Add Turkey to a growing list of countries choosing to no longer import plastic waste from overseas. Their decision, motivated by discovery of plastic waste illegally dumped in fields and on roadsides, compounds an already difficult problem faced by many Western countries.
Until just a few years ago, there were plenty of countries willing to take plastic waste from the West. Some countries, like China, bought and recycled it themselves. Others merely accepted the waste and discarded it. Slowly but surely, those countries are changing their minds. They no longer want the millions of tons of plastic other countries do not want to deal with.
So, what are countries like the U.S. and UK to do? No one quite knows the answer to that. However, the answer could be as obvious as comparing the differences between residential and commercial plastics.
Illegally Dumping UK Plastics
UK legislation already bans the export of waste outside of Europe unless said waste is to be recycled. In other words, UK companies cannot export their plastic to non-European countries who will only dispose of it. All along, it was assumed that plastic being shipped to Turkey would be recycled. Recent discoveries suggest it isn’t always happening.
According to reports out of Turkey, multiple instances of illegal dumping have been uncovered. Investigators from Greenpeace have documented piles of discarded waste dumped at roadside sites and open fields. They have documented examples of the waste spilling into waterways and making its way downstream. So far, they have identified ten sites in southern Turkey.
An examination of the waste revealed that it had come from the UK. Plastic waste UK shippers thought would be recycled ended up being illegally dumped. That was enough to motivate the Turkish government to ban the importation of ethylene polymer plastics. That means no more imported shampoo bottles and plastic grocery bags.
Why the Problem Exists
To the untrained eye, not being able to effectively recycle consumer plastics doesn’t make sense. But dig deeply into how the waste stream works and you uncover what should otherwise be obvious. The main problem with consumer recycling programs is a lack of efficiency.
Have you ever noticed those numbers and recycling symbols on the bottoms of plastic containers? Of course you have. Each number (1-7) denotes a different type of plastic. That is where the problem begins. Different types of plastics require different recycling methods.
The problem is compounded when we mix plastics with non-recyclable materials. Sorting is required to separate the good from the bad, but sorting requires expensive machinery and a lot of manual labor. And when different types of materials are mixed in a single product – think paper cups with plastic liners – recovering both materials is expensive.
Inefficiency Increases Costs
According to Seraphim Plastics, a Tennessee company that specializes in recycling industrial plastics, the inefficiencies of consumer recycling increase costs to the point where curbside programs actually lose money. And if you cannot make money at recycling, companies are not going to do it. That leaves curbside recycling to municipalities that really don’t have the extra money to spend on it.
The solution to all this is to change the consumer plastics paradigm so that it more closely resembles industrial plastics. Seraphim Plastics makes money because they can recycle industrial waste efficiently and cost-effectively. If recycling is viable for commercial plastics, it can be made viable for consumer plastics. We just have to be willing to change the way we do things.
We soon may have no other choice. With Turkey now banning plastic imports, the West has one less destination for its waste.