Thursday, January 11, 2018

going green can be a dirty business

China has just made it more difficult for greenies who enjoy being smug about their ever-smaller carbon footprint.

One of the stars in the recycling crown has just taken a hit. China has decided that it is tired of sorting through other people's garbage like a rabid raccoon.

For years, China was one of the world's major recyclers. Of the garbage that was exported from one country to another, China took half of the load.

It was a good deal for a country short on resources (especially, petroleum). By recycling plastics and electronics, China was able to build its economy. Now, that it is the second wealthiest country in the world, it has decided to let the rest of the world keep its own garbage.

On 1 January, China banned the export of two dozen types of waste. The reason is simple. If China is to show any advancement in cleaning up its deplorable environment, it needs to get rid of pollution-causing sources.

I was surprised to find out that recycling is an incredibly dirty business. I knew the manufacture of electronics created huge problems. And I should have realized that recycling electronics would be just as polluting. Lead poisoning in particular.

It turns out that recycling plastics creates massive pollution problems, as well. As a result, China has banned all consumer plastic waste from entering the country. For some countries this will be a major problem. Britain ships 80% of its waste plastic to China.

Now, what does this have to do with Mexico?

Our little corner of the country has several plastic collectors. The one at the top of this essay is just a few hundred feet from my house. I take all of my bottles and plastic products there, rather than tossing them in the garbage to go to the dump.

During the recession, there was a field on the drive to the county seat that was piled Himalaya high with mounds of plastic bottles. I stopped to talk with a guy working there. He said most of the bottles went to Manzanillo to  be shipped to China for recycling. But China's economy had slowed enough that it was no longer buying.

Yesterday I asked our local collector if his bottles usually went to China. He did not know. And he had not heard that China had banned consumer plastics. He sold his plastics to a man who picked them up from his lot.

If there is money in recycling the plastic, some country, with less money than China, will start stoking up the furnaces. But probably not Mexico. It is on the verge of becoming an upper middle income economy with a large interest in minimizing pollution. Recycling plastic does not fit in that picture.

As for me, I may start minimizing my use of plastics -- though that is rather difficult when most food products here come in plastic instead of glass. A choice I have lauded when I drop the plastic container of mayonnaise that bounces off the ceramic tile rather than shattering like a Syrian grenade.

But, my smug level of recycling plastic has just been taken down a notch.

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