German plastic floods Southeast Asia

Just because the plastic lands in the recycling bin doesn't mean it will find a new life in another product. While some is recycled and some is burnt for energy, much of Germany's plastic trash lands in Southeast Asia.

"Something for the whole family" — a German breakfast spread slogan is still legible on a faded yellow plastic lid. Members of the environmental organization Greenpeace found the lid in a huge landfill in Malaysia, 10,000 kilometers (6,214 miles) away from the German garbage can it was originally tossed into. The belief back then: don't worry, it'll be recycled.

Nature and Environment | 12.12.2018

Instead, it traveled from Germany to Malaysia. Has the German recycling system — and the many trash cans it involves — failed?

Read more: Plastic waste and its environmental impact

"It fails in the respect that it doesn't really recycle all plastic waste it collects," Manfred Santen, a chemist and an expert for plastic waste with Greenpeace, told DW.

Nature and Environment | 21.09.2018

Germany is known for its recycling system — but not everything that lands in the bin gets recycled

While Germans are world champions of trash separation, not everything they toss into the yellow bin reserved for plastic packaging gets recycled. It is often incinerated. Statistics show that only 15 percent will actually be reused, Santen said.

'Utopian recycling rates'

Officially, the country's recycling rate is 36 percent. But critics say this number is far from the ugly truth. A new packaging law even states that by 2022, 63 percent of all plastic waste should be recycled. But Peter Kurth, director of the Association of German Disposal-, Water- and Resource-Economy (BDE), said he considers this number utopian.

"With every Zalando or Amazon package, cheap materials get tossed into German garbage bins," Kurth told DW. "But companies that produce synthetic materials only accept recycled plastics when they're at the same level as raw oil in terms of price and quality."

Infografik Verpackung Abfall Gesamt in der EU EN

Read more: The tough task of tackling the plastic problem

Kurth agrees there are problems in the recycling cycle. But at the core of these problems, he says, isn't the German recycling system itself but the type of plastic used, or particularly the use of different synthetics in one product.

"When a single case of packaging consists of 20 to 30 different materials, recycling becomes expensive and the end products hard to sell," Kurth explained.

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The rich, the poor and the trash

Southeast Asia, landfill of the West

What cannot be economically recycled usually finds its way to the incinerator, for example in plants in the chemical or cement industries, Kurth said, where burning plastic becomes a substitute fuel for oil and gas. But there is more plastic waste than all cement and chemical plants in Germany need. Kurth said what is not sold to customers in Germany is sold to Asia.

Just two years ago, the yellow spread lid would probably have landed in China. For years, the country was importing waste from Western countries and extracting raw materials from it. But in December 2017, Beijing set a strict contamination limit for plastic waste and since then has imported only high-quality plastic waste. This was tantamount to an import ban, even for German plastic waste.

Tons of German plastic are annually exported to Southeast Asia

In 2017 more than 340,000 tons of plastic waste were being sent from Germany to China, but the BDE estimated that by 2018 the figure had dropped to only 16,000 tons — a decline of 95 percent. According to figures from the Federal Statistical Office, exports of German plastic waste to India, Malaysia and Indonesia skyrocketed in early 2018. 

Read more: Global waste to pile up by 70 percent in 2050

According to Greenpeace, from January to July 2018 around 754,000 tons of worldwide plastic waste landed in Malaysia. Of that plastic trash, the group said the United States produced 195,000 tons, followed by Japan, the UK and Germany, which was responsible for more than 72,000 tons.

Lung disease due to illegal waste incineration

Although legal imports of plastic waste are also sorted in Malaysia, in many cases even high-quality plastics end up in landfills, according to Greenpeace chemist Santen.

"There is no real waste management system in these countries," Santen said. "The landfills are usually unsecured, and during storms or heavy rainfall material enters the environment, and thus often the sea."

Noxious fumes from burning plastic endanger people and the environment

According to Greenpeace, a considerable part of the plastic waste in Malaysia is also taken by unauthorized companies that store it in abandoned buildings and improvised landfills, have it floundered between shrimp and fish farms or illegally burn it outdoors. This often happens in the vicinity of residential areas, whose inhabitants not only complain of the noxious odors but also increasingly suffer from lung diseases.

Local waste disposal — necessary or impossible?

The situation in Southeast Asia drove Greenpeace to call on the German recycling industry to increase capacity so that everything that accumulates here can be processed here, too, Santen said. Beyond the environmental and health hazards caused by the plastics in Asia, it is not sustainable at all to ship plastic waste halfway around the world.

But BDE managing director Kurth said that while it "almost physically" hurts him to see German plastic in Asian landfills, an export ban won't work.

"We sell scrap, waste paper, waste glass and even plastic waste — do you want each country to only use their own recycling industry for all of this? Small countries don't even have recycling industries," he said.

To insist on national borders for secondary raw materials, while primary raw materials are bought all over the world as a matter of course, is a fundamental misunderstanding of recycling, Kurth added.

Read more: Six data visualizations that explain the plastic problem

Alternatives to single-use plastics

Stop sucking

Billions of plastic straws end up as waste. The European Union wants to ban these and other single-use plastics, which end up in rubbish dumps or in our oceans. But for those who just can't stop sucking — like Marco Hort, who set a world record with 259 straws stuffed in his mouth — there are environmentally friendly alternatives.

Alternatives to single-use plastics

Drink it, eat it

Animals in the ocean often try to eat plastic straws. To protect the environment, you can now eat the straw yourself. The German startup Wisefood has developed an edible straw made out of the leftovers from Germany's apple juice production. Alternatively, you can also acquire a multiple-use straw made from metal, bamboo or glass.

