Plastic waste from America, collected for recycling, is shipped to Indonesia. Some is burned as fuel by tofu makers, producing deadly chemicals and contaminating food.
By Richard Paddock
TROPODO, Indonesia — Black smoke billows from smokestacks towering above the village. The smell of burning plastic fills the air. Patches of black ash cover the ground. It’s another day of making tofu.
A movement bidding good riddance to bad trash is growing across South East Asia, and it should spark an international reckoning with how we have been dealing with plastic waste, recycling, and responsibility.
China closed its doors in 2018 to nearly a million tons of mixed plastic waste shipments, and with it, the inevitable toxic pollution to land, air, and groundwater that comes with plastic waste. All plastics contain toxic additives, many of which have negative health impacts. In the wake of China’s decision, the developed waste exporting nations set their plastic recycling on course to other South East Asian countries that were soon overwhelmed by the massive trashing.
In May, world governments gave developing countries a tool to resist the deluge of plastic mixed waste shipments through the UN Basel Convention. The US is not a signatory to the treaty, yet attempted to block the decision. The US obstruction failed, and 184 of the world’s governments created new regulations that require waste exporting countries to declare the content of mixed waste shipments and enables receiving countries to refuse plastic waste imports.
The Prime Minister’s announcement and COAG support for a ban on waste exports should be cautiously welcomed and is long overdue following the embarrassing revelations of Australian illegal waste dumping in South East Asia. However, it seems certain that the announcement is designed to distract from a major government push to burn Australia’s waste in polluting incinerators: an industry it quietly supports. As noted by some media reports on the announcement, the government “was exploring using waste in energy plants to power Australian homes.”