Seoul needs a strategy to cope with China's ban on waste imports: Korea Herald

In July 2017, the Chinese government announced it intended to stop the importation of 24 kinds of solid waste by the end of that year, including polyethylene terephthalate bottles and other plastic bottles.
In July 2017, the Chinese government announced it intended to stop the importation of 24 kinds of solid waste by the end of that year, including polyethylene terephthalate bottles and other plastic bottles.PHOTO: AFP

In its editorial, the paper says just averting the plastic waste chaos for now is not enough.

SEOUL - Signs of chaos looming over the pile-up of waste in the Seoul area have disappeared under the surface, for now.

Recycling companies decided on Monday (April 2) to overturn their previous decision to not collect plastic bags, plastic bottles and polystyrene foam or styrofoam.

Startled at the prospect of a bigger crisis over waste build-up and an outpouring of complaints and criticism, the government hurriedly contacted the companies and persuaded them to resume collection.

But their refusal to collect waste can happen again any time, were it not for measures to address the root causes of the problem which stemmed from China's ban on the importation of waste.

Recycling problems could have been expected without difficulty. In July 2017, the Chinese government announced it intended to stop the importation of 24 kinds of solid waste by the end of that year, including polyethylene terephthalate bottles, other plastic bottles and containers, and all mixed paper.

For years, China has imported about half of the world's waste, including South Korea's.

For all the warning signals from China, at any rate, the incident happened. The Ministry of Environment and the local governments in Seoul, Incheon and Gyeonggi Province have a lot to answer for over the failure to act proactively.

The point of the government's move is to compensate recycling companies for their fall in profits due to China's waste import ban, which caused a plunge in the prices of plastic waste in South Korea.

The ministry said it would announce further measures this month to support the domestic recycling industry and stabilise markets afflicted by decreasing waste exports and declining recycling at home.

China's ban on waste importation for recycling had a significant impact throughout the developed world.

The European Commission, the executive of the European Union, announced a strategy for plastic waste in January, which calls for a ban on single-use plastics, such as coffee cups, in the EU by 2030. The commission also drew up plans for all packaging in Europe to be recyclable by 2030.

Some cities in the US began to address the root of the problem by limiting the amount of plastic they allow, such as by enforcing a ban on plastic bags in grocery stores. Companies scrambled to find an alternative country to accept the massive amounts of recyclables building up.

So what has the government in Seoul been doing in the meantime? It should have dealt with anticipated problems months ago, but has sat on its hands. It cannot avoid criticisms for being irresponsible and incompetent.

When recycling companies said they would not collect plastics, the central government looked the other way, saying that the matter of waste disposal falls under the jurisdiction of local governments, while local governments complained of the shortage of budget and manpower.

Finally, local governments advised residents to throw away plastics into bins for materials which cannot be recycled. Then, the ministry notified local governments that plastics should be separated for recycling. While central and local authorities shifted responsibility to each other, plastics piled up uncollected.

Recycling companies decided to resume collecting plastics on the government promise for compensation, but a similar incident can happen again if they become unable to make both ends meet even with the compensation. Measures are needed to tackle the root cause of the problem, which is a business structure that leaves recycling companies with little margin of profits.

Because China is likely to keep a ban on waste importation, the government must formulate a strategy against the possibility.

Whether to dispose of waste at home or export it is one of the first things to decide on. The level of support for the industry should be determined, lest taxpayers' money be wasted.

Currently, apartments choose recycling companies that will collect waste, but the government needs to consider playing a more active role in case they refuse to collect waste.

Increasing producers' share in the costs of recycling plastic bags and bottles is worth a review as a mid-term step. In the long term, measures are needed to reduce the production and consumption of plastic packaging.

The Korea Herald is a member of The Straits Times media partner Asia News Network, an alliance of 23 news media entities.