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[ENG] Our waste journey: is China disrupting the global waste market?

Yellow bin * for this plastic bottle, easy peasy! But where should I throw this yoghurt cup?

Sorting my trash is easy if I read carefully the rules on the small paper provided by the town hall (in general the waste management is a communal jurisdiction). But what does the bottle of orange juice (with pulp) that I just threw away become in the end? It must land in some sorting center nearby, but then? Is it recycled and transformed into a fleece jacket?

* Be careful, the color of sorting bins is not standardized at the international nor national level. At home, it may be green or even blue.

Yes, but it’s not so simple.

In northern countries, waste management systems are often complex, and the result of heavy investment (which are not always effective). Some facilities have already been running for several decades, so it’s easy to trust the system in place and not to wonder what our trash becomes eventually.

In the rest of the world, the collection of recyclable waste is largely informal: it takes place on the streets, through door-to-door networks or simply in dumpsites. This is particularly the case in areas where public service is lacking, and where home sorting just doesn’t exist. In urban areas with strong social disparities, wastepickers usually replace the public waste collection service. As they are more flexible, their collection and recycling rates are most often higher than with traditional waste management systems.

In Senegal, informal wastepickers take the responsibility for collecting the waste in neighborhoods that are not covered by the municipal collection system.

In Brazil, catadores are responsible for recycling 90% of the aluminum waste.

In Colombia, you can easily spot recicladores in pedestrian areas, or during festive events (that generate a lot of highly profitable waste, such as aluminum that make up beer cans).

Andrés, reciclador in Medellin, Colombia (©The Gold Diggers Project, feb 2018)

No matter where you live, your plastic bottle will go on a long journey from hand to hand, before actually turning into a fleece jacket, your faithful companion of winter nights with your Auntie in Devon. Indeed, our recyclable waste is actually traded internationally, just as some other consumption goods.

Our trash flirts with the stock market

When recyclable, our waste is considered as secondary raw materials, which have a market value. As a result, it is the object of international trade flows, justified by industrial needs, the growth of third countries (China, India, Turkey), and the price estimation of recycled materials on the market. The value of our waste is therefore highly dependent on the price of actual raw materials and on the international economic context.

International flows of PET plastic, paper, aluminium, metal, electronic and textile waste (Realisation : laboratory LISST, University of Toulouse-Jean Jaurès / CNRS, Production Mucem 2017)

On a global scale, the largest exporters of recyclable waste (given their high level of consumption) are the European countries and the United States.

China is the main importer: 32 to 38 million tons of containers full of PET plastic, paper and aluminum are sent annually to the world's largest economy. This trend has particularly increased over the last 20 years. For example, in France exports increased by 75% between 1999 and 2012.

China, the cornerstone of this international trade, does not hesitate to invest beyond its borders. According to wastepickers at the Dakar dumpsite (the Mbeubeuss dumpsite), Chinese businessmen would have settled on the dumpsite to grind plastic and send it into China. Senegalese wastepickers certainly did not expect to find foreign competition on their own dumpsite, and neither did I!

Harouna Niass, General Secretary of the Bokk Diom organization of wastepickers at Mbeubeuss (Dakar). (© The Gold DIggers Project, Nov 2017)

China said ‘no more’!

China, trash can of the world? It rather seems to be the main country to take the recycler’s role upon itself, and therefore to bear severe environmental consequences due to the lack of ambitious health regulations coupled with poor means to treat such large quantities of waste.

The only problem is that since January 2018, China has decided that it will stop importing litter from the rest of the world, in order to focus on recycling its own waste and preserving its environment. The sanctions are exemplary: a minimum of 5 years in prison is required for any importer who infringes the law.

An opportunity to foster the development of a stronger recycling industry closer to our bins?

Will this piece of news cause sanitary chaos? Or is it rather an opportunity to develop the recycling industry closer to our bins? These maps also show that for European countries (with few exceptions) and the United States, imports of recyclables are lower than exports.

After 20 years of exports to China, the developed countries (but less "developed" than China, by the way), must now think about the implementation of a waste upcycling policy that is efficient in terms of recycling rates, of course, but also in terms of investment and energy consumption. It is a critical element for them to be able to meet the Paris Agreement targets in the fight against greenhouse gases emissions.

In response to this Chinese decision, the United Kingdom announced the implementation of a Plastic Waste Treatment Plan based on 4 axes. It includes the reduction of the amount of waste in circulation, the reduction of the number of plastic types, and the facilitation of their recycling.

In France, the top 10 existing recycling channels are: scrap metal, non-ferrous metals (aluminum and copper), paper and cardboard, packaging glass, packaging plastics - PET bottles of water and HDPE milk bottles -, building waste and textile rags. They allowed the country to avoid the emission of 25 million tons of CO2, ie emissions from French air transport.

