summers Doctrine again!
The question is whether this is the way ahead. Waste can be a resource. There is no doubt about this. It is also clear that we must recycle and re-use as many times and as much as possible. The Basel Convention may try to stop illegal trade in hazardous substances, but it allows waste to be traded, recycled and processed in a “green” and sustainable way. Given the economics of recycling, that would only mean that this will be done where costs are cheap and health and environment are discounted.
It is not just plastic and it is not just the interests of the rich. While the European Union took a strong stand on plastic waste, it also sought permission to export electronic waste. Then we have second-hand clothes or second-hand cars swamping African nations, all in the name of global charity as the poor can now afford better clothes. This is leading to new forms of local trade interests, which then want to trade in trash. It is their business.
It is time we re-thought this commodity business of waste. It is time we re-worked the “Not-in-my-Backyard” to “In-my-Backyard”. Every city must handle its own waste, including its processing. Only then will it become more responsible in its production and recycling. We need to close the circle of this circular economy to make it work. Not Summers-style. But really sustainable-style.
The writer is at the Centre for Science and Environment