Green recycling policy is killing the oceans with plastic pollution, says a shock report by a Finnish public health expert.
The report, written for the Global Warming Policy Foundation by Mikko Paunio, adjunct professor in general epidemiology at the University of Helsinki, is titled Save the Oceans – Stop Recycling Plastic.
The title may sound odd to ordinary people, but the sad fact is that the global “recycling” industry has significantly added to the marine plastic litter problem.
I have put recycling in quotes, because only a small fraction of plastic recovered from consumers is actually recycled: the material collected is dirty and so mixed up that it is impossible to produce the high-quality raw material required by, for example, the food-packaging industry. Most recovered plastic is simply burned or dumped: on land, in rivers, or even directly in the oceans.
Unable to recycle waste in line with the targets imposed on them, rich countries have chosen to dump it — plastic, paper and cardboard — on poor ones, especially China. Lower environmental standards in much of Asia has made it cheaper to manage waste there and low-quality recycled plastic can sometimes be profitably produced from these waste streams, albeit in highly polluted conditions.
In recent years, the stream of waste delivered to China expanded vastly. Annual imports reached 85 million tons, including 8 million of plastic. The quantity was so huge that inspection at ports became impossible, and the unscrupulous found that even mixed or hazardous waste could profitably be sent, disguised as “recycling” to avoid landfill tax or high management costs in rich countries. Unable to handle this tsunami of refuse, the Chinese were forced to either burn or dump vast quantities. An unknown amount found its way to the oceans.
The consequences for the environment and for public health of this “recycling” madness have therefore been horrendous, and have ultimately proved too high for the Chinese, who have now banned waste imports entirely. Recent figures suggest that recycling businesses in the UK have responded by simply shipping waste to Asian countries with even weaker environmental standards. So even more waste will end up in the oceans in future.
In recent months, plastic pollution has become the favoured cause of environmentalists, as it finally dawns that the public is heartily sick of being lectured about ‘climate change.’
But Paunio’s report says the opposite of what environmentalists want to hear. Where plastic pollution is concerned, he says, they are making the problem worse, not better. The problem is their quasi-religious devotion to recycling – which feels good, but achieves little of any practical use.
Paunio agrees that plastic pollution is a serious problem. He cites a 2015 Nature report, which claimed that 8 million tons of plastic per year end up dumped in the ocean. This is ‘. . . the same as five fivegallon bags filled with mixed plastic on every foot of coastline around the world’.
Most of this pollution derives from rivers in Asia and Africa. But this does not let the West off the hook. On the contrary, Paunio says, the ocean plastic pollution problem is largely the creation of Western environmentalist ideologues.
In this paper I will argue that ideologically motivated environmentalists in the 1980s and their dreams of recycling and a ‘circular economy’ are the ultimate cause of the marine waste problem, because they have discouraged development of municipal waste schemes in Asia and Africa, and because they have encouraged developed nations to use management schemes that make it hard or expensive to deal with waste and therefore tend to ‘leak’ to the environment, sometimes catastrophically so.
The sensible and effective solution to plastic waste, says Paunio, is to incinerate it. This reduces its bulk by 80 per cent and means it can safely be disposed of in landfill.
But environmentalists are opposed to landfill and believe recycling is good (even though where plastic is concerned it is deeply ineffective, expensive and largely pointless). Unfortunately, their ideology has become public policy.
The problem can be traced back to the inventor of “Sustainability”, Gro Harlem Brundtland.
The neglect of municipal waste management in the developing world can be traced back to the Brundtland Commission in the 1980s, with which the current ‘sustainable development’ agenda had its beginnings. The commission’s chairman, Gro Harlem Brundtland, a former Prime Minister of Norway, was transfixed by new and exciting environmental issues such as climate change and water and energy conservation – in particular, her secretariat was in close contact with Bert Bolin of the embryonic Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. As a result, she personally prevented urban sanitary programs being included in the commission’s remit.
Since that time, there has been an almost total neglect of the environmental health agenda and related urban sanitation programs including those relating to municipal waste collection. This is despite the fact that it was attention to these issues that lifted western countries out of poverty, misery and malnutrition from the late 19th century onwards.This neglect has been devastating for public health and, as we will see, for the environment too.
Nor does the European Union escape unscathed:
The EU has remained silent about the horrendous environmental and health effects of its recycling strategy. Indeed, rather than trying to fix the problems, it has doubled down by declaring a ‘war on plastics’. Its new plastic strategy boasts of what it assumes is its small contribution to the marine litter problem, although it also admits that almost half of the plastic waste collected in the EU over the past two decades or so has been sent to China, with horrendous consequences. It has even tried to stake out a position on the moral high ground by claiming – incorrectly – that plastic recycling will support the implementation of the Paris climate agreement.