Target Health Blog

Contaminated Recyclables are Affecting Global Health

December 16, 2019

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Quiz
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View towards the Shanghai skyline and waterfront in Pudong with the new Shanghai tower.Photo credit: by King of Hearts - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikipedia Commons
Shanghai at night, one of the world's most beautiful modern cities.Photo credit: by Stefan Fussan - Own work - My images are also available on Flickr and MyPortfolio, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikipedia Commons

When East meets West, a great partnership could emerge.

With two of the largest economies in the world and with incredible advances in innovation, the United 1) ___ and China will likely play a significant role in driving the world toward lower emissions. The global community is currently in a pivotal period in which the choices that we make really will matter on a geologic time scale.

This year, 2019, China's waste import ban is an opportunity for change

In early January of this year, China's “National Sword“ policy banned imports of non-industrial plastic waste. The ban forces exporting countries to find new dumping grounds for their waste, which is estimated to total nearly 111 million metric tons by 2030. China's decision has exposed deep structural flaws and interdependencies, of other countries, in the global waste 2) ___ system. Western countries that have long depended on China to take their garbage are now struggling to deal with mounds of plastic trash. In 2016, China imported 56% of the world's solid waste. This year, China's sweeping reforms have been met with pushback and complaints from waste-exporting countries that this will leave them on the brink of a “waste crisis.“ Critics include the European Union, which sends 87% of its total recycled plastic directly or indirectly to 3) ___. United States recyclers have also criticized the policy, specifically, what they deem to be an “impossible“ standard of less than 0.3 percent contaminants. Meanwhile, many experts optimistically predict that this is “a chance to slash waste“ and transition to a new era of recycling. At the same time, China's news media, reports that other countries simply “have to adapt“ and take responsibility for disposing of their own 4) ___. Editor's note: Here in New York, we welcome the challenge

China's policy has an economic rationale in addition to the environmental justifications. By banning waste imports, China is hoping to improve the quality of imported recyclables, as contaminated recyclables had become an increasing problem in China. Less contamination will reduce sorting costs, the amount of waste that ends up in Chinese landfills and lessens the possibility of increased 5) ___ spread. Since the 1980s, local government recycling efforts have decreased, leaving a gap that migrant laborers and entrepreneurs have filled. This informal waste-management scheme provided work for a significant number of waste pickers and recyclers in large cities such as 6) ___. But the new waste import ban threatens the livelihoods of many of these migrant workers.

China's waste ban exposes the intricate nexus connecting social, economic, and environmental issues within China, as well as internationally. Some predict the ban could act as a catalyst, prompting the government to develop more innovative solutions. The “low-end“ or “dirty“ sectors, or those “undesirable“ spaces that city planners want to eliminate, are not the culprits in creating China's waste problems. Instead, the increasingly affluent and consumerist population, compounded by the lack of promoting public awareness and incentivizing recycling, are mostly to 7) ___. Although the trash ban will help, it alone is not a long-term solution. That will require effective waste management systems, as well as a nuanced understanding of the socio-economic dynamics of Chinese cities. China must find a way to not only integrate the informal recycling sector into a more efficient recycling system, but also to include new employment opportunities for informal waste-sector workers. As China enters a new front in its war on pollution, failure to address these socio-economic and environmental issues in an integrated manner runs the risk of exacerbating a persistent social divide and increasing environmental injustice.

Almost paradoxically, China is simultaneously the world's largest consumer of coal and the largest developer of renewable energy - so the choice it makes, domestically and abroad, between the technology of the past versus the renewable future will have a lasting effect on the world's ability to limit warming to 1.5oC, the standard set by the Paris Climate Agreement, an agreement signed onto by all the nations of the world, except for one, the 8) ___ States, which has been removed from this Global Agreement, by its President. With its current policies, China's greenhouse gas emissions are projected to rise until at least 2030, although the rate of increase is projected to slow towards the end of the 2020s. Under optimistic renewables growth assumptions, energy-related CO2 emissions could level off over the next few years. Consequently, China is on track to overachieve its 2030 NDC targets based on its current policies. If one were to recalculate its NDC based on current policies, China's target of a 20% share of renewable energy in total primary energy demand in 2030 would be increased to a minimum of 23%, and its carbon intensity target would be strengthened from 60-65% below 2005 levels to approximately 68%. Therefore, in updating its NDC, China will need to go beyond this level in order to achieve a significant progression in scaling up its climate action.

China's next step could be to submit a strengthened NDC to the Paris Agreement by 2020, something it has indicated it intends to do, which would set a positive example for others to follow. In a bilateral meeting between France and China in November 2019, Chinese President Xi Jingping signed a pact recommitting to achieving the goals of the 9) ___ Agreement, which hopefully is a positive signal in this direction.

Greatly disappointing, is the Trump pullout, of the United States, from the Paris Climate Agreement, although millions of Americans continue to prepare for new rules, under the Paris Climate Agreement, the state of 10) ___ being one of the leaders. Global health is at stake in our fight against climate change, and much more.

Sources: Woodrow Wilson Center (Guo Chen, Michigan State University); Wikipedia; New Scientist

ANSWERS: 1) States; 2) management; 3) China; 4) waste; 5) disease; 6) Beijing; 7) blame; 8) United; 9) Paris; 10) California

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