[Editorial] Plastic waste chaos

By Korea Herald

Steps needed to tackle root causes of problems after China’s waste import ban

  • Published : Apr 3, 2018 - 17:30
  • Updated : Apr 3, 2018 - 17:30

Signs of chaos looming over waste pileup in the Seoul area have disappeared under the surface -- for now.

Recycling companies on Monday decided to overturn their previous decision to not collect plastic bags, plastic bottles and polystyrene foam or Styrofoam from Sunday.

Startled at the prospect of a bigger crisis over waste buildup and an outpouring of complaints and criticism, the government hurriedly contacted the companies and persuaded them to resume collection.

But their refusal of collection can happen again anytime, were it not for measures to address the root causes of the problem which stemmed from China’s ban on the importation of wastes.

Recycling problems could have been expected without difficulty. In July 2017, the Chinese government announced it intended to stop the importation of 24 kinds of solid waste by the end of that year, including polyethylene terephthalate bottles, other plastic bottles and containers, and all mixed paper. For years, China has imported about half of the world’s wastes, including Korea’s.

For all the warning signals from China, at any rate, the incident happened. The Ministry of Environment and the local governments in Seoul, Incheon and Gyeonggi Province have a lot to answer to for failing to act proactively.

The point of the government persuasion is to compensate recycling companies for their profitability deterioration due to China’s waste import ban, which caused a plunge in the prices of plastic waste in Korea.

The ministry said it would announce further measures this month to support the domestic recycling industry and stabilize markets afflicted by decreasing waste exports and declining recycling at home.

China’s ban on waste importation for recycling had a significant impact throughout the developed world. The European Commission, the executive of the European Union, announced strategy for plastic wastes in January, which calls for a ban on single-use plastics, such as coffee cups, in the EU by 2030. The commission also drew up plans for all packaging in Europe to be recyclable by 2030.

Some cities in the US began to address the root of the problem by limiting the amount of plastic they allow, such as by enforcing a ban on plastic bags in grocery stores. Companies scrambled to find an alternative country to accept the massive amounts of recyclables building up.

Then, what has the government in Seoul been doing in the meantime? It should have dealt with anticipated problems months ago, but has sat on its hands. It cannot avoid criticisms for being irresponsible and incompetent.

When recycling companies said they would not collect plastics, the central government looked the other way, citing the matter of waste disposal falls under the jurisdiction of local governments, while local governments complained of the shortage of budget and manpower. Finally, local governments advised residents to throw away plastics into bins for materials which cannot be recycled. Then, the ministry notified local governments that plastics should be separated for recycling. While central and local authorities shifted responsibility to each other, plastics piled up uncollected.

Recycling companies decided to resume collecting plastics on the government promise for compensation, but a similar incident can happen again if they become unable to make both ends meet even with the compensation. Measures are needed to tackle the root cause of the problem, which is a business structure which leaves recycling companies with little margin of profits.

Because China is likely to keep a ban on waste importation, the government must formulate a strategy against the possibility.

Whether to dispose of wastes at home or export them is one of the first things to decide on. The level of support for the industry should be determined lest taxpayers’ money be wasted.

Currently apartments choose recycling companies that will collect wastes, but the government needs to consider playing more active roles in case they refuse to collect wastes.

To increase producers’ share in the expenses of recycling plastic bags and bottles is worth a review as a mid-term step. In the long term, measures are needed to reduce the production and consumption of plastic packaging.