Design The Gold Diggers project (source: Ademe)

Nothing to be proud about, since France’s performance is lower than its European neighbors. For instance, France is ranked 27th out of the 28 countries of the European Union when it comes to plastic recycling. Indeed, only 22% of total plastic waste is recycled, against 31% on average at European level. The problem: the lack of a proactive public policy and packaging that still use a lot of plastic (packaging makes up 62% of plastic waste). But above all, there is a lack of expertise in this field.

Although efforts have been made by plastic producers - nearly half of them having sourced recycled plastic in 2016 - the majority of manufacturers, who use plastic as raw material, agree on the two main barriers to overcome to make the use of recycled plastic mainstream: find (reliable) suppliers and master the technical characteristics of the recycled plastic necessary for the design of their products.

So, is France ambitious enough when it comes to recycling? Driven by the Paris Agreement, the European Union and the Energy Transition Act that has been in force since 2015, the French government released “the Climate Plan” last July. Circular economy would be central to this plan, to foster the reduction, reuse and recycling of our waste. The details of the roadmap for this Climate Plan, (aka “the Circular Economy Roadmap”), were until recently under public consultation and have been released at the end of March 2018. Among other propositions, the roll out of sorting bins in public spaces, the implementation of the deposit, and the simplification and harmonization of waste sorting rules on the territory were highlighted.


On the necessity to be ambitious

The EU has announced targets of 50% plastic packaging recycled in 2025 and 55% in 2030.

The Energy Transition Act of the French Government aims to halve the quantity of reusable waste sent to dumpsites and promote the use of resources at the territorial level (to reduce exports and their CO2 footprint).

The French Climate Plan targets 100% plastic waste recycled by 2025.


Before being able to meet these objectives, and in reaction to the stop of exports to China, the French professionals will first try to find a way to export this waste in medium-export, to countries like Turkey or India, that already buy us large quantities of steel and metals. In addition to that, waste incineration will probably increase, as recalled Jean-Philippe Carpentier, President of Federec (Professional Federation of Recycling Companies).

An opportunity for wastepickers?

Will these developments allow France to move towards a more energy-efficient waste management policy? And will they promote a more inclusive and local economy, that recognizes the social and ecological value of the ragpickers’ markets ?

There are several thousand wastepickers in Ile-de-France, called Biffins (extended Paris region). They salvage abandoned objects, often found in garbage cans, to sell them (after giving them a new life, in some cases). Due to the lack of authorized sales places (there are only 3 authorized markets in the region), the vast majority of them must sell their products illegally on the street, thus exposing themselves to fines and police repression. These markets not only prevent CO2 emissions of the equivalent of 650 cars, but also allow thousands of people in a precarious situation to make ends meet at the end of the month.

As part of the Climate Plan, Amelior - with the support of other non-profit organizations, such as MakeSense - is currently negotiating with the Paris Townhall the creation of new authorized sales areas in eastern Paris.

Extract of the infographic on the wastepickers in Ile-de-France region (MakeSense, Rues Marchandes, Amélior, Aurore, 2016)

At the international level, the stop of the Chinese demand has not yet impacted the ragpickers, the first link of the recycling chain. But it will most probably disrupt the entire recycling industry very soon.

Hence, could the emergence of new, more local recycling channels, with fewer intermediaries, allow informal wastepickers to get better working conditions?

In the medium term, could they gain bargaining power in negotiations with companies and public authorities?

In parallel with this recent upheaval, the past 20 years have been particularly marked by the gradual closure of dumpsites: they are harmful to the environment (the methane that is released has a warming potential 25 times superior of that of CO2), but also great "employer" for many ragpickers in the world.

Since February 2005, the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), established under the Kyoto Protocol, offers financing for the construction of sanitary landfills, to the extent that these facilities make it possible to limit the release of methane in the atmosphere (by recovery or combustion). Much more technical and costly, these new installations require a diversion of the recoverable materials flows, to increase their lifespan. Sorting centers are therefore emerging near these sanitary landfills.

The wastepickers, to whom the doors of the dumpsites are closed once and for all, must find a new worksite.

In this sense, experts from around the world are increasingly promoting inclusive policies for wastepickers, as they bring many economic, ecological and social benefits. Beyond the implementation of more sustainable waste management systems that foster recycling, the public authorities should consider including the informal actors in the general schemes of waste management.

Interesting co-operation and consultation approaches could thus follow, like the new sanitary landfill in Meknes (Morocco), where the extraction of recyclable materials is managed by the ragpickers who worked in the old dumpsite, now closed. Suez, the company managing the site, supported these wastepickers in setting up a cooperative (more detailed article to follow).

A wastepicker of the Attadamoune cooperative, waste disposal and recycling center of Meknes (©The Gold Diggers Project, oct 2017)

To anticipate the closure of the Mbeubeuss dumpsite in Senegal, which is both an ecological and sanitary disaster, as well as the country’s largest "employer", public authorities are currently holding discussions with wastepickers from the Bokk Diom organization, who wish to maintain and improve their employment (more detailed article to come).

Last general meeting of the Bokk Diom Association, of the wastepickers of the dumprite of Mbeubeuss (©The Gold Diggers Project, nov 2017)

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