Most people think they are doing the right thing when they throw their empty milk bottles, beer cans, and junk mail into their recycling bins.
They roll the bin out to the curb every week and assume they’ve helped the environment by having their waste recycled, with 90 per cent saying it’s very important.
But millions of tonnes is instead shipped to Southeast Asian countries where much of it is burned, buried, or just dumped in landfill.
Australia used to ship enormous amounts of waste to China, sell it for up to $150 a tonne, and then wash its hands of it. Only 12 per cent of the 103kg of plastic waste generated per person in Australia each year is recycled, mostly overseas, according to research cited by Prime Minister Scott Morrison.
Around Indonesia, the streets and rice fields of villages are now used to harvest piles of rubbish as they are laid out to dry in the sun by locals.
The waste is then sorted and sold to tofu factories where it is burned in their furnaces as a cheap alternative to wood.
It is only going to get worse as China’s new policy has obliterated the price of many recyclables. Almost overnight, mixed paper scrap crashed from $124 a tonne to next to nothing, and low-grade plastic is also effectively worthless.
The costs of recycling the scrap plastic in particular are now so high that it is basically not worth it and in many places no longer considered recyclable.
You drink a Coca-Cola, throw the bottle into the recycling, put the bins out on collection day and forget about it. But it doesn’t disappear. Everything you own will one day become the property of this, the waste industry, a £250bn global enterprise determined to extract every last penny of value from what remains.
The present dumping ground of choice is Malaysia. In October last year, a Greenpeace Unearthed investigation found mountains of British and European waste in illegal dumps there.
Of the 8.3bn tonnes of virgin plastic produced worldwide, only 9% has been recycled, according to a 2017 Science Advances paper entitled Production, Use And Fate Of All Plastics Ever Made.
“It’s really a complete myth when people say that we’re recycling our plastics,” says Jim Puckett, the executive director of the Seattle-based Basel Action Network, which campaigns against the illegal waste trade. “It all sounded good. ‘It’s going to be recycled in China!’ I hate to break it to everyone, but these places are routinely dumping massive amounts of plastic and burning it on open fires.”
With consumers and the government outraged at the plastics crisis, the waste industry is scrambling to solve the problem. One great hope is chemical recycling: turning problem plastics into oil or gas through industrial processes.
The industry is being forced to adapt: in May, 186 countries passed measures to track and control the export of plastic waste to developing countries, while more than 350 companies have signed a global commitment to eliminate the use of single-use plastics by 2025.