Feb 1, 2021
Translated from Lutte Ouvrière (Workers’ Struggle), the newspaper of the revolutionary workers’ group active in France.
China has outlawed importing garbage. Until 2018, the country imported more than half the trash generated worldwide.
That garbage mostly comes from the rich countries, firstly the U.S. and the European Union. This new policy forces these countries to try finding somewhere else to send their garbage.
In 2018, China outlawed imports of an initial list of two dozen waste materials. Imports of used plastics shot up 1,370% in Thailand and 56% in Indonesia. The European Union’s trash went to Poland, then Romania, and then Bulgaria.
That year at least 600 million tons of trash were recycled worldwide. The business was worth more than 200 billion dollars. The trade was dominated by a few giants like France’s Veolia and Suez. As with other industries, a big part of the production was subcontracted to countries where workers are paid less.
So, during the 1990s and 2000s when China became blanketed with factories, a market in China developed for the end products of recycling. These include specks of plastic which can be made into shoe soles. This increased demand coincided with the wave of recycling in Western countries, which found an outlet for their millions of tons of various kinds of trash. In addition, this commerce let ships arriving in Europe loaded with merchandise made in China not to have to leave Europe empty.
But by the 2010s China’s own generation of waste became large enough that the country didn’t need to import any to obtain raw materials needed for industry. Chinese authorities sought to favor Chinese trash by closing the door to foreign trash. This choice had the added benefit of annoying the U.S., the leading exporter of trash to China.
To justify this policy, the Chinese government depended on the very real fact that its soil, water, and air were being poisoned by trash that could not be recycled. This is especially true because to save on costs, toxic waste and electronics components were often thrown together before being exported—where destroying them leaves nasty traces.
The problem is worrisome in China but catastrophic in poorer countries, which have been transformed into landfills by big companies. An example of this was shown by the scandal of the Probo Koala, a ship chartered by Dutch company Trafigura. In 2006 the ship dumped almost 1,300 tons of toxic waste in the port of Abidjan in the Ivory Coast. This led to the deaths of 17 people and poisoned thousands more.
The multinational corporations producing the merchandise which is the origin of this trash are the heavies of the world economy. They tolerate no limits. They produce whatever they choose, depending on the profit they expect.
Whether this production is useful or whether it is dangerous, polluting, or based on materials that are difficult to recycle is the least of their concerns. They leave the handling of the consequences on the environment and on people up to governments and local communities. As with everything else, for them it’s “after me, the flood.”