Alternatives to single-use plastics

We are forked!

There are no exact numbers of how many plastic forks, knives and spoons are used once and then dumped. But it's enough for the EU to want to say goodbye to them. If you need to eat on the run and can't use metal silverware, you might try edible versions. The Indian startup Bakey's offers forks made out of sorghum; the US company SpudWares, out of potato starch. Yummy!

Alternatives to single-use plastics

No leftovers

Talking about eating your plastic alternatives: You might also like to try edible plates, since plastic plates will be on the way out under the EU's ban. The Polish company Biotrem has developed plates made from bran. In case you are already full from your meal, don't worry: The plates are organic and decompose after 30 days.

Alternatives to single-use plastics

Cut the cup

Besides banning the private use of disposable plastic products, the EU aims to encourage fast food chains, cafes and bars to curb the use of plastic cups. Half a trillion plastic cups are consumed every year — most of them being used for a single drink, then staying in the environment for eternity. Several companies now offer plant-based alternatives.

Alternatives to single-use plastics

It's not plastic

One of those companies is the Balinese startup Avani. It has developed a compostable bioplastic made from corn starch. Although, the cups look and feel like petroleum-based plastic cups, they are biodegradable. However, they decompose best in a commercial composting facility, and not in your backyard

Alternatives to single-use plastics

Reuse, reuse, reuse

The easiest way to replace plastic cups is by using reusable mugs. But we might not always have our personal coffee cups on hand while we are out on the streets. Berlin is among German cities testing out a pilot project allowing coffee aficionados to borrow a reusable bamboo mug for a small deposit, and return it at another cafe at a later point.

Alternatives to single-use plastics

Clean ears, dirty oceans

Another plastic product the EU would see gone are ear buds. When disposed of improperly, they end up in the ocean, where animals mistake them for food. There are plastic-free alternatives with the stem made from bamboo or paper. But hardcore environmentalists say it's best to stop using them altogether — you can use your towel to clean your ears.

Producers and politicians have a responsibility

Santen and Kurth did agree on a different issue: The packaging industry with its many disposable products needs to be rethought.

"Companies like Nestlé or Unilever are flooding Southeast Asia with so-called daily rations of their products, in single-use bags — well aware that there is no proper waste disposal," Santen said. "And then they are disposed of as garbage in the environment."   

While Greenpeace called a new German push for companies to use less plastic, Santen said the group doubts whether the voluntary initiative would really work.

And what about consumers? Individuals can choose with their pocketbooks, but when nearly all choices consist of packaging materials that get tossed after one use, "the consumer doesn't have much of a chance" at sustained change, Santen said.

Fighting the plastic flood

Tons of trash

At least 8 million tons of plastic waste ends up in the world's oceans every year, according to a report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. The report warns plastic trash will outweigh fish by 2050 unless drastic action is taken. Much of the floating trash collects in several large ocean vortices far from land. Beaches, like this one on Midway Island in the remote Pacific Ocean, also suffer.

Fighting the plastic flood

Addicted to plastic

The floating plastic isn't just an eyesore: as it breaks down into smaller pieces, marine animals mistake it for food. A recent study by Uppsala University showed ingesting plastic can have devastating effects on fish, including stunted growth and increased mortality rates. Surprisingly, some fish even seem to prefer plastic. Plastic in fish is also suspected of posing health risks for humans.

Fighting the plastic flood

Edible alternatives

The Ocean Conservancy estimates more than 690 species of marine animals have been affected by plastic pollution. In an effort to reduce the impact of all that waste, some companies have come up with alternatives. The Delray Beach craft brewery, in Florida, has developed edible six-pack rings from wheat and barley left over from the brewing process. It hopes to begin production in October.

Fighting the plastic flood

Biodegradable packaging

As an alternative to single-use plastic packaging - which makes up a significant portion of the waste found in oceans - some companies have come up with biodegradable alternatives. At a plant in Poland, wheat bran is being used. According to inventor Jerzy Wysocki, the Biotrem packaging can be used in the oven or freezer, and will decompose in 30 days - or can simply be eaten. Extra fiber!

Fighting the plastic flood

Bamboo to the rescue?

Fast-growing bamboo is also an alternative to plastic - used to make everything from toothbrushes, shower curtains, utensils and even computer parts. Work at the Tonggu Jiangqiao Bamboo & Wood Industry Company, pictured here, started mass production of bamboo keyboards, mice and monitor casings in 2008.

Fighting the plastic flood

Ocean skimmer

Alternatives may help reduce waste, but millions of tons of plastic still float around the world's oceans - and will remain for centuries, slowly breaking down. Dutch foundation Ocean Cleanup aims to collect the trash with a 100-kilometer (60-mile) floating dam system that is supposed to trap plastic waste without harming fish and other sea creatures. It aims to install one in the Pacific by 2020.

Fighting the plastic flood

From trash to fashion

Some of that plastic could be recycled and reused in other forms, becoming flower pots, home insulation or - in the case of Spanish firm Ecoalf - clothing. The Madrid-based clothing line takes plastic waste collected by 200 fishing boats in the Mediterranean, crushes it into flakes, and then creates polyester fibers - which in turn become fashionable jackets, backpacks and other items.

Fighting the plastic flood

Reduce, recycle ... and reuse

Plastic waste can also be reused in its original form. At the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development Rio +20 in 2012 - 20 years after the first World Oceans Day - giant fish made from plastic bottles were exhibited along the waterfront in Rio de Janeiro.